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Formula 1: A Flood Of Trickle Down Technology

By Peter Reader

Photo credit: Pixabay

Formula 1 is the highest class of motor racing. The “formula” describes a series of stringent regulations with which participating cars must comply. Over £500m in prize money is distributed annually based on seasonal rankings; providing a hefty financial incentive for competing manufacturers.

Formula 1 is a warzone for multinational corporations. The majority of the battles are fought behind closed doors in the secrecy of team headquarters, where engineers work flat out to improve lap times by hundredths of a second. On the technology front, teams are under constant pressure to keep up with the competition, and without continuous car improvements there is no chance of success.

Trickle-down technology is a phenomenon in which products become increasingly affordable and commonplace, as they are continuously replaced by cutting edge developments. In recent years, the governing body of Formula 1 has enforced the participation of increasingly fuel efficient and safer vehicles; with the racing environment preventing any compromise on track speed that these targets might otherwise have. This competitive pressure has catalysed the continuous development of very effective racetrack technologies which have “trickled down” to application on the road and elsewhere.

Your car is racier than you realise...

Reliability is the most important quality of any car, with various components being essential for a car to remain operational. Engineers have developed a multitude of sensor technologies which intricately characterise the stresses experienced by components during racing; allowing the identification and improvement of high risk areas.

Heat sensors provide vital information as vehicle systems require controlled temperatures to function most effectively. For instance, tyres exhibit maximum grip at one temperature, but lowest degradation rate may occur at another. Rubber compound tyres must operate within narrow temperature boundaries of several degrees to achieve the desired balance of grip and longevity. In Formula 1 this is necessary to achieve consistent lap times, whilst on the road, tyre characteristics affect fuel consumption and stopping distance. F1 engineers have developed novel heat sensitive stickers, coated with thermochromic ink, to reveal the maximum thermal exposure that each area of surface has experienced. This technology has allowed Pirelli, the fifth largest manufacturer of road car tyres, to better understand and improve the characteristics of their designs. Tyre tread provides channels for water displacement, preventing aquaplaning and allowing greater tyre-road contact. Novel tread patterns and rubber compound variations developed for F1 in wet conditions are also directly applied to all Pirelli road car tyres.

F1 cars contain between 150 and 300 sensors; which record up to 2GB of drive data over a 1 hour race (the equivalent of a 500,000 character word document every second). Drive data can be anything from fuel consumption to engine revolutions, and is used to analyse performance and predict component failures. Before 2008 there was no database system capable of dealing with such a high volume of time series data (and small enough to fit into a car). With this need in mind, McLaren and Microsoft developed a compact electronic control unit (ECU) to deal with the storage as well as interpretation of drive data. In 2013 McLaren released its flagship road vehicle, the P1, which incorporates the complex data recording ECU developed for the F1 team. All modern road vehicles contain ECU’s (the source of your dashboard warning lights) and data recording may soon be provided as a standard feature, similar to the black box of aircraft. It is hoped that these intelligent systems will provide predictions of breakdowns and even actively fight component failures of road cars in the future. As well as data recording, the ECU may actively participate in car control.

Technology so effective, it was banned...

Anti-Lock Braking (ABS) is an automated safety system implemented by the ECU, that prevents the wheels of a car from locking up under harsh braking and prevents uncontrolled skidding. This is achieved by continuous monitoring of both wheel rotation and car speed. The difference between the rotation speeds of all four wheels is minimised electronically by automatic braking, which slows the car in a rapid but controlled manner. This technology was common in aircraft, but not often found in cars until after 1993, when the progress made by the Williams F1 team made the system more compact and efficient. ABS is now a standard safety system in all modern road vehicles.

A second electronic safety system controlled by the ECU is traction control. Just as car control is lost when wheels lock under braking, excessive wheel spin when cornering or accelerating in slippery conditions, is dangerous on the road and inefficient on the track. As with ABS, traction control systems involve continuous monitoring of the wheels’ rotation speeds. The output control of this system electronically limits the power delivery for the driver and may slow the wheels by automatic braking. Traction control has become widely available in non-performance vehicles due to the progress made by the Williams F1 team. All-terrain vehicles such as those produced by Land Rover, now employ a combination of traction control and ABS to improve grip on slick surfaces.

Another well-known technology used in road cars is four wheel drive, in which engine power is delivered to all four wheels simultaneously. The system may be employed full-time or on demand, and provides the car with more traction. In 1932, Bugatti produced several four wheel drive road cars, but the technology was unrefined and notorious for poor handing. Formula 1 teams Ferguson, Lotus, McLaren and Williams invested heavily in the improvement of four wheel drive systems for cars, and the technology is now much safer and controllable.

In 1993 Williams produced an F1 car which incorporated ABS, traction control and four wheel drive: all controlled by a single ECU. These driver aids were considered so advantageous that the governing body of Formula 1 immediately banned them from the track. All three systems are now commonplace on the road.

Novel Materials

Many forms of racing seek to improve power to weight ratio by lightening the machines used, but this is often at a cost to strength and rigidity. The McLaren F1 team was the first to develop a car chassis entirely of carbon fibre and this technology is now used in performance road vehicles such as the Lamborghini Aventador. This material is challenging to work with as parts are formed by layering of thin carbon fibre sheets, glued together with resin. There is a significant strength advantage to this construction method, as each component is a single block of material with no weaks joints.

McLaren have developed cutting edge simulation and data acquisition processes which allow the company to design and test a structure before contruction. This computer aided design approach has recently allowed McLaren and bicycle manufacturer Specialized to produce the world’s most advanced road race bike: the S-Works Tarmac. The simulations allowed an 11% weight reduction with no loss of rigidity to the monocoque frame, allowing cyclists to climb hills with less energy expenditure. The bike will appear in this year’s Tour de France and is already available to amateurs.

Environmental Consideration

In 2014, the trickle-down effect of Formula 1 became more obvious than ever. The rules were changed drastically to make technological advances more relevant to the current market and improve the financial return of investing manufacturers.

The 2.4 litre engines of previous years have now been reduced to 1.6 litres: the same capacity found in a Ford Fiesta (currently the UK’s best-selling car of all time). Reduction in engine capacity usually means less power, but the rule changes have sparked the development of novel hybrid systems. These harvest energy wasted by the car during driving and store it in power units for later use.

A kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) harvests a moving vehicle’s energy lost under braking and stores it in a flywheel or battery. This energy, which would otherwise be wasted in the form of heat, can be used later for acceleration. Similarly, exhaust heat recovery systems store energy normally lost from a car’s exhaust as heat.

Both of these systems are currently used in F1 cars and improvements in the last 2 years have been huge. In 2014, BMW released the i8: a car which makes use of energy recovery systems during regular driving so efficiently that the vehicle can travel 37 km purely on self-generated electric power. Mercedes’ power unit development has caused the team’s 2015 car to perform up to one second per lap faster than their closest rivals in 2015 pre-season testing, indicating that this technology has plenty of untapped potential after two years of enforced use.

The financial implications of developing these hybrid engine systems are obvious and have encouraged Honda, the world’s largest engine manufacturer, to start a partnership with the 2015 McLaren F1 team. With the competitive pressure to beat other teams, all manufacturers invested in Formula 1 will have the technology to produce the more environmentally friendly road cars, years earlier than without this competition.


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