After a 2-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the F1 Grand Prix is set to return to the streets of Marina Bay on 30 September. While most of us look forward to watching fast cars zoom around the city and attending an F1 concert, let’s take a look at how innovation in the circuits of F1 has actually contributed to real-world usage over the decades.
For example, McLaren developed a whole division — McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) — that adapted the race car’s telemetry and control technology to other industries like healthcare and transportation. It’s no wonder that Mercedes calls F1 innovation the “fastest R&D lab in the world”.
Here are some very obvious examples of F1 innovation used in our road cars:
Aerodynamic designs: Today’s sleek vehicle bodies were adapted from the race track to the city streets, designed to reduce drag and improve fuel economy.
Those big wing-like spoilers on the front and back of F1 cars are designed to push it down onto the track, providing so much down-force you could theoretically drive an F1 car upside down in a tunnel.
Disc Brakes: You’ll find disc brakes in cars of today, which slows a vehicle down by squeezing brake pads on to a disc attached to the wheel.
Disc brakes were invented for F1 cars in the 1950s, which gradually replaced drum brakes because from an F1 perspective, they cool more readily and have better feel than drum brakes, as well as being less likely to lock up.
Regenerative braking: Regenerative braking takes the wasted energy from the braking process and uses it to recharge the car’s batteries. At present, these kinds of brakes are primarily found in hybrid and fully electric cars, because keeping the battery charged is of considerable importance. The technology has also found its way into hybrid drive-trains and public transportation vehicles.
The technology was pioneered in 2009, when a number of F1 teams started using a braking system called kinetic energy recovery system (KERS).
Adaptive suspensions: Independent wheel suspension is now common in road cars, especially if they have different driving modes like “sport” and “comfort.”
It was first developed by Colin Chapman’s Lotus team in the 1980s to maintain an F1 car’s ride height at a constant level, maximising its downforce, grip and aerodynamic efficiency. It didn’t take long for other manufacturers to follow suit.
Rearview mirror: This innovated dates back to the early 1900s, when race cars needed two people in the vehicle, and the person in the back seat – the “ride mechanic” – was tasked with looking behind just to see what’s up.
In order to make the car lighter and faster, driver Ray Harroun ditched the ride mechanic in 1911 in favour of a rear-view mirror. He won the race (probably to the chagrin of ride mechanics). The NYT says “it was, quite possibly, the first rear-view mirror on a motorcar.”
Paddle shifts: Some cars these days use paddle shifts (the gears located just behind either side of the steering wheel), so that you don’t have to move your had to the stick shift next to your seat. This makes changing gears faster and safer – you simply squeeze the paddles to shift the transmission.
This paddle-shift innovation was first used on F1 cars – made by Ferrari in the 1980s – to ensure drivers keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
Steering wheel buttons: Ever wondered about those buttons on a steering wheel that you can use to control the speaker volume or cruise control? The trend began in the 1970s, and has become more widespread these days because it gives drivers a lot of convenience.
For F1 drivers, having every button and control on the steering wheel makes a lot of sense when they’re travelling at 300km/h.
Other areas F1 innovation has spilled into
F1 innovation has also spilled into other essential industries, from healthcare to manufacturing.
Hospitals: In the mid-90s, the Ferrari F1 pit crew team helped a children’s hospital in the UK improve its ICU hand-off process. After observing the surgery room operation, the F1 team suggested a new protocol: adding a “lollipop man” to the surgical team. A lollipop man is someone that holds a sign on a stick and only waves a driver through after ensuring everyone else on the team has put the tires on. After changing its protocol, the hospital’s error rate dropped from 30% to 10%.
The Williams F1 pit team similarly helped a hospital in Wales improve its neonatal resuscitation process.
Manufacturing: In 2011, pharma company GSK improved its toothpaste manufacturing line with the help of McLaren’s pit stop practices. Following McLaren’s input, the manufacturing capacity squeezed out “an additional 6.7m tubes of toothpaste a year.”
Connectivity & Data: An F1 car produces 500GB of telemetry over a race weekend, and the team’s car factory shoots out 10TB of data a week! Obviously, dealing with this amount of data has a number of real-world applications – including a wireless uplink technology to transfer race data to the team. This innovation is now used in smartphones.