MPH: F1's raft of innovations to tackle the coronavirus crisis


F1 has had its first 'Project Pitlane' success with a breathing aid for the NHS. With more innovations to come, teams could have a real impact in saving lives, says Mark Hughes

Ventilator engineering

Project Pitlane – F1’s response to the call to arms by the British government for technology to alleviate the coronavirus pandemic – has had its first significant success. A breathing aid device jointly developed by Mercedes High Performance Power Trains and clinicians at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) has been approved for trials. It is currently being tried in three London hospitals and, if passed for widespread use, is set to go into production next week at the rate of 1,000 units per day. This is just the first of what are set to be many responses to the crisis by F1 Project Pitlane, an initiative that is being co-ordinated by the Renault F1 team, with six others teams – Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Williams, Racing Point, Haas – taking on projects within it.

The UCLH press release gives some details of the device Mercedes has helped reverse engineer in less than 100 hours. “The breathing aid, known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), has been used extensively in hospitals in Italy and China to help Covid-19 patients with serious lung infections to breathe more easily, when oxygen alone is insufficient.

In terms of the sport’s perceived contribution to society, this is surely going to dwarf anything achieved by hybrid power units

“Since Wednesday 18th March, engineers at UCL and HPP and clinicians at UCLH have been working round the clock at UCL’s engineering hub MechSpace to reverse engineer a device that can be produced rapidly by the thousands. This has now been recommended for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).”

The CPAP devices are complementary to the full intensive care unit ventilators – of which there are insufficient to cope with expected demand – and could perform an absolutely crucial role in saving lives by reducing demand on the full ICU equipment. Experience in Italy suggests that 50 per cent of patients given a CPAP treatment have avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation. They are also portable. “These devices will help save lives by ensuring the ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill,” says UCLH critical care consultant Prof Mervyn Singer. “They will make a real difference to hospitals across the UK by reducing demand on intensive care staff and beds.”

Patient with CPAP machine

Patient using a CPAP device

Formula One is staffed by such brilliant minds and equipped with such stunning levels of engineering resource that it’s the obvious place to answer this sort of quick response engineering challenge. It also has a can-do attitude a million miles in advance of the everyday world – a perfect combination for a response to this crisis. Prof Tim Baker of UCL Mechanical Engineering has said, “We are thankful that we were able to reduce a process that could take years down to a matter of days. From being given the brief, we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analysing an off-patent device. Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production.”

Related article

Mercedes HPP boss Andy Cowell: “The Formula One community has shown an impressive response to the call for support, coming together in the ‘Project Pitlane’ collective to support the national need at this time across a number of different projects. We have been proud to put our resources at the service of UCL to deliver the CPAP project to the highest standards and in the fastest possible timeframe.”

In terms of the sport’s perceived contribution to society, this is surely going to dwarf anything achieved by the adoption and development of hybrid power units for the last six years.

The Mercedes device is just the first of what is set to be many innovations to tackle the crisis. Red Bull is working on an entirely new device while other teams – including McLaren and Williams – are focused on helping existing medical equipment companies scale up their production from a few units per week to hundreds per day. Stand by for a whole raft of F1-led innovations and upgrades. The energy usually devoted to stealing a tenth of a second on a rival is now being channelled into saving as many lives as possible, with the teams co-ordinating and co-operating rather than competing.

The hope is F1 can help play its part in getting the world – and the sport – out of the hole in which it finds itself.