For 70 years, Formula One has been profoundly shaped by engineers. Their innovations, in turn, have shaped the technology that has gone into the consumer automobile market.
The first Formula One drivers’ championship race took place at Silverstone, UK, on 13 May 1950.
Giuseppe Farina won it in an Alfa Romeo. The second and third place drivers drove the same make of car.
Alfa Romeo entered four cars into that race; Maserati had seven. The other manufacturers — Talbot-Lago, Alta and English Racing Automobiles — would go out of business by the end of the decade.
Seventy years on and F1 is dominated by automotive giants like Mercedes, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault. Honda provides engines for two teams. And, despite the electrification agenda in the automotive industry, and the COVID-19 crisis, the sport that is more than just a sport is still going strong.
F1 races started in 1946 in Turin, though motor racing existed as far back as 1895. But a decision by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the world governing body for F1) in 1950 to start a competition between the world’s greatest drivers took F1 to another level.
The likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, and Australian champions Alan Jones and Jack Brabham, would become world famous names.
Fans watched the races live and on television in their millions. And with the eyes of the world on the sport, automotive manufacturers saw an opportunity.
“Formula One provided manufacturers with real life facilities where they could test their technology at the absolute cutting edge,” said Richard Hopkins, former Head of Operations for Red Bull Racing and current Professor of Practice at the University of New South Wales, where he heads the Future Vehicles hub for student-led projects.
“If technology succeeds in F1 and is reliable and safe, the chances are it will also be successful in road cars.”
High-performing oils and cleaning agents in fuels originated in F1. So did rear-view mirrors and active suspension, which raises and lowers the chassis at each wheel to enable a smoother ride on rougher terrain, as well as side skirts and aerodynamic features that reduce drag.
Direct shift gearboxes, developed in F1, are now common in road cars, allowing drivers to change gears quickly and efficiently.
In 1989, the first F1 cars fitted gear-change paddles behind the steering wheel. This meant that drivers didn’t have to take their hands off the steering wheel to change gear.
Kinetic energy recovery systems, introduced into F1 cars in 2009, are now used in hybrid road vehicles. This is a way of collecting a moving vehicle’s kinetic energy while braking, storing it, either in a flywheel or high-voltage battery, and using it when the vehicle accelerates.
Hopkins explained that the ultra-competitive nature of F1 drives innovation at such a rapid pace.
“There are over 20,000 individual components on a F1 car, and each is being looked at daily for minute improvements,” he said.
“The competitive advantage could be as small as one tenth of a second or even one hundredth,” said Dr Sam Diasinos, a former CFD engineer with the Toyota, Williams and Caterham F1 teams.
“Anything to secure an edge over rivals on the racetrack and in the marketplace.”
Time in the sun
Diasinos worked with the Toyota F1 team in Cologne, Germany, where he developed a less sensitively steered front wing for the Toyota TF108, and also a TF109 front wing with slotted endplates, which was eventually adopted by all other teams competing in F1.
On returning to Australia, Diasinos provided aerodynamic and design advice for the UNSW Solar Car, Sunswift eVe, which took the FIA land speed record for the fastest electric vehicle to complete a distance of 500 km.
F1 teams employ a wide range of engineers, including specialists in engine performance, engine systems and with qualifications in aerospace, mechanical, electrical, software, chemical, materials science, computer and aerodynamics.
James Bryant, a model design engineer with the Renault F1 team, said that Renault employs its engineers in small groups, each focusing on one particular area — the engine, the gearbox, 3D printing, IT, simulation.
“F1 engineers are not just ‘car nuts’; they also want to be good engineers,” says Bryant, who holds an automotive engineering degree from RMIT University.
“They are trying to produce the best race car, of course, but also the best engineering design, the best principles, the best way of approaching a problem.”
“There are over 20,000 individual components on a F1 car, and each is being looked at daily for minute improvements.”
It’s this pursuit of excellence that has enabled F1 innovations to benefit other industries.
Expertise in carbon fibre technology and aerodynamics has been used in sailing, cycling and bobsleigh. F1 sensors and data tools are being used to develop connected road and rail infrastructure in cities, assist air traffic control, avoid congestion and enable hospital staff to monitor patients in intensive care wards. GlaxoSmithKline uses F1 pit stop systems to make its production lines more efficient, as have some hospitals to improve emergency procedures.
