When the gantry lights go out in Melbourne in a couple of weeks’ time, it signals the return of the Formula 1 circus. And like any good circus, F1 generates magic that eludes most people’s everyday lives.
The spectators will be watching cars that are individually designed for high-level competition, bringing a wholly different dimension to the concept of driving. The cars they drive to the track are mass produced. Only the brand names, such as Toyota, Renault and Jaguar, are the same.
At 550kg, an F1 car weighs half as much as a medium-sized family hatchback. It is propelled by nearly 900hp – perhaps 10 times as much as the hatchback – thanks to a three-litre V10 engine capable of revving at around 18,500rpm, or three times as fast as a normal production engine. The technology and engineering tolerances involved take some grasping.
So does the money. The circus is famously secretive about everything, especially its finances. However, it is estimated that a Grand Prix team’s budget – with 17 races this season and endless testing – is £50-£100m a year.
In other words, the budget for the minimum three-year period that a Grand Prix team maintains it needs to achieve regular podium finishes is the same as that required by a mainstream car maker to design and develop a completely new road car that will have a cash-generating production life of four years. Or for a new engine that will be in production for over a decade.
Despite the costs and the uncertainty of success, though, car makers are piling into all forms of motorsport. In the UK – generally regarded as the sport’s global hub – a £4.8bn industry employing 40,000 people has been created. The Motorsport Industry Association has 235 member companies spread across central England from Southampton to East Anglia. This Grand Prix season will see an acceleration of the trend towards racing cars carrying road car brand names, as opposed to those of the specialist teams that do the actual racing. Toyota, the world’s third-largest vehicle maker, has created a well-financed team of its own from scratch for this year. Renault, a technology trendsetter in the past, returns to the F1 track. Two years ago Ford bought the Stewart racing team and Cosworth Racing to create a Jaguar entry. Mercedes-Benz is a shareholder in McLaren as well as its engine supplier.
When BMW began producing engines and transmissions for Williams the team was renamed BMW Williams. This subtle title change from the traditional method of putting the name of the chassis maker first and the engine provider second was accompanied by an agreement that allows the German manufacturer a free hand with the team’s colour scheme.
These seemingly innocuous developments go to the heart of modern motorsport. BMW has a great reputation for engineering, but its brand marketing skills are less widely recognised. Winning is important for the company – but so are the marketing and promotion that ensure the world knows it is a winner. The name and the colour scheme are part of that strategy.
This emphasis reflects one of the industry’s realities. With notable exceptions such as Honda and Porsche, which go racing on R&D department budgets, most car manufacturers’ motorsport endeavours are paid for with sales and marketing money.
But even if a company is a winner, making the connection between that success and cars in the showroom is tricky. The adage that ‘racing improves the breed’ was not noticeable in Renault production cars in the mid-1990s, when the company’s engines won six consecutive world championships. Conversely, Jaguar’s much-admired road cars sold well long before it became an also-ran in F1. And Jaguar’s so far abysmal racing performance has done little for its global reputation among car buyers, especially when competitors such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz were setting the pace.Besides, a modern racing car has as much in common with a road car as an F-117 stealth fighter does to a Cessna Citation. ‘There are no short-term cross-overs between racing and road cars,’ says Ian Bamsey, editor of the specialist magazine RaceTech.
Crossovers will come mainly in materials, coatings and packaging, he says, but their adaptation for road cars will be dictated by cost.
There is plenty of technology trickle-down – but it is not as extensive as popularly imagined.
According to the board member of one car company that is spending millions on a motorsport programme this year, the exercise is more to do with global brand enhancement and internal company motivation than technological developments.Disc brakes, now standard throughout the car industry, are often used as an example of a sporting technology that has made it to the road car. But when Jaguar pioneered them in the 1950s, it was adopting an aerospace technology.
Half a century later the use of carbon-fibre composites in road cars also owes as much to the aerospace sector as to the race track, where the material is now common.
