Why innovation matters in F1 - and always should

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Pat Symonds

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Advanced technologies developed in Formula 1 have long benefited the wider world – no matter how restrictive the rules are
Not all sports need to have spectator appeal. The young lad playing football for his village team is happy to play in front of a handful of friends. The amateur golfer slicing yet another ball into a water hazard is doubtless thankful there are no spectators. Even in our own sport, one can find a driver who will be wildly throwing his home-built 750 Formula car around Mallory Park on a cold and damp autumn day. He will probably be supported only by his long-suffering wife or girlfriend and a mechanic from the local garage who tends the race car by way of a break from the tedium of servicing dirty, clapped out family saloons during the week.
Formula 1 is different. It absolutely relies on a global audience. It is not unusual for race day spectators to be well in excess of 100,000, but it is the television viewers that matter and they now number around 600 million for each race. To put this in context, FIFA estimated that 700 million watched the 2010 World Cup final, an event that only happens once every four years. The ability of F1 to attract such audiences 19 times a year proves the strength of the brand.
But what makes Formula 1 different to other forms of motor sport? The break-even budget for a GP2 team is around €1.8 million (£1.5m). In F1 even Lotus had a budget of €64m (£54m) last season, while the average budget in 2010 has been quoted as €150m (£127m). How can these vast disparities be explained? Of course drivers’ salaries consume a disproportionate amount of the top F1 teams’ expenditure and no other series travels the world as much in a season of racing, but it is the engineering superiority of F1 that really accounts for such huge sums.
Formula 1’s success relies on a unique combination of factors that allow it to differentiate itself, and among those factors that are high on the list are technical excellence and innovation. The very DNA of F1 has embraced this hi-tech aspect from the early days. For true success in Grand Prix racing the engineering team has always been of similar importance to the driver, and never has that been more true than today. That engineering team and the tools of their trade do not come cheap.
It is often asked whether F1 engineering has road relevance or indeed whether it can contribute to society as a whole. The answer is undoubtedly yes, but sometimes in ways that are more subtle than the immediately obvious. It is of course true that very specific new technologies are passed from motor sport to road cars, and examples abound from low rolling resistance tyres to automated manual gearboxes. The subtle implications are often harder to spot.
Three decades ago it was a generalisation that racing engines had four valves per cylinder, twin overhead camshafts and fuel injection. Road car engines of that era had two valves per cylinder, which were operated by pushrods and the mixture was introduced through a carburettor. Today, almost every road engine in the world has an architecture based directly on those racing engines of yesterday. This may not necessarily be for precisely the same reason, but nevertheless, just as racing engine designers sought everimproving efficiency to produce more torque or power, so road car engine designers today seek that same efficiency to reduce fuel consumption and pollutants. In doing so they mimicked the highly developed layout of the racing engine.
The current generation of F1 engines have taken things further still and have a thermal efficiency of around 30 per cent. It may not sound much, but few petrol road engines will approach this. The methods that are used, such as going to great lengths to reduce friction, will undoubtedly soon be applied to road engines, further improving their efficiency and therefore reducing the demand for fossil fuels and decreasing CO2 emissions.
In other areas F1 makes equally fruitful contributions. It pioneered the popular use of carbon fibre, for example, taking it out of the military research labs and putting it to use to improve both performance and safety. It should not be underestimated how much the motor sport industry contributed to the development of different fibre types and resin systems, as well as the all-important production and inspection techniques that are now allowing the material to find its way into mainstream automotive and aircraft design. Even in the much more mature field of metallurgy, F1 has developed gear steels with improved properties and has been instrumental in the development of advanced metal matrix materials, specifically very high strength, lightweight aluminium composites.

