Applied Formula

A wide range of medical, mobility and production applications use the materials expertise deployed in F1 supercars. Stuart Nathan reports


The most striking, and frequently controversial, example of high-technology meshing with sport, Formula One (F1) has as much in common with aerospace as with automotive. Developing and optimising an F1 car involves cutting-edge innovation, state-of-the-art materials science and boosting the development cycle from concept to design, prototyping and manufacture from months to days or even hours. It is probably the most glamorous environment for an engineer to work in.

The cliché about F1 is that all this high-speed inventiveness makes it the R&D department of the automotive industry. Technologies pioneered on the Grand Prix circuits are taken up by high-end supercars and trickle down into mass production and the road vehicles that we normal mortals drive. But the development time cycles for automotive are long and it can take time for the advanced technologies to move from the circuit to the motorway.

F1’s contributions to other sectors are less known, but a recent exhibition at London’s Science Museum aimed to set the record straight. Organised in cooperation with McLaren, the Fast Forward exhibition put on show a wide range of products that use F1 technology in strikingly different ways — for medical, mobility and production applications.

‘It came about because we’ve worked with F1 teams in the past,’ explained Katie Maggs, associate curator of medicine at the museum. ‘We’ve had Mika Hakkinen’s car in the museum for some time and we were keen to do an exhibition on the science of F1. We’d originally thought about something on aerodynamics, but, through contacting McLaren, we decided to look at these stories instead. This shows a different side of F1, away from the sport itself, and that helps us to appeal to a wide variety of people and show them how important the expertise developed by these engineers is.’

Many of the Fast Forward exhibits use the formidable materials expertise deployed in F1 cars. Strong, lightweight carbon fibre is everywhere, forming the shell of a portable incubator for transporting babies in ambulances, the frame of what is claimed to be the world’s most advanced bicycle and the seat of a striking design for a wheelchair that looks like it is mutated from a mountain bike.

The bike, which is made by F1 subcontractor Beru F1 Systems, probably takes the prize for the largest number of technologies packed into a single product. Called the Factor 001, its frame is a carbon fibre monocoque; more strikingly, so are the wheels, using a unidirectional carbon in the composite skin, surrounding a foam core. This, Beru claims, makes them stiff, strong and capable of coping with the conditions on normal roads. The brakes use a carbon-ceramic composite in a hydraulic disc system, which is as effective wet or dry. The brake hoses are housed in lightweight steel pipes built into the frame, minimising losses in power transfer from brake lever to disc.

It also features F1 telemetry, delivering data on the physical force exerted on the cranks attached to the pedals using an F1 torque sensor: the angle the bike is leaning, from accelerometers. Another suite of sensors measures atmospheric pressure, altitude, humidity and temperature. Another, borrowing from paramedic equipment, monitors the rider’s skin and core temperature, heartbeat and breathing.

With a price tag around the £20,000 mark, the Factor 001 is not for the average cyclist, but, according to John Bailey, Beru F1’s managing director, it was a deliberate attempt to show how F1 technology can be transferred into other sectors. ‘It shows we can access the consumer market, albeit at a very, very high end,’ he said. ‘But we’ve had a huge amount of interest and it’s opened doors into the Olympic movement; we’re working directly with them now, mainly on the human factor monitoring than on the machine itself. It’s getting a lot of interest as a training aid as it allows the rider to be monitored actually on the road, rather than on a static bike.’

Developing the bike was, in fact, a response to the conditions faced by businesses supplying F1, Bailey explained. ‘These spin-offs are generated more from the suppliers than the F1 teams themselves, because the suppliers have to make a profit,’ he said. ‘A couple of years ago, we decided that we had to diversify and use what we’d learned in F1 in other environments.’

For Beru F1, this represented a large suite of technologies; the company specialises in electronics, sensors and composite materials. ‘We do, on a micro scale, everything that an F1 team does, apart from engines and gearboxes,’ Bailey said.

One example is a technology for enclosing electrical wiring into a bespoke carbon-fibre composite sleeve, which is used on the Factor 001 bike. ‘Wire-in-composite was developed for F1, but we’ve actually found that it has a much stronger relevance for the aerospace sector,’ he said. The technology is not yet used in motorsport, but it is being used ‘at a very large scale in the civil aviation sector’, Bailey added. ‘And that’s also opened a lot of doors for us.’

The advanced wheelchair also shows how the uncertainties of working with F1 can stimulate innovation. Designed and manufactured by Trekinetic, a small engineering company in Hertfordshire, the chair was a response to a decline in requests from F1, said Mike Spindle, managing director and chief designer. ‘We needed our own product and we wanted to innovate,’ he said. This would ensure a steady cash flow as ‘F1 teams tend to call you up on a Friday, just as you’re going home, and say that they need a component by Sunday, but they’ll pay you five times the going rate’, he added.

For Spindle to ensure Trekinetic’s survival, he needed a product that the company could make itself and that was relatively high value. ‘We’d never be able to make very large numbers of things,’ he said. A chance encounter with a teenage boy in a wheelchair at Luton Airport gave him the idea. ‘The wheelchair was painted purple and it looked like an antique and I thought: “Well, we’ve got to be able to do better than that.”‘

The chair uses an F1-derived carbon fibre monocoque seat as a structural component, with the two ‘driving’ wheels at the front, fitted with chunky tyres. A single wheel at the back provides stability and clicks into place to ensure that the chair travels in a straight line. Each driving wheel is equipped with a drum brake that works dynamically. Using the brakes independently of each other steers the chair. The driving wheels’ angle to the vertical can also be adjusted — wider at the bottom, then the top for rough terrain and completely vertical for indoor use.

The result is a very stable, versatile wheelchair that is not only capable of traversing many kinds of terrain, but is also attractive and stylish, showing off its high-technology origins. ‘People see it and want to come and talk about it, rather than shying away as they often tend to do with people in traditional wheelchairs,’ said Maggs. ‘It re-engineers people’s conceptions about disability.’

For Spindle, it was primarily a commercial and engineering proposition. ‘We have many enthusiasts and we’re delighted that we’re helping people, but for us it wasn’t born out of a desire to help disabled people; it was born of a desire to make a better wheelchair.’

Spindle and Beru’s Bailey both say that F1-linked companies are well placed for innovation. ‘We’ve got all the equipment,’ Spindle said. ‘If you have a CNC machine, you can make any component you want; you don’t have to rely on a parts book. None of the components on our chair are standard, apart from some wheel components and the tyres, but we could prototype and develop things without the massive costs of subcontracting.’

Bailey said that the speed of delivery expected by F1 is well suited to certain sectors. ‘The speed we work at means that other industries like working with us a lot. We do a lot of work with very high-end automotives, such as Bugatti, Lambourghini and Maserati; that low-volume side suits us very well.’

Maggs believes that motorsport is a hothouse for technology and that its spin-offs are of tremendous value to the UK, although she said that this needs to be communicated. ‘It’s not this arbitrary technology that’s isolated and in a ghetto; it’s out in the real world and it can make a difference to people’s lives.’