News Details

30 October 2005 20:33

Dampers (Shock Absorbers)

Category: Pat´s Corner
By: Pat Clarke

Most Formula Student cars use Mountain Bike Shock absorbers similar to the Fox Vanilla RC Shock shown here.

When choosing dampers, we must first understand exactly what the dampers do. They are designed to work in concert with the spring to keep the tyre contact patch on the racing surface. In bump, the damper compresses to help control the wheel travel and prevent "overshoot", and in rebound, the damper helps absorb the energy stored in the spring.

Good damper control is the most significant contributor to the "mechanical grip" we hear so much about. Mechanical grip is all about keeping the tyre patch in contact with the racing surface with as little excitation as possible. It is the task of the damper to dissipate that excitement.

Bike dampers are generally pretty suitable for the mass and forces imposed in a FS car, and when the suspension travel is matched to the damper shaft travel by use of properly calculated motion ratios, they can give pretty good results as long as the damping rates can be matched to the application and the spring rates used.

Newer bike dampers have very high initial compression damping to prevent the power of the riders pedal pressure being dissipated in the spring, causing the bike to bob up and down as the bike is pedalled. This is not a good thing as can be seen from the table below. If this feature can not be removed from the damper or otherwise tuned out, this type of damper should be avoided.

Mountain bike dampers are also designed to allow a bike and rider to survive a leap from a cliff, and as such really are "Shock Absorbers" in combination with the springs. 

On a FS car, there should never be massive impact loads on the shocks, and so they need to be adjusted to better match their new application.  This adjustment may be available from the bump and rebound knobs on the damper body, but it is very unlikely the optimum high and low speed damping can be achieved without a modification to the internal valving, or by a change of fluid or gas pressure at least.

Many makers of Mountain Bike shocks know that their product is used on FS cars, and so can supply them with custom damping curves to suit the application.  Teams should investigate this opportunity when buying dampers. If dealing directly with the suppliers, dampers should be specified with spherical bearings in both eyes, rather than the simple bushes usually fitted. Invariably, rocker arm motion and mount and chassis flex will hinder the straight-line operation of the dampers, thereby degrading their performance. If the dampers are supplied with plain bushings, these should be replaced with spherical bearings.

Usually, mountain bike shocks have a shaft travel of less than 3 inches (75mm) and FS cars are required to have a minimum of 1 inch (25mm) wheel travel in both bump and droop.  Designers should adopt motion ratios that make the best use of the available damping travel without allowing the damper shaft to bottom in the body.

Although the damper is usually used as the suspension droop limiter, this should be avoided in normal driving. A damper that "tops out" repeatedly will rapidly fail. Motion ratios can be calculated to impart a raising (or falling) rate to the suspension but such a linkage should be very carefully matched with the hydraulic damping rate. Dampers may have a progressive or digressive rate, and that rate may differ with shaft speed. The judges will want to see tables of wheel travel to damper shaft travel, and will ask the suspension designer to justify his solutions. Most dampers use bump rubbers on the shaft to prevent damaging "bottoming" by significantly increasing the spring rate in the last 20mm or 30mm of shaft travel.

Modern dampers invariably use a compressed gas (usually nitrogen) to prevent aeration of the damping fluid. The gas pressure keeps the damping fluid from frothing up and becoming ineffective. Unless the team are lucky enough to have some of the brand new "through shaft" dampers, this compressed gas adds a degree of spring to the damper. In the illustrated Fox, this high-pressure gas is in the end of the piggyback canister farthest from the damper, and separated from the damping fluid by a floating piston.  As the damper is compressed, the increasing volume of the shaft displaces the fluid against the floating piston. The compression of the gas affects the spring rate and the performance of the aerated fluid.

Gas pressure regulation is an important adjustment. Care should be taken to keep a hard working damper cool, or the increase in gas pressure will alter the performance.

Usually dampers are described as having both high speed and low speed compression and rebound rates. The "speed" mentioned is the speed of the piston shaft inside the body.  Low speed damping is sometimes called "bleed". High and low speed damping affect different areas of the on track performance, however there is a considerable overlap in the "speed" phases that can complicate analysis and adjustment.

