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From the Racetrack to the Highway: How F1™ Racing Has Influenced the Automotive Industry

After watching the Abu Dhabi leg of the F1™ Racing, have you ever thought and asked what it feels like driving one of the racecars? To a certain extent, you have already driven one; only you were probably not aware of it.

While the car you may be currently driving pales in comparison to an  F1™car from every aspect, teams like Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, and Alfa Romeo are using the racetrack experience to improve the performance of their commercial vehicles.

Simply put, there is indeed a transfer of technology between the racecars and consumer vehicles. However, the trickling down of new technologies is often subtler and relatively easy to miss.

To a certain extent, the innovations that can be seen in the latest releases of the more prominent automotive companies can be traced back to racing competitions like Formula One™ racing.

Ferrari has acknowledged the close relationship between its F1™ and GT teams, facilitating innovation for the illustrious car maker’s new releases.

Major stumbling blocks

Apart from the subtle transfer of technologies, there is one key reason why you can’t see much of the racing technology being implemented in commercial vehicles: funding.

Most F1™ teams receive unlimited funding. And to see new technologies implemented in commercial vehicles, manufacturers need to factor in price and market viability.

And although personnel from an F1™ racing team can be moved to the commercial division, these specialists must also take into account the resources available to them, including plant facilities and current processes.

One racing team that has found success in transferring racetrack technologies toward its commercial output is Mercedes. Mercedes has been known to provide slots in its racing team for specialists from its commercial division. Furthermore, its commercial and F1™ teams have been known to come together in developing and testing new technologies for the racetrack and the road.

F1™ Racing

This transfer of technology is not one way. If you survey the long history of F1™, you will notice improvements being made on commercial vehicle technology to make it better suited for the racetrack.

One of the earliest examples of that is Renault’s move to use a double overhead camshaft from an overhead camshaft way back in 1912. This translated to a combination of higher speed and improved airflow restriction.

From the racetrack to the highway and back

Which areas have seen an exchange in technologies between race cars and commercial cars? Here are some of the most noteworthy.

Carbon fiber technology

On the racetrack, the lighter the vehicle, theoretically speaking, the faster it can run. This is why there has been a veritable arms race among F1™ teams to build the lightest cars. However, that light weight almost always comes with a significant tradeoff: weakness in the material.

McLaren is credited as the first team to use carbon fiber technology in 1981, with its use of the material to create a single-piece monocoque with John Watson on the driver’s seat. That foray resulted in the destruction of Watson’s vehicle in the Italian Grand Prix. Luckily, the driver was able to survive the crash, partly because of the strength of the carbon fiber used.

Today, many race cars use carbon fiber. That technology has trickled down to commercial vehicles, albeit in a limited sense due to the steep price of the material and production. Commercial vehicles using the material boast of low weight and high rigidity.

Semi-automatic transmission

The semi-automatic transmission system that can be seen in many high-end cars traces its roots to F1™ Racing, specifically, from Chrysler’s early attempts in the 1940s.

This initial attempt did not gain much traction due to the complexity of the system as well as the poor reception from race car drivers during that period.

Ferrari sought to update the semi-automatic transmission system during the 1980s. Although that system is now considered revolutionary for enabling drivers to change gears seamlessly, the Italian car manufacturer faced a few key challenges.

The following decade, most race cars had moved to this transmission system, credited for substantially reducing accidental gear changes which translated to a loss of speed.

In commercial vehicles, the use of a semi-automatic gearbox prevented some issues related to acceleration and fuel efficiency. Also, the addition of paddles to the steering wheel allowed drivers to change gears without having to sacrifice speed and forgo the challenge of working the clutch.

Hybrid engines

To attract more car manufacturers, Formula One™ announced the move to 1.6-liter V6 turbo engines from 2.4-liter V8 engines. The new engines were partnered with an energy recovery system or ERS. The primary function of the ERS is to eliminate turbo lag while providing an extra boost.

For race cars, this transition meant a few things. For one, the new engine allows the race cars to recycle kinetic energy from their brakes, and second, enables the cars to get heat energy from their exhaust system.

What this means for the average driver is that you can expect more fuel-efficient cars joining the foray through the combination of hybrid technology and internal combustion engines.

How the average driver benefits from F1™ Racing

Although the goals of a race car and your ordinary driver may seem disparate, in the end, it’s you that wins. A race car driver may have one goal in mind – winning the championship – the technologies brought to life in the racetrack can translate to consumer vehicles that are safer, more fuel-efficient, and eco-friendly.

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