How Formula 1 helped make Tesla technology possible

2019 F1 season

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Formula 1’s rate of development now outstrips that found in other major industries and has helped pioneering advances in electric motoring, according to Williams’ Paddy Lowe.

The advances made in hybrid power, which was first introduced to F1 a decade ago, is an example of how F1 technology has contributed to major advances in road car development, Lowe explained in response to a question from RaceFans.

“If you look at lithium ion batteries, when we did KERS for 2009, when we started that in 2007 there was no way it was going to be an electrical solution. It wasn’t even in the game. It was going to be flywheel.

“The thing was power density at the time, that was the limit, not energy from the battery. And we delivered power density 100 times what had been expected. And that’s, in my view, the reason why nowadays we have Teslas. These cars that are out on the road need power density from the battery and that came from Formula 1.”

F1 teams budgets have risen substantially since Lowe arrived in the sport, which he says has raised the level of technological development.

“The teams are more professional than they ever were, they’re better funded. Whilst we complain about [being] always short of money, they’ve been saying for 30 years or more.

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Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren MP4/24 launch, 2009
Lowe worked on F1’s first race-winning hybrid
“There are issues with the distribution which we all know. The balance of funding across the grid is the big issue. But in general within that every team, even the most poorly-funded team, is very well-funded compared to how they were in the past.

“That is translated into the most fantastic engineering professionally applied like it never was before. So the sport keeps growing commercially and it keeps growing technically.”

One of Lowe’s earliest roles in F1 was at Williams when he helped developed cars such as the ground-breaking active suspension FW14B. He described how the teams’ capacity for development was much cruder by today’s standards.

“We were limited by our ability and our imagination as to what we could do on the cars technically. I describe those days, my early days, as the ‘Wild West’ because you could come in in the morning having thought about something in the shower – ‘let’s have traction control or power steering or an active differential’ – and there was no limitation in the rule. You just went and did it.

“The only thing was we didn’t actually have such a great capability to deliver it very well. So whilst it’s an exciting time back then we didn’t do things very well. I was very frustrated with what a bad job we did things back then.

Riccardo Patrese, Imola, Williams, 1992
F1 development was once a “Wild West”, says Lowe
“Now it’s completely flipped so if you see any gap in the regulation we can jump on it and within days deliver something of technical excellence, extraordinary excellence, once you see the opportunity.”

F1 now serves as an example to other industries of cutting-edge technological development, says Lowe. “But looking at the world at large back then we were well behind other comparable industries: aerospace industry, aircraft massively more advanced than racing cars.

“Now in many respects it’s the other way around. Those industries come and look at us because we are just if not more sophisticated and are able to deliver it faster because we’re not constrained – many of those other players are constrained by external safety [regulations] and we’re self-certifying generally on safety.

“We’re motivated and funded to win so there’s a strong competitive drive on TV every two weeks so we really get things done. As you know people write books about that nowadays: if you want to get something done, give it to Formula 1.”

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 27 comments on “How Formula 1 helped make Tesla technology possible”

    1. How? Tesla Roadster prototype were officially revealed to the public on 2006 and in that same year got Time’s Best Transportation Invention.

      1. Plus Tesla along with their partner Panasonic, develop their own batteries. I am pretty sure the commercial sector fed in to F1 with regard to batteries, not the other way around.

    2. @keithcollantine

      It would be nice to add some perspective below this interview. Obviously formula one didn’t develop higer power density, automotive company did this all by themselves, ergo they funded billions of research.. what formula one did was irrelevant in comparison.

      1. @maxv
        No it isnt irrelevant at all, F1 is spearheading this developement by using prototypes and experimental equipment.

        The real push where all the automotives billions go is making what is used in top end racing and aerospace affordable to put in things like a tesla.

    3. Between the automotive OEMs and the entire consumer electronics industry, the R&D effort on batteries has been immense. This is the most myopic thing I’ve heard coming out of F1 in a long time, and that’s saying something!

    4. I lost respect for Lowe the moment he said that more powerful DRS was a good thing. Not sure this interview does anything to change that… what bizarre claims he makes!

    5. Well, that sheds some light on Williams’ dire situation.
      Time for new technical leadership me thinks…

      1. I was optimistic, and thought Williams would improve this year, but now I’m beginning to think this year will be another long season for Williams.

    6. Paddy’s lost it, what he says don’t equate to the real world.

      I could pick almost everything apart but I’ll just do one,

      I was very frustrated with what a bad job we did things back then.

      So you’re not frustrated now about the stellar job you are doing?.

      And better funded? Your bank is yes

    7. The thing that made the batteries become lighter was smartphones. The phones today have more processing power than the desktop computers from years gone by. To handle that you need more battery. But phones also need to not weight a ton. That’s what made the kers even possible as an idea.

      1. @socksolid – yeah, it makes sense that smartphones is probably the biggest driver for a lot of battery tech improvements over the last decade, definitely more so than F1.

        That said, IIRC, Williams Advanced Engineering were involved in the FE powertrain (if not today, at least for the initial seasons which ran a spec car), so they would probably have good insight into automotive applications of battery technology.

        1. @socksolid @phylyp The Li-ion battery energy density only grow twice a decade since 1990.
          And here Lowe had claim that Williams ‘delivered power density 100 times what had been expected’…

          So either EV industries were 50 times less efficient than Williams Advanced Engineering or Lowe was a liar…

          1. Thanks for that interesting link! @ruliemaulana

          2. I think Lowe confuses the development of super capacitors with the Lithium battery chemistry Tesla uses.
            Super capacitors can handle gigantic currents and release their stored energy at almost no loss whatsoever. The downside: the voltage fluctuates heavily, so it need special controllers, and the total storage capacity is not even close to what Lithium is capable of.
            But a big super capacitor bank can store the 4 MJ F1 cars are allowed to use, and both absorb and release that power in seconds if need be. So while I’m not certain how the ES is made, I’d be amazed if it does not use super capacitors.