High-speed damping adjustments affect low speed performance and vice versa.

The following simple table should help a team sort out their damping problems, or at least identify if there is sufficient damping adjustment available with the current hardware. I always suggest tuning dampers from "Soft" to "Hard" rather than the other way around, therefore this table deals with the effects of adding more rather than less damping adjustments.

Setting up dampers at the track can be a lengthy and frustrating task, however the benefits are well worthwhile. One frustration to watch for when testing dampers is a reduction in tyre performance as the test goes on. Chasing a good setup on deteriorating tyres is not only frustrating. When new tyres are fitted, the setup is always wrong and may quickly destroy the new tyres before the team understand what is happening.

Tyres are so important I will write next months column on this subject!

From this table, a team can see that they should start with the compression and rebound adjusters at the full soft setting. The car should be driven in this condition to allow the driver to see that he does indeed have insufficient damping. A car with insufficient damping will "float" and wallow after bumps and is sloppy and unresponsive to driver input. Small driver inputs will generate large mushy chassis movements and the car will tend to fall over on its tyres, which will howl in protest.

If the damper package is too stiff, the car will skate around and crash over bumps. There will be a tendency to slide (Loss of mechanical grip) rather than have grip. The driver will be very uncomfortable.

Compression damping should be adjusted first. The intention here is to adjust the compression damping to control the wheel motion over bumps in critical parts of the track such as the entire cornering areas and braking areas. With the settings at full soft, the driver should complete a lap or two before stopping and increasing the bump setting. The driver should feel the increased damping reduces the amount that the bumps upset the chassis. For this reason, damper tuning should be done with an experienced driver who can communicate his track feel. This process should be repeated until the ride becomes harsh and loses traction and tyre compliance. At this stage, the settings should be reduced to the last optimum setting.

At this stage, adjustment to gas pressure may improve the ability of the damper to help support the front of the car, and assist with turn-in and mid corner tyre traction.

Once the compression setting has been determined, the team should turn to optimising the rebound damping. Do not attempt to set compression and rebound settings simultaneously unless you are very experienced with damper set-up. The intention here is to "tighten" up the chassis. This is what most people understand as "tuning the shockers". Properly tuned rebound damping will stabilise the car, damping transients and reduce the rate of chassis roll. As with compression tuning, the adjustments should be made a little at a time, with the driver monitoring and reporting the result. Continue until the car becomes skittish and breaks traction.  The front or rear of the car may "pack-down".  At this point the rebound setting should be reduced to the last optimum setting.

A couple of things should be noted here.  Firstly, tuning dampers is nowhere as straightforward as I have set out above. Damper problems can be disguised by aspects of tyre, spring or anti-roll bar performance.  The dampers are to control the road spring, not any other aspect of the chassis that may be operating as a spring! (Sometimes the chassis is an undamped spring, hence the importance of chassis stiffness)

Secondly, it may be that this damper tuning regime does not get you to the level of damping performance you desire before you run out of adjustment. This is a clear indication that the internal valving of your package does not match your requirements and the dampers need to be revalved to suit.

Correctly matching your damping to chassis performance will greatly enhance the performance and driveability of your car, and is a facet of tuning that all teams should concentrate on prior to the Formula Student Event.

Pat Clarke
Tech Advisor FSG

More Compression

More Rebound

More Gas






Less nose dip, reduced trailing throttle oversteer, but possible loss of front grip. Input to steering may become abrupt.

Harsher ride, especially spike loads over bumps and kerbs. Possible loss of grip. Wheels may chatter over bumps.

Less front-end lift on acceleration. Possible loss of grip, but generally less understeer on acceleration

Better front chassis control, possible loss of grip over bumps.

Adds to spring rate (preload) better front height control, but with a possibility of reduced grip. May help with turn-in and mid-corner grip.

Less chassis squat, reduction in oversteer with power application. Possibility of reduced grip

Harsher ride, especially spike loads over bumps and kerbs. Possible loss of grip

Reduced chassis rise at rear. Possible loss of grip, but generally less trailing throttle oversteer.

Better rear chassis control, possible loss of grip over bumps.

Adds to spring rate (preload) better rear squat control, but with a possibility of reduced grip.

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