Engineers frequently argue until blue in the face about the relevance of motorsport. For many, the once vigorous flow of technology from track to road trickled to a halt years ago. For some, it is as vibrant as it has ever been. And others provocatively ask: ‘Why should it matter? It’s only a sport.’
But wherever you stand on the issue of motorsport as a real-world technology incubator, there’s one less tangible spin-off that has immense value to the wider world: the engineering ethos of engineers schooled by the demands of the track.
As legendary Formula One (F1) engineer Gordon Murray argues in our latest interview the relentlessly unforgiving cycle of a race season forces engineers to get things done quickly, and the industry has fostered a nimble, no-nonsense approach to problem solving that’s of increasing value to a host of other sectors.
What’s more, while an F1 engine is hardly an iconic symbol of low-carbon engineering, motorsport’s obsession with squeezing every last drop of performance from a vehicle does actually fit well with the low-carbon, energy efficiency demands driving so many sectors.
Murray’s own initiative is a case in point. On the surface, his move from race car to low-carbon vehicle design represented a radical change of direction for someone apparently so much a part of the motorsport industry. But his iStream manufacturing process, and the lightweight vehicles he’s built to demonstrate it, draw directly on the composites techniques he helped pioneer while at McLaren F1 in the 1980s.
Critically, Murray is not alone. The UK boasts some of the world’s most innovative motorsport companies and, increasingly, wherever you look, their skills and know-how are feeding back into other areas of the engineering economy.
The relentlessly unforgiving cycle of a race season forces engineers to get things done quickly
Our latest Big Story looks at how Lola, another prominent name in the UK motorsport industry, has diversified to the point where it’s making parts for war ships, unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites and airliners.
Unlike Murray, Lola hasn’t ruled out a return to F1 and is hoping to rejoin the competition soon, but more than two thirds of its revenue now comes from other sectors. Asked why this is, Paul Jackson, Lola’s commercial director, echoed the point made by Murray. ‘We tend to drive our customers forward,’ he said. ‘We’re used to solving technical issues and getting them out the door.’
While the motorsport mindset is perhaps the sector’s biggest gift to the wider engineering industry, if you had to pick a tangible technology area it would probably be the use of composite materials. And our report on the newly launched National Composites Centre looks at how materials technology pioneered by McLaren way back in 1981 is now, 30 years later, at the heart of the UK’s plans for industrial growth. Yet another example of the unquantifiable value of the UK’s motorsport expertise.