            1. 4MJ is only around 1KWh… My Nissan leaf can take that energy release and charge…

    8. F1 now serves as an example to other industries of cutting-edge technological development, says Lowe.

      I think the their are very few industries technologically ahead of F1… maybe just the space and military industries.

      1. Hamilton claims the mercedes team could

        1. Easily build a space rocket…

    9. lol at the same ‘f1 is irrelevant to everything’ people coming out acting as if they know better than those in f1.

      it is pretty clear those who really know nothing about how things work.

      1. RogerA, there is a difference between saying that “F1 is irrelevant to everything” and the specific arguments that others have put forth, which is providing a reasoned argument specifically against Lowe’s comments.

        For a start, as others have noted, the consumer electronics industry have been a major investor in lithium battery technology – the technology was pioneered in that sector through Sony, and Sony still remains one of the leading battery producers in the world. Lowe happens to cite Tesla as an example, but in reality the motorsport sector does not seem to have had much, if any, real influence on the development of their battery systems.

        Tesla’s relies quite heavily on Panasonic to develop and produce batteries for their cars, and most of the technology behind Tesla’s batteries came from Panasonic’s consumer electronics division, in particular their laptop battery division. In fact, I believe that Panasonic isn’t involved with any of the manufacturers in F1, so it is difficult to see where exactly F1, or the wider motorsport sector, really contributed to Panasonic’s development work for Tesla and the wider automotive sector.

        Equally, as Lowe should know, Mercedes, happened to be working with Zytek, and Zytek were already quite well known for their work on electrical motors and battery systems in the motorsport sector. Zytek were one of the partners in Panoz’s hybrid car at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, and in 2009 they launched their own hybrid LMP1 car, the 09SH, so they had already provided proof of the concept in other motorsport series. The motor system that Mercedes used was, if I recall well, pretty much a standard “off the shelf” unit that Zytek already had in production at the time and which could be pretty easily adapted for use in F1.

        Now, that is not to say that there might have been no overspill of technology from racing into the wider automotive sector. In the case of Mercedes at least, a colleague of mine at work mentioned that his wife, who works in the electronics sector, was offered a role at Mercedes. Although the role was primarily on their road cars, there would have been input into the race team as it seems that Mercedes was making use of individuals within their road car division to assist in F1, and vice versa – so there definitely does seem to be an ongoing exchange of information and technology from one side of the business to another in Mercedes at least.

        However, in this instance I think that Lowe has exaggerated the impact of F1 on battery development at the time and in more recent years, as the consumer electronics industry had already been a very significant factor in the improvements in battery life and energy density before the introduction of KERS.

        1. “Tesla’s relies quite heavily on Panasonic to develop and produce batteries for their cars, and most of the technology behind Tesla’s batteries came from Panasonic’s consumer electronics division, in particular their laptop battery division”

          Thanks for this. I keep explaining these type of things to members of the cult of Elon. I’ve also read before that there are certain areas reserved for Panasonic in the Gigafactory where Tesla employees can’t even enter due to IP restrictions. The point is this, in 2018, it was reported Tesla held 50 odd patents for Battery/EV (not sure what the split is) related tech, while Toyota, a company that doesn’t see battery power as the future, holds in excess of 200. Tesla do not (yet) have the money to fund R&D like the big players can, and in time, as the likes of Merc, BMW and Porsche start selling they luxury EVs in greater numbers, Tesla will fall behind.

          1. So Elon is smart and cooperates with Panasonic. How is this in any way bad for a member of ” the cult of Elon”?

            If Tesla has 1/4 of the patents of the world largest car manufacturer how can that possibly be bad numbers?

            We now have spacerockets with electric fuelpumps only matched by the electric engines found in F1. None of it was thought possible a few years ago. That stuff is driving the development forward.

          2. Tesla do not (yet) have the money to fund R&D like the big players can, and in time, as the likes of Merc, BMW and Porsche start selling they luxury EVs in greater numbers, Tesla will fall behind.

            @jaymenon10 To be fair, Musk created Tesla only to prove to the world that electric cars could be not only be equal to fossil-fuel counterparts, but surpass them on every measure – with the intention that car manufacturers would start creating their own EV tech. This has not happened nearly as fast as Musk anticipated which is why he open-sourced many of their patents in 2014.

            So with respect to “…Tesla will fall behind.”; this is almost by design. One might be forgiven thinking that it’s entirely intentional given how the Model 3 is built.

        2. Honda and Panasonic worked on KERS battery R+D together, with Honda providing millions to provide battery tech that was totally unsuitable for consumer tech at the time due to cost, but is now years later, is in all of our pockets, and all of Teslas cars….

    10. Has Paddy been sharing some of Elon’s roll-ups?

      1. Next week on the Joe Rogan Podcast…

    11. WOw why don’t Williams just come on here to find their next Head of Engineering. SO much knowledge on the BTLs. Williams built a bad car ergo he doesn’t know what he is talking about despite being in 2 of the most dominant teams of the last 30 years. I think hes talking about the careful procedural and empirical nature of f1 now, which is more closely aligned to big business than when a Colin Chapman would tell his engineers to find 50% more downforce by Tuesday or else. I found it interesting. Pity some are just looking cheap points

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