- Author James Roberts
- Published September 19, 2013
How Formula 1 is changing the world
Do you think that Formula 1 is a frivolous activity of self-promotion, greed and desire? It may have its extravagances but behind the glitz is serious technology, research and science that’s making a difference to all of us. F1 Racing‘s James Roberts investigates.
It’s not all about wasting fuel. The methodologies used in grand prix racing are having a much greater benefit on society at large. The technology, knowledge and research used to extract the maximum performance from a racing car is helping save lives in hospitals and war zones. It has also pioneered sporting achievements and inspired objects from fishing-rod designs, to the construction of transatlantic aircraft.
For the major road car manufacturers, Formula 1 has always been a laboratory for developing technology. The microprocessors found in a road-going BMW 8 Series first appeared in their F1 cars, while sequential gearshifts and launch control have been introduced to their M3 and M5 models. And in the last few years there has been a greater ‘greener’ asset derived from Formula 1. The introduction of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), whereby an extra boost of power has been derived from energy recovered in braking is helping bus and rail commuters in major cities.
The Williams team have launched a separate off-shoot of its company called Williams Hybrid Power (WHP). Recovering energy under braking and then releasing the extra power has been utilised by applications that are continually stopping and starting, such as tube trains and buses.
Alex Burns, the former CEO at Williams explains: “A bus will come to a complete stop every few minutes and this is the perfect environment in which to use the flywheel energy to then accelerate the bus and save fuel. It’s a heavy vehicle and even at relatively low speed it has the same kinetic energy as an F1 car at high speed. The technology therefore reads across very easily from F1 to city bus.” The fuel consumption savings are upwards of ten to 15 per cent with the WHP system.
Savings have also been found on aircraft. When Renault were a fully-fledged manufacturer in F1, they formed a technical alliance with Boeing to help transfer technology between the two companies.
Racing car design uses a combination of windtunnel research and computer modelling. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) calculates air flow over every single point of a car in the virtual world. Now airline manufacturers have started to employ CFD to improve the efficiency of their aircraft.
“F1 functions like a boot camp for our CFD code,” explains Boeing director of global R&D Peter Hoffman. “In aero terms an F1 car is a very cluttered environment that requires a much greater intensity of calculations than for an aircraft. That drives us to new levels of performance and generates new efficiencies. If you see the 787 Dreamliner in flight the wing tips are higher than the fuselage – that wouldn’t have been possible without the improvements in CFD.” Reductions in drag are five per cent on modern aircraft, which has had a huge saving in fuel costs.
Formula 1 cars are intensely complex. Each chassis is formed of 11,000 components. The engine has a further 8,000 parts and there are another 6,000 in the electronics, so each car has approximately 25,000 individual components inside it. That means a lot of things can go wrong. But F1 cars have been incredibly reliable in recent years. That is primarily down to the 150 sensors on each car that monitor over 500 different parameters, such as fuel consumption and tyre wear. That data is transmitted in real time to the engineers in the pit garage who decipher the information to make decisions relating to performance and longevity. In total 750 million numbers are logged every weekend.
The knowledge of transmitting huge amounts of data is now being used in the medical industry to great effect. Heart attacks in new born babies weren’t predictable, but new techniques have been developed in monitoring blood flow and respiration. Rather like the engineers on the pitwall, doctors can analyse the data in real-time so that heart attacks in newborns can be predicted five minutes before they happen.
Other medical items inspired by F1 materials include the Gen3 post-operative knee brace which is built from carbon fibre and features micro-hydraulics to precisely control a patient’s movement. Plus the BabyPod, an all-in-one crib used to transport babies in emergencies, similar to the monocoque design used to build a racing car cockpit.
Paralympians have also benefited from the carbon fibre used to build F1 cars. The strength and lightweight features of the material have been pioneered in the creation of artificial limbs. The best example is the Cheetah Flex-foot, which is J-shaped and based on a cheetah’s hind leg. Also CFD technology has helped develop lighter, faster swimsuits. The Fastskin suit used by swimmers such as Michael Phelps have been individually tailored to fit like a second skin and studies have found it is four per cent faster in starts, sprints and turns.
The world championship winning team McLaren, like Williams, have also established an off-shoot company for developing F1-inspired devices. McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) work very closely with Team GB to help in various sporting fields including cycling, canoeing, rowing, kayaking and sailing.
One example of their tie-up has been rowing, where MAT have fitted F1-style sensors to their oars to monitor the water pressure, oar angle, speed and movement overlayed with heart-rate sensors to determine the efficiency of the rower’s stroke rates.
McLaren have also built the ultra-light carbon racing bike, the Venge, working with Specialized and supplying professional riders such as Mark Cavendish. Priced at a cool £25,000 it won the Milan-San Remo cycle race on its debut and has been sculpted in a Formula 1 windtunnel. Its frame and handlebars have been moulded with the specific purpose of reducing drag, and weight, and increasing efficiency.
In the battlefield
A new seat has been developed in military tanks that has its roots in an F1 cockpit and can help save the crew members from the threat of exploding mines. The seat mimics the five-point quick release seatbelt harness that F1 drivers use. It suspends crew members of armoured vehicles without a rigid connection to the floor or walls – therefore reducing the effect of a violent transfer of shockwaves during an explosion. In addition the British Army was inspired watching Formula 1 pitstops (particularly in the fuel-stop era) and they have been able to halve the time it takes to refuel its Apache helicopters as well as introducing lighter, fire-retardant clothing for its crew members.
Objects of desire
While loosely based on a human sized ipod, McLaren Applied Technologies have developed a retreat to listen and watch entertainment. The Ovei retails at £50,000, is made from carbon fibre, and is accessed via a gullwing door. Inside is a 26-inch screen, Dolby surround sound speakers and ambient lighting. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of pod-like forms that can protect,” says designer Lee McCormack. “Beside being aesthetically beautiful outside, I saw a pod could also form an intimate, personal womb-like space.”
Former McLaren aerodynamicist John Barnard, along with furniture designer Terence Woodgate, has created a dining room table, four metres long and yet at just 2mm thick it is capable of being sat on without breaking.
And if you’re looking for decoration for the table, then look no further than the mechanic-turned-artist Alastair Gibson. Inspired by the shape of a fish, which he says has evolved by millions of years of fluid dynamics, he has started to build installations from the left-over parts of F1 cars. He now has a 2,000sq ft studio in Brackley and takes all the little pieces of suspension components that are effectively going for scrap. “I’ve had work sold in exhibitions around the world, including the Chelsea Art Fair, and one of my works, the Racing Mako Shark, costs around £25,000. But it does feature parts from the car Jenson Button won the 2009 Monaco GP with…”
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James Roberts is the associate editor of F1 Racing