With contributions by Michael Accardi
One of the most misunderstood stereotypes about top-level racing series is that technology developed on the track eventually finds its way into road cars.
That was certainly the case 100 years ago, when the internal combustion engine was still an untamed technology, and up to as recently as 15 years ago when dual-clutch transmissions started showing up in road cars. Now, though, outside of hard-core performance cars, you could go so far as to say that it’s on its way out, waiting to be replaced by electric motors.
How much relevance does a series like Formula 1 really have to modern cars that are more concerned about efficiency than speed? As it turns out, quite a lot. And it’s not even limited to cars. For brands like Infiniti and McLaren, Formula 1’s crucible of competition culture is an invaluable learning resource which holds any number of real world applications.
Far from the big, thirsty V10s of yesteryear, F1 power units are now shockingly efficient. Cyril Abiteboul, Managing Director of the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team, explains that the engine you have in your car is likely to use 30 to 35 percent of the energy stored in a drop of fuel. The dual-hybrid V6s used in F1 last season, by comparison, were among the most efficient internal combustion engines ever produced, making use of nearly 50 percent of the energy contained in every drop of fuel. That efficiency is achieved through the use hybrid systems that harvest energy wasted by the engine and turn it into electric power that helps turn the wheels.
Harvesting energy isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon. Your average road-going hybrid harvests energy while you’re slowing down to help recharge its batteries. Formula 1 cars do that, too, but they also convert heat from the car’s exhaust into usable energy. Together, the F1 engine’s energy recovery systems account for about 160 hp and help the cars use about 35 percent less fuel during a race.
Now Infiniti wants to put a similar, “dual-hybrid” system into a road car. Working together with Renault Sport F1, Infiniti is embarking on what it calls Project Black S.
Wind the clock back four years to the 2013 F1 season and Infiniti’s involvement in the sport was pretty much limited to the sticker they placed on the side of Infiniti Red Bull Racing team’s car. That turned out to be a great branding opportunity for Infinti since “Hungry Heidi” would eventually earn Sebastien Vettel a fourth World Drivers’ Championship title. Every two weeks for nine months, millions of people around the world tuned in to watch a Grand Prix and saw Infiniti’s logo on the leading car. According to the automaker, the advertising value of the arrangement was worth billions.
But at the time, Infiniti was just a sponsor. The cars Vettel was selling in ads had little to nothing in common with the utterly dominant Red Bull RB9. But when the Renault-Nissan Alliance decided to start making its own F1 cars again and enter the series as a team in 2016, Infiniti came along for the ride as a technical partner.
With the move came a shift in the brand’s responsibilities. Not only would the name appear on the F1 car, but Infiniti engineers would be embedded in the team’s Viry-Châtillon engine factory in France to develop the Renault R.S.16’s hybrid electric recovery system.
“We are working to transpose Formula 1 technology to a road legal car,” says Abiteboul, hastening to explain that the technology will be inspired by the Formula 1 system, rather than copied exactly. But the Q60 Project Black S will harvest the energy that would normally be wasted as heat, a definite first for road legal cars.
The technology won’t just make the engine more powerful, it will make the power more useful, too. “Unlike in other cars where there is only boost for a couple of seconds, we wanted to make boost that is sustainable around the lap, or around multiple laps,” says Abiteboul. “The only way we could do that was to harvest energy, not only from the braking but also from the heat that is being made from the exhaust. That is exactly the technology that is being used in Formula 1.”
As Tommaso Volpe, Infiniti Global Motorsport Director, puts it, the ability to put a tangible, new F1-derived technology into its cars is lending the brand credibility. “We’re using F1 to deliver a message of performance [and] engineering expertise,” he says.
But, while it’s nice to have a tangible part to point to, F1 involvement brings much more nebulous advantages to Infiniti, too. Formula 1 teams have long been designing cars with the help of mathematical models and simulations. Before a car ever hits the track its parts have been tested ruthlessly on the computer. And it’s that same technology that Abiteboul says his F1 team used on the Q60 Black S.
“Our focus has been simulation, modeling, performance testing, designing the pieces so that we can squeeze them into the Q60,” he says. Once the car is designed, the modeling doesn’t stop. At every track the teams are designing engine maps to make the cars run as efficiently and quickly as possible. “So when we come to a track, we are basically doing a couple of sweeps to figure out how we will be using energy around the track and then we make sure that our simulations were correct at the track. That is exactly what we will transpose to the driving modes for the actual car.”
Formula 1 teams’ mathematical models aren’t just finding their way into cars, either. Since 2004 McLaren’s most profitable business has been applying F1’s working methods and culture of innovation to improve businesses.
Steve Henry, who came over from Woking to oversee the Eastern seaboard for McLaren North America, tells us how in 2014 McLaren helped develop a real-time software for Heathrow Airport based on its pit-stop prediction algorithm. “It’s basically just a mapping tool per se; you’ve got all these different inputs, so what’s the most efficient way to get planes to land on these two runways that we’ve got over a period of time using Formula 1 forecasting tools.”
“It’s quite an interesting adaptation of Formula 1 technology. That forecasting tool of where cars are going to finish based on all these different inputs, and then you put it into a different industry and see how it works,” Added Henry.
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Or there’s the case of GlaxoSmithKline: the makers of toothpaste were losing roughly 30 minutes of work every time the product changed over. Instead, the Applied Technologies Division showed them how to approach changeovers like F1 pitstops, which has resulted in over 20 million more tubes of toothpaste made every year.
And if that’s not sexy enough for you, remember last year when it was rumored Apple was considering buying McLaren and that high-level talks were already under way? The story couldn’t be more flawed, as according to Henry, Apple wasn’t trying to buy McLaren, it allegedly wanted the Applied Technology Division to consult on an undisclosed project.
Only the future can tell what other innovations F1 teams can extend to road cars and the technology we use every day.