For 70 years, Formula One has embodied the pinnacle of what an internal combustion engine powered vehicle could achieve.
Over the past few years, however, 14 countries have announced their intention to ban fossil-fuel vehicles at some point during the next 20 years.
Formula E, electric vehicle racing, emerged five years ago, to give car manufacturers like Mercedes, Porsche and BMW an opportunity to test their electric technology in a high-performance environment.
Formula E manufacturers can build their own powertrains — the electric motor, inverter, motor generator units, gearbox, rear suspension and cooling system. These are the parts of the car that convert power into movement.
Hopkins believes that F1 will continue despite electrification and the rise of Formula E.
“What Formula One gives back to the automotive industry, these days, is not as obvious as at the pinnacle of F1 engineering in the 1960s and 70s, but the influence is still there — just more subtle,” he said.
“F1 still leads the way in materials science, 3D printing, advanced manufacturing, rapid prototyping.”
For instance, the modern F1 chassis is made largely of carbon fibre composites. Once production costs come down, super-light and strong carbon fibre chassis used in F1 might become more common in road vehicles.
Teams are also researching new green fuels, but Bryant said that, at Renault, this is so top secret that not even he is allowed to know about it.
“Every F1 team has its research and development team working on stuff that’s not even on the car yet,” he said.
Hopkins thinks that F1 will adopt some electrical technologies but can’t see the sport disappearing anytime soon.
“F1 is a product of the human pursuit of excellence and perfection, a reflection of our drive to do better on a daily basis,” he said.
“There’s something primeval about that pursuit. It’s the same reason we don’t live in caves anymore.”
“F1 is a product of the human pursuit of excellence and perfection, a reflection of
our drive to do better on a daily basis.”
F1 in schools
Design and make a miniature F1 car capable of going 0-80 km per hour in under one second.
That’s the challenge that has children in more than 17,000 schools in 51 countries eagerly applying their STEM skills in the hope of being crowned world champion.
The program originated in 2003 in Australia, where around 22,000 students take part each year.
“Groups of students follow the same engineering, design and manufacturing disciplines as an actual Formula One team,” said Michael Myers, Founder and Chairman of Re-Engineering Australia, which established the project in 1998.
“Kids learn the skills they need to move forward into a STEM-related career.”
Starting in kindergarten and going through to Year 12, students learn about STEM in a real-world context.
From Year Seven, when the competitions start, students develop skills in problem solving, project management, communication, presentation, teamwork, innovation, self-promotion, collaboration, marketing and entrepreneurialism. The world final winners get a university engineering scholarship in London.
“To motivate children, you’ve got to use things that are of interest to them,” Myers said.
Formula One safety timeline
“F1 safety used to be shockingly bad,” Hopkins said.
“There was a time when organisers wondered whether fans watched the sport for the racing or for the crashes and the gory details.”
Over 70 years of F1, 52 drivers have lost their lives — 42 of them between 1950 and 1982.
At the first ever Grand Prix in 1950, there was neither medical back-up nor safety measures to prevent accidents. Drivers wore cloth caps and goggles.
In the 1960s, seat belts, full-face helmets and overalls for drivers became mandatory, barriers were improved and medical teams placed on standby.
In the 1970s, the cockpit was made big enough for the driver to escape and wing mirrors were placed on cars.
In the 1980s, the monocoque — the driver’s survival cell — was made out of carbon fibre rather than aluminium to provide more protection upon impact.
Since 1993, F1 has used a safety car to keep speeds down and stop overtaking when there are hazards on the track.
After the deaths of drivers Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, organisers banned traction control systems to slow the cars down.
Impact-absorbing headrests and grooved tyres were introduced a few years later. So was an accident data recorder to help medical teams assess the severity of any injury.
Since the early 2000s, drivers have had to wear fire-resistant carbon fibre helmets, tested to withstand impacts, heat-resistant overalls and have a carbon fibre device attached to the helmet and their collar that prevents their head from moving and their neck from hyper-extending.
A driver-facing camera was introduced in 2016 and, in 2018, drivers were given biometric gloves that transmit blood and oxygen levels to medical personnel, who can then decide how quickly an injured driver should be extracted.
Since 2018, cars have been fitted with a cockpit protection device called a halo, which protects the driver’s head from flying debris.
This article first appeared as “More than a sport” in the November-December 2020 issue of create magazine.