Atlas F1   Technical Focus:
F1 and the Road Car

  by Will Gray, England

In a series of articles, Will Gray investigates the input of Formula One on the road car industry, and assesses whether the manufacturers are in it for its marketing or its development potential.

This week: Improving the Breed

This year has seen the introduction of three new manufacturers to Formula One - BMW, Honda, and Jaguar - and with Toyota coming in next year, plus the recent announcement of a Renault return, there could be eight of the twelve teams involved with a major automotive manufacturer in 2001. What does this mean for Formula One, and why have so many car companies suddenly become interested in it?

The argument is Brand or Breed, and it's a subject of much discussion. Some sides argue that the development potential of Formula One is what attracts the car companies, whilst others claim the only reason they are there is to push their products. It is a matter of opinion which argument is correct - in this article, the Brand will be investigated, followed next week by the Breed.

By unwrapping the Formula One car from the outside in, it is quite a surprise what you can find. Although the ultimate racing machine is a far cry from granny's Peugeot or daddy's Mercedes, it is possible to spot some family resemblance. The first step of this argument gives a good example.

The Bridgestone tyres used by all teams in Formula One are one of the most closely linked areas between F1 and the road. Bridgestone use the series to test their theories and although there is never a direct link between the two, the road and race teams share data to develop design ideas. Goodyear stated that their involvement in Formula One was fifty percent brand, fifty percent breed, and cited carcass design, manufacture and production technique to have benefited majorly from the sport. Meanwhile the low profile tyres that keep would be racers on the road have benefited greatly from their heroes' testing.

Looking into the past, one design development that is key to both F1 and granny and daddy's cars is steel disk brakes. Although introduced at Le Mans, their development in the sport has led to their standardisation, and so improved safety in road cars. However, don't expect a similar motion for Carbon fibre brakes - the operating temperature required for them to work at full potential is way above that available in a road car.

Another improvement assisted by Formula One is now long gone from the sport. Active suspension came to the forefront of F1 on Ayrton Senna's Lotus in the mid-eighties, and culminated in Nigel Mansell's all conquering Williams of 1992. It was much before this time that it began on road cars, but although not invented by Formula One, the development and publicity received from the connection ensured it's movement to road cars of the future. Another suspension feature now common to a number of road cars is Formula One's independent wishbone suspension, which was developed in the sport as long ago as the 1930s.

One area where Formula One has become a leader is safety, and the ethos of separable and crushable structures has improved road car safety immensely. This type of construction can lessen the impact felt by the driver by absorbing some of the force, where with a rigid structure, the full force is transmitted to the driver. Formula One's governing body, the FIA, has helped improve road safety through its connections with the European Union, and the importance of safety in F1 has been used by Max Mosely as a shield to criticism of the expense and extravagance of the sport.

The F1 car body must be aerodynamic as well as safe. Since the 1970s, there has been great emphasis on this area of design, but the principles applied in F1 teams, who aim for maximum downforce, are the exact reverse of those in the road car industry, where minimum drag is the target. Despite this, road has still benefited from race. The intense requirement for better and more accurate testing in Formula One has seen teams go from the odd day in a 25% model wind tunnel to three-quarter year testing in 50% tunnels, and the money input by teams to develop these test facilities has also been to the gain of the road car.

A Formula One engine takes some punishment. It is, therefore, an excellent intense environment to test new theories and ideas - and there have been plenty: Variable-valve timing, ceramics, engine management diagnostics, and turbocharging have all been invented or developed by the sport. One particular company to use its racing knowledge for the road is Cosworth, designers and manufacturers of the new Jaguar powerplant, who have race and road factories across the road from one another!

Although mainly a gimmick, semi-automatic transmission can now be found on road cars, although the connection between its F1 and road development is more marketing than design development. Despite this, it is a technological transfer that has been taken up keenly by car buyers.

Formula One acts as a route to the road car for many components, none more so than the complex electronics. With F1 cars being fly-by-wire, and virtually-do-everything-by-wire, the complex developments lean heavily on the aerospace industry for their invention. However, the function of Formula One here is to develop them for the track, and in turn, this helps their development for the road. The exotic materials used in Formula One are another example of this, and although many are too expensive to be found on road cars, this may change in the future.

Perhaps the most growing area of Formula One in recent years, with the number of road car manufacturers joining the circuit, is the transfer of skills - indeed, Jaguar have suggested that there will be the consideration of movement between their race and road teams to exploit the full benefit of this. Prodrive also state that through engineering race and rally cars, their engineers bring this experience to their road projects.

Looking at all these examples paints a very rosy picture of the racetrack assistance in road car design, but what about looking at a road car? Few of the customer attracting features are seen in Formula One - no electric windows, heated seats, and cruise control is by it's very name not the stuff of racing cars! Airbags, too, are not found in Formula One.

But to see the whole picture, you must step back. Formula One is a testing ground for technology. It is attractive because of its rapid development, and the fact that it allows products to be tested to their upper limits. On top of all this is the sport's pot of gold: Through hitching up with teams, automotive manufacturers can ensure sponsors' cash is used to develop new ideas. If these ideas make it to the road, the customers will benefit from decreased costs of development, and Formula One will have again brought new technology to the road - it's happened before and it's sure to happen again.

Next week: Will takes a look at the other side of the argument, and assesses Formula One's potential for "Improving the Brand."

Will Gray© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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