Formula 1 on the road

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Spanish Grand Prix – Practice Day – Barcelona, Spain

Formula 1 is the haute couture of automotive engineering. It is so alien to other aspects of car R&D that some fans claim F1 technology has more application in the aerospace industry than on the road. While this might be partially true, there a few futuristic Formula 1 “fashion” principles that have found their way into road car manufacturing.

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Innovation 1: Use of carbon fibre

MP4/1 was not only the first McLaren car developed after Ron Dennis took over the team, but holds the distinction of being the first F1 car with a carbon fibre composite monocoque. It is a match made in heaven between Formula 1 and carbon fibre. The material is both strong and light and therefore perfect of the extreme demands of the sport.

Nowadays, carbon fibre usage in Formula 1 is ubiquitous. It is also slowly finding its way into road car manufacturing. The supercars Ferrari F50 and McLaren F1 have carbon fibre monocoques, while the likes of the Porsche 911 Carrera, BMW M3 and Ferrari Enzo boasting carbon ceramic brakes. The material is still prohibitively expensive for lower end vehicles but economies of scale and accelerated technological development will certainly bring the cost down in the future.

I would certainly sacrifice a season in which one team is untouchable, just to see the sport focus on developing a technology that would certainly have road car applications.

Innovation 2: Active suspension

Williams 14B is among the most famous F1 cars ever made. Behind its wheel, Nigel Mansell completely dominated the 1992 Formula 1 season. The secret behind 14B’s success was its revolutionary active suspension system. On-board computers would change the suspension settings of the car for every corner to maximize grip and aerodynamic efficiency.

Active suspension was the last big innovation inspired by the great Colin Chapman. Lotus started working on a primitive version of it as a response to a ban on moveable skirts. Chapman was looking for a way to ensure constant ground effect without the skirts that were essential to aerodynamics of ground effect cars. It was not, however, until 1987, when in-car electronics advanced sufficiently to allow Lotus to apply the system to Ayrton Senna’s 99T.

Mr. Aerodynamics Adrian Newey would perfect active suspension during his time at Williams, but its success would be its undoing in Formula 1 as it was banned for the 1994 season. Since the ban on the track, similar systems have become a mainstay on the road. Nowadays, both the Maseratis and the Opels of the world boast active or semi-active suspension systems to improve car handling and ride quality. And there are even rumours that FIA is considering a return of active suspension to F1 as a cost-cutting measure.

Innovation 3: Semi-automatic transmission and paddle gear change

Work on sequential gearboxes in F1 began as early as the 1960s but it was not until 1989 when a Ferrari equipped with a semi-automatic gearbox made its debut in the sport. Flappy paddles on the side of the wheel to move up or down a gear were quickly determined to be the more efficient method to change gears than the old-fashioned sticks.

Such gearboxes are now ubiquitous in the sport as they minimise error and allow F1 drivers to focus their attention on some of the numerous other adjustments they need to perform every lap to drive on the edge. Some fans express nostalgia for the good old days when drivers had it difficult as they need to shift gears with a stick, but looking at their wheels it is hard to believe Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel put less effort nowadays.

And the flappy paddles that allow F1 driver to change gears quickly are no longer a track-only feature. You can get a Smart with paddles or a Ferrari California with paddles. And they will become even more ubiquitous. Semi-automatic gearboxes are actually not only more responsive than manual gearboxes but they also consume less fuel. With a move for sustainable development encompassing even Formula 1 (the 2014 Mercedes powertrain is truly out of this world), it is hard to believe manual gearboxes will survive into the next decade of road car manufacturing.

And one prediction for the future

We should be honest with ourselves. The first few races of the current Formula 1 season were hardly more competitive than the last of the previous season. The on-track spectacle did not improve so much despite the extensive regulation changes and we no longer have the “sexy” V8 engine noises. Amidst all this, however, we should not overlook one simple fact. The new Formula 1 cars are insane. The 2014 Mercedes cars are only marginally slower than their predecessors despite numerous changes aimed precisely at slowing them down. In the meantime, they are considerably more efficient.

I would certainly sacrifice a season in which one team is untouchable, just to see the sport focus on developing a technology that would certainly have road car applications. Do not get me wrong, Adrian Newey’s exhaust blown diffuser Red Bulls were special, but I am willing to bet that sooner rather than later the “grandchildren” of the current F1 power units will be everywhere.

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