In more esoteric domains F1 continues to excel. The world is focused on fossil fuel usage and carbon dioxide emissions. In road cars, depending on whether they are driven in an urban environment or on the open road, a 10 per cent reduction in drag can improve fuel consumption by between two and three and a half per cent. In recent years we have seen drag coefficients of road cars reduce by close to 25 per cent with a consequent large improvement in fuel consumption. Many of the methodologies used to achieve this such as advanced wind tunnel testing techniques and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) have come directly from advances made in F1.
CFD in particular has seen huge improvements in efficiency in recent years with significant advances coming from F1. Work done by Renault in conjunction with Boeing increased the speed of Boeing’s CFD optimisation by a factor of 30. This in turn allowed it to predict drag reductions of two to three per cent on passenger aircraft, which will bring about a €255,000 (£215,000) saving on fuel per transatlantic aircraft per year. CFD is also a primary tool in engine research, being responsible for continuing improvements in lean-burn engines with consequent gains in fuel economy.
Improvements in this technology are not just restricted to transportation. CFD is used in climate modelling, flood prediction and, of particular interest these days, the modelling of the complex airflow in wind farms.
The innovation and lateral thinking that have spawned these advances have always been welcomed in F1. In the early ’80s I worked for the Toleman team. We were new to the highest echelon of the sport having previously won the European F2 title. Our ambitions were high and our technical vision advanced but our accomplishment was low — we had underestimated the enormous jump that F1 represented.
After two seasons of under-achievement we were presented with a totally new set of rules for 1983 when the FIA banned ground effect aerodynamics. We thought long and hard about the requirements for this new formula and came up with a very unconventional car that took us from the back of the grid in 1982 to being fastest in pre-season testing in ’83. It was done through innovative design and lateral thinking. It was very pleasing that our competitors recognised our achievement, offered perfunctory congratulations and then rushed off to implement their own interpretation of our ideas.
As a chassis engineer, I believe that a decade later, in 1993, we had the ultimate cars. Active suspension was a necessity to be at the front of the field and on our own car we had a particularly novel four-wheel steer system that Michael Schumacher exploited to the full. I thoroughly enjoyed conceiving and developing those systems and was very sorry when they were banned for ’94. All was not lost, though, because one thing that no amount of regulation can dictate is ambition. It is impossible to ‘un-invent’ anything. Give an engineer a sniff of how he can get closer to perfection and he will pursue that route relentlessly. Tell him that he can no longer follow that route and before you know it he’ll have found a different way of achieving the same objective. The computer-aided engineering tools and electronic systems that had become a prerequisite for active suspension were turned to improving and perfecting the passive systems that we had to adopt from 1994 onwards.
The change in attitude that accompanied the ’94 restrictions was, unfortunately, reinforced by the tragic events in Imola that year. Regulations became more and more prescriptive, and it seemed that the incentive for innovation had been snuffed out. The 1983 technical regulations ran to a total of 11 pages. In 2010 they were 67 pages, with a 62-page appendix. In addition there is a legacy of countless ‘technical directives’ which are sent to the teams every year but which stay out of the public eye.
One might think that such a huge increase in regulation detail would extinguish any attempt at innovation, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a fact, though, that prescription sometimes leads to perverse thinking to overcome the detail of the rules. An example of this was the front torque transfer system adopted by Benetton in the late ’90s and refined by BAR some years later. This linked the rotation of the front wheels by means of driveshafts and a special differential so that torque was transferred from the slower rotating inside wheel to the faster rotating outside wheel. As such it inhibited the tendency of the inside front wheel to lock as the driver braked deep into a corner. Such a complex and obtuse system only existed because the rules forbade conventional anti-lock braking systems. After a short life this system too was banned.
While the torque transfer system was genuinely novel, sometimes old ideas are revisited and adapted to the needs of F1. An illustration of this was a system pioneered by Renault in 2005 named the tuned mass damper. Ever since active suspension was banned engineers had been seeking ever more intricate systems to improve the ride of the cars. On anything other than a billiard table-smooth surface, good ride equals good grip and, contrary to belief, race tracks are anything but smooth. The tuned mass damper consists of a weight suspended between two springs and mounted to the chassis. The characteristics of the system are precisely designed so that the weight moves in the opposite direction to the chassis at a particular frequency. In doing so it tends to dampen any vibration at that frequency thereby improving tyre grip and ultimate performance.
In 2006, after some objections from other competitors, the FIA ruled that such devices were no longer permitted within the F1 regulations. Renault appealed the decision and had to build a defence case. During the research into the history of the devices we found to our surprise a reference to their use in an Auto car magazine dated September 29, 1933. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun. However, in spite of our eloquent arguments, the tuned mass damper was deemed impermissible by the FIA Court of Appeal.
As recently as this past season, the enigmatically-named F-duct has demonstrated that designers are not short of innovation. This device exploited a couple of clever ideas in fluid dynamics to shed drag from the cars when they were on the straight. With the regulations being clear that, with a few well-defined exceptions, any part of the car that influences the aerodynamic performance must remain immobile in relation to the chassis, the challenge was to find a way to operate the device when needed. With rule interpretation coming down more and more to semantics, it was argued that an action by the driver could not be interpreted as a moveable aerodynamic device! The argument was accepted by the FIA and the F-duct was deemed legal for 2010. A revision to the rules to close this loophole and ban the F-duct has been agreed by consent for 2011.
This continual invention, development and subsequent banning of innovative ideas may seem counterproductive, but it is not. With so little room for innovation in most other forms of racing it is important that F1 remains a breeding ground for ideas no matter how perverse. It is, after all, part of that very DNA that makes F1 the success it is today. If the use of tuned mass dampers has reminded road car designers of a cheap and effective way of improving ride than it has had some benefit. If the publicity surrounding the F-duct has caused road car aerodynamicists to examine that particular avenue of active aerodynamics then that too will have a beneficial impact.

In 2009 the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) undertook a survey which was unique in that it sampled a true cross section of avid, moderate and occasional fans from 17 different countries. It showed clearly that F1 has an advanced technological image which those fans expect to be retained. In fact, in terms of the hierarchy of factors that attracted all types of supporter to F1, it ranked fourth-highest and, surprisingly, was rated by infrequent followers as being on a par with overtaking as an attraction of the sport.
Clearly it is vital that advanced and innovative technology remains a fundamental and central part of the ethos of F1. Furthermore I believe that the technology can, and should, be guided in certain directions. I am pleased to see with initiatives such as KERS and engine downsizing that guidance is being directed toward environmental issues. While I don’t believe it is the duty of F1 to solve the automotive problems of the world, I equally don’t think it will do the sport any harm to be seen to be assisting in this way. As environmental problems become more on the general public’s agenda rather than being confined to a minority of activists, we need to be careful that we don’t receive a backlash of negative thinking about our sport.
This can be avoided by a generalised push in the direction that the motor industry focus groups are going, but above all we must recognise that fuel use and greenhouse gas emission reductions will come about through improvements in efficiency. The same efficiency that has been the holy grail of motor sport engineering since competition began. With breakthrough technologies still some decades away, efficiency of fuel burn and reductions in the myriad of losses that squander the energy content of that fuel will benefit all of society.
If we want Formula 1 to play a part in that society we need to be careful to preserve what is good, and that means encouraging and rewarding technical innovation and excellence. While in this age of austerity we need to be mindful of cost, and an element of regulation is required to contain costs, above all we need to encourage innovation. However, unlike the F1 of today where every aspect of the engineering is a closelyguarded secret, we need to be vociferous in telling the world what a great job the sport is doing and how, while providing thrilling entertainment, it is showing true corporate responsibility as we tread the tortuous path to sustainability.

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