While we sit back and enjoy the return of Formula One to the city after a three-year break due to Covid, there’s much more to this iconic race than meets the eye. Underneath all the glitz and glamour of F1, millions of dollars are invested in the sport to make the cars faster, stronger, safer, more aerodynamic, and technologically-advanced.
Many of the innovations, new materials and technologies discovered in motor sports often find their way into today’s modern cars. These range from lightweight carbon fibre to hybrid engines. Formula One has often been called the fastest R&D lab in the world, and for good reason. The ultra-competitive landscape and resources racing teams have at their disposal lend themselves well to innovation.
The McLaren F1 racing team is the sport’s second most successful after Ferrari, and currently includes driver Lando Norris. At McLaren Racing, technologies have been deployed through government and other corporations which have had a significant impact on wider industries.
McLaren stepped in to manufacture ventilators during the Covid-19 pandemic
One recent example was when Covid-19 hit the UK and the government faced a challenge with ventilators. Many companies stepped in to help manufacture them, including McLaren. “We came together with several other bodies to build 10 years’ worth of ventilators in around 10 weeks. This was possible with our knowledge and expertise in rapid prototyping and production development,” says Curtis Nice, manager of brand and partner communications at McLaren Racing.
But the UK-based company was innovating for the common good long before Covid struck. “Safety is another important area for us which we have developed over the years. We were the first team to have a carbon fibre tub in the early ‘80s, and now carbon fibre tubs are routine in any sports car that you buy. They are not just for performance and weight, but also for safety,” adds Nice.
Using carbon fibre parts in cars
Carbon fibre has always been an expensive material. As a result, its uses were limited to racing cars and high-end sports cars. However, since its introduction in F1 in the 1980s, the ultra-light, durable material has gradually made its way into series production. Today, marques such as BMW, Audi, Chevrolet and Alfa Romeo use carbon fibre parts in some of their cars.
The research undertaken to make F1 cars as fast as possible provides a competitive advantage on the track. Lessons learned from improving racing power can also be applied to improving fuel consumption of regular cars on the road. Due to the rising cost of fuel this year, this is more relevant than ever.
Hybrid power units used in Formula One are thermal-efficient
Since the introduction of full hybrid (a combination of electric and petrol) powertrains, F1 technology has become more relevant for regular cars than it has ever been before, says Mercedes-Benz.
“From an engineering point of view, the hybrid power units used in Formula One are truly mind-blowing in terms of their thermal efficiency — in other words, their ability to convert fuel energy into useful work,” says a spokesman for Mercedes- Benz.
Another area of F1 research that has benefited the wider world of motoring has been connectivity. Formula One cars are probably the most connected cars in the world. To be competitive, teams process a lot of data and a racing car will have hundreds of sensors logging thousands of data points, measuring all kinds of things about the car, from temperatures and pressures to driver inputs.
F1 innovations could find their way into local hospitals or smartphones
The challenge is getting the huge amount of data from the car into computer systems where it can be analysed quickly. Modern hospitals face a similar challenge when transferring and analysing large amounts of data from devices such as gene sequencers and X-ray machines.
The technologies currently being developed in F1 could find their way into your local hospital or even your smartphone in the years to come, allowing for much faster download and upload speeds, and a more reliable connection.
Other notable innovations that have been discovered in F1 include paddle shifters that hasten the changing of gears as they are placed just behind the steering wheel. Today, paddle shifters are found in many sports cars and SUVs.
Steering wheel buttons add convenience to drivers
Steering wheel buttons are another F1 innovation. Changing radio stations and volume, as well as countless other tasks, have become incredibly convenient for the modern driver.
With the advent of more technology in F1, the trend took off in the 1970s. When racing at over 300km/h, drivers don’t have time to waste on looking for a button, especially when it could be better placed on the steering wheel.
What is it about the sport that makes it so conducive to new innovations and technology? “The evolving regulation changes mean our sport never stands still. There could be something you were allowed to do last season that you are this year, or something you weren’t allowed to do previously which you now can do. Then it’s about being ahead in those situations, which is where innovation is front and centre,” says McLaren’s Nice.
The perfect environment for testing upcoming road car production methods
It’s not just the cars themselves that lead to innovations. The logistics behind transporting hundreds of cars, teams and equipment to more than 20 cities around the world each year is a mammoth effort.
The temperature of the tires must be maintained at a constant level, and hundreds of support staff must be accommodated. The insights and knowledge of operational proficiency globally have also been deployed in refrigeration, prosthetics, consumer goods and even airlines.
As a whole, Formula One is the perfect environment for testing upcoming road car production methods on a smaller scale. Something to think about as the cars whizz around the street circuit during Singapore GP weekend.