Motorsport benefits us all in surprising ways – it should shout that fact from the rooftops


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During motorsport’s formative years the corporate slogan ‘Win Sunday; Sell Monday’ rang true for those motor manufacturers and technical suppliers and partners who kept the sport’s slick tyres turning through their injections of vast amounts of cash and cutting-edge components.

Indeed, a raft of automotive technologies were perfected – if not always invented – on race circuits and rally tracks of the world before cascading down to road cars. These initially found applications on high performance cars before being fitted to humdrum Joe Soap sedans as the technologies became more affordable or were mandated.

However, as usage of IT, electronics, composites and other cutting-edge technologies became increasingly prevalent, so motorsport applications found increasing relevance in the wider world, with Formula 1 – as the sporting and technical pinnacle – leading the charge.

The first to recognise the potential for technology transfer across a range of non-automotive applications was McLaren, which established its Applied Technologies division in 2004. Others followed suit, with Williams establishing its Advanced Engineering arm, Red Bull the Advanced Technologies division and Mercedes an Applied Science off-shoot.

Todt has highlighted motorsport’s benefits to society
In all cases the objectives are to apply or adapt F1 technologies across ‘outside’ activities, creating additional revenue streams and alternative opportunities for staff who would otherwise find themselves retrenched as budget caps bite.

“Motorsport has always participated in the progress of society, particularly in terms of technology and innovation to improve health and safety as well as to protect our environment,” believes FIA president Jean Todt.

“Advances on the racetrack find their way to the road, helping to preserve lives and the planet. This has probably never been as clear as in the response of the community to the global pandemic this year. While motor racing is back on track, providing entertainment for millions of fans, it remains a laboratory for a better future.”

The issue, though, is that motorsport – in particular F1 – traditionally maintains a shroud of secrecy over innovations lest they get copied by the opposition. Thus many of the sport’s major contributions have remained unsung.

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“For many years those of us involved in motorsport felt that it is a great innovator and does great research, but that we’ve done a poor job in communicating the benefits of motorsport to the broader community,” Garry Connelly, the FIA’s sustainability delegate, told RaceFans.

“To really get credibility we decided that we needed to get an external, highly respected body to do some research on what motorsport has really contributed to society.”

In order to quantify the influence and impact of motorsport on the wider world, the FIA commissioned the innovation consultancy Futerra – who undertook F1’s 2019 sustainability research project – to quantify the contributions.

“They spent the last four months interviewing people throughout the sport,” explained Connelly, better known to fans as F1’s chairman of the stewards panel. “They picked something like 50 different things that motorsport has done that contributed to society.

“From these they picked 26 stories which they thought were representative and had definitely come from the sport, or where the sport has done something to improve the technology with a demonstrable benefit to society in general.

Mercedes produced breathing devices to help Covid-19 patients
“What this report is saying about motorsport is, ‘We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of; we’ve got a lot to be proud of. We are an innovative sport, we can do and have done a lot for society.’”

  • Futerra applied four criteria for innovations to be included in the final report, namely:
  • Direct motorsport link: Did the innovation stem from the motorsport industry, or been advanced by it?
  • Credibility and relevance of any innovation: Is it in use and has it been deployed by credible sources?
  • Societal benefit: Does an innovation provide significant value to society or the environment?
  • Impact and scale: Is an innovation widely used or does it have potential for impact at scale?

To verify and ensure credibility of each innovation, a minimum of two independent sources were required, with a focus on sourcing verifications from outside of motorsport to remove bias. Each nomination was evaluated by an FIA review committee prior to inclusion. The list of reviewers – ranging from top engineers through sustainability experts to medical specialists – was seen by RaceFans and is highly impressive.

Futerra found that innovations could be categorised into six broad themes as follows:

  • Healthcare – numerous advances were previously made in the sector, with Covid-19 accelerating the process
  • Greener society – technology and knowledge transfer has positively influenced society at large
  • Safer mobility – ranging from motorcycle helmets to safety simulations undertaken by the FIA Foundation.
  • Electric mobility – motorsport has accelerated development of energy management and safety
  • Hyper efficiency – accelerating the science of moving further while using less.
  • Along the road – new fuels, revolutionary manufacturing techniques and the human influences of motorsport.

Much has been written about F1’s contribution to the battle against Covid-19, but the study lists a number of impressive statistics: the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device developed by Mercedes High Performance Powertrains – the F1 engine operation – which helps Covid-19 patients breathe when oxygen masks prove insufficient, was developed in under 100 hours. Within a month they delivered 10,000 units.

Williams Babypod
Williams developed the Babypod for use by paramedics…
However, Mercedes Applied Science clients have ventured beyond medical apparatus. Another client is sponsor-turned 33.3% shareholder INEOS, an industrial conglomerate with its own