Plan Insurance Blog

F1 Tech – From race cars to road vehicles

The new F1 season is underway and I’m very pleased to say that at the time of writing Britain’s Lewis Hamilton is in contention for another driver’s title.

The Constructors Championship should be just as hard fought. With that in mind I thought I’d take a look at how technology developed in Formula 1 and ‘endurance’ racing has and continues to be incorporated into road worthy vehicles.

In building race cars to ‘be the best’ in order to win races, motor racing engineers working for their respective teams are constantly having to look at new ways to perfect their cars.

The highly competitive business of motor sport encourages rapid development of new materials and processes to achieve success. The progress made often filters through in the form of innovations that appear a little later in production road cars.

10 motor manufacturing innovations from F1

1. Disc Brakes

The adoption of highly efficient disc type brakes in place of drum brakes for Jaguar’s road racers of the 1950s and by endurance teams at Le Mans eventually led to the widespread use of disc brakes on everyday vehicles. In more recent developments, ceramic brake discs have also found their way onto road cars, from the track.

2. Turbo Charging

Inspired by circuit racing, turbocharging literally boosts power by using exhaust gases to rotate turbocharger vanes.

3. Active Suspension

Invented by Colin Chapman for his Lotus Team, active suspension was first used in F1 by Ayrton Senna in the 1980’s. It served to improve the car’s cornering ability.  Many modern vehicles now employ this technology.

4. Fuel Efficiency

Lubrication(using use low viscosity synthetic oils to reduce friction), enhanced aerodynamics that reduce drag and tyre pressure monitoring systems as well as the highly effective rubber compounds and tread patterns of modern tyres also owe much to race-led development. Teams have employed tech not only to increase speed but to eke out more efficiency from a tank of fuel and prevent unnecessary pit stops that eat up crucial seconds.

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5. Energy Recovery Systems

Systems such as regenerative braking which harnesses the energy normally dissipated when stopping or slowing, to be used immediately or stored to help provide motive power or to re-charge a battery used to power auxiliary electrical equipment such as a sound system. This technology is used in electric cars as well as those with ‘traditional’ drivetrains.

6. Kinetic Energy Recovery System

KERS’ is a clever set-up introduced in Formula 1 a few years ago, which is now finding its way into some high performance road cars.  Developed for the track in order to gain advantage in races, effectively this stores the energy resulting from braking, to be released by the driver when appropriate, to provide an additional burst of power and speed.

7. Carbon Fibre

Light-in-weight but ultra-strong materials carbon fibre was invented in the 1950’s but due to much scepticism it wasn’t until the 1980’s that McLaren began using it in F1 to build their cars safer chassis and body structure. It is mainly used for smaller components or cosmetic touches to mass production vehicles but BMW’s new “i range” claims to set new standards in light weight construction via the use of carbon,

8. Traction Control Systems

These computer-monitored systems enhance the driving experience and safety, helping to get the power down on the road surface and aid vehicle handling, by detecting when a wheel loses grip, and automatically compensating/making adjustments to the drivetrain, as required – especially useful in adverse conditions.

9. Paddle Shifts & Sequential Gearing

Another important development was the arrival of ‘paddle shift’ twin clutch transmission systems that enable ratio changes to be carried out far faster and more effectively than with a conventional manual or automatic gearbox. Less time gearchanging results in more time applying power whilst steering! Williams first developed sequential gearing technology in response to Ferrari’s introduction of the semi-automatic gear box. Williams first raced with paddle shifts (much to the dismay of traditional fans and drivers) in the 1991 race season. Their Director of Engineering, Patrick Head believes reliability related issues lost them the championship that year. However the problems were “easily resolved” and they’ve not gone back. In fact their ability to prevent engine over-revving greatly increases the life cycle of an engine.

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10. Computer Systems

During the last 20 years or so, computer systems have played an increasingly important role in our cars in controlling engine management systems to improve performance, driveability and fuel consumption. Typically an Engine Control Unit (ECU) receives information from a variety of sensors monitoring the behaviour of the different components and systems around the power unit. From this information it enables precise adjustments can be made instantly to ignition and fuelling aspects, to squeeze from the engine optimum power and torque with minimum fuel consumption and emissions. ECUs were commonly used in race cars long before they appeared in road vehicles.

I could go on and on …

… listing the many seemingly minor developments that when applied together, can make a huge difference overall. These include: small but important enhancements in the design of road car inlet manifolds, valve operating systems and exhaust pipework, to enhance gas flow into, through and out of the engine, new materials and coatings to reduce friction in engine and transmission components – all aimed at aiding performance, fuel consumption and emissions.

Driven to improve

Many engine design technologies incorporated by car manufacturers today have been motor sport led. The continual drive to increase the performance of an engine while at the same time reducing its cubic capacity (and thus also minimising emissions and fuel consumption) echoes similar work carried out by race teams.

Then there are also manufacturers producing high performance race-based cars for use on the roads. Examples include McLaren and the new Elemental, developed by ex-F1 engineers and manufactured near Horndean in Hampshire.

The Pace Increases

Many everyday motorists probably do not realise how much of the “clever” technology in their road worthy vehicles is owed to Formula 1 and ‘endurance’ circuit racing, but the transfer of information from the race car engineers to those working for the major motor manufacturers is on a vast scale.

The trend for sharing engineering and electronic systems development information between motor sport teams and car manufacturers is set to continue, and the pace of technological change continues to increase…