Cost is a clear deterrent in the motor industry, though this summer’s McLaren-built Mercedes-Benz SLR supercar will have a carbon-fibre chassis. Two years ago BMW demonstrated the weight-saving possibilities of the material with its experimental Z22 saloon. The car’s carbon-fibre passenger cell was said to be 50 per cent lighter than one made of steel and aluminium. But with constant downward pressure on car prices, no one predicts a carbon-fibre breakthrough in affordable cars.
Racing applications in road cars are usually more prosaic – and a lot cheaper. When Renault began F1 racing in 1977, the composite sandwich that contained the enormous heat generated by the turbo-chargers later found its way into the company’s R21 Turbo saloon. Indeed, Renault’s turbo-charged F1 cars spawned a broad range of Renault road cars with turbos.
Putting down roots
Light alloy wheels are now common on road cars, and aluminium alloy suspension components are on the increase; both have their roots in motorsport. The steering wheel-mounted fingertip gear changes on today’s F1 cars can be seen on BMW’s sporty M3 coupÃ© and on Ferraris.
Porsche, which has been involved in international competition for most of its existence, says its road cars contain plenty of technology transfers from racing. They include aerodynamic under-floor air-flow management, front and rear spoiler development, electronic engine-management development and lightweight body design. Its fastest road cars also use ceramic composite brakes and monobloc callipers straight from the race track.
Porsche’s wealthy customers will barely notice the extra cost of ceramic brakes. But it’s different for more budget-conscious buyers of Renaults and Hondas.
One well-established feature of racing that is now becoming more commonplace in road cars is telemetry. The performance of Grand Prix cars has been monitored by on-board telemetry for many years. The trackside rigs, linked to the team’s headquarters, can quickly calculate whether this or that change to a car’s set-up will produce a speed advantage.
While production-car telemetry provides different services – roadside assistance, route guidance, vehicle tracking, downloadable entertainment and so on – the principles are similar.
Aside from cost, there is another fundamental reason why the crossover between racing and production is limited. Racing and road car engineering solutions are dictated by aerodynamics, rolling resistance and engine efficiency, but their ultimate requirements are wholly different. A racing car requires maximum power rather than fuel economy. And it needs massive aerodynamic downforce and sticky tyres to give it grip – something that would play havoc with a road car’s economy.
In fact, some of the latest road cars, equipped with anti-lock brakes, stability controls and wheelspin governors, contain as much electronic sophistication as any racing car. That is because the sport’s governing body has a tendency to outlaw any technology breakthrough that looks as if it will give one team a particular advantage.
So-called launch controls, which regulate a car’s wheelspin under hard acceleration, were once banned in racing, in spite of their widespread use in road cars. They are now permitted again because the authorities were unable to police them. Even today anti-lock brakes are not allowed on racing cars.
Other devices banned on the race track over the years include fans that sucked a car on to the track, skirts that prevented air flow going under the sides of a car, and huge wings that produced negative lift. When McLaren used lightweight aluminium-beryllium pistons in the late-1990s, the advantage was so evident that they were outlawed in F1.
This year rival F1 teams will be carefully monitoring Renault’s improved V10 in case it produces a clear advantage. It has an exceptionally wide angle – believed to be 111 degrees – that produces a lower centre of gravity. Unusually, the engine is also cam-less: valves are opened by solenoids and closed by hydraulics.
There may be no love lost between the racing teams, but the motivation within the sport is often overlooked. Honda – the world’s largest maker of internal combustion engines – rotates engineers from its R&D department to one of its racing programmes for three-year periods.
‘It’s like a high-pressure university degree course,’ a spokesman says. ‘In racing, engineers learn to solve problems quickly. Afterwards they apply that learning to production issues, whether it’s on a lawn mower or motorcycle engine.’ If a manufacturer is winning, that success touches the mood of its people on the production lines and in the showrooms. What is open to question, though, is whether the motivation is worth £100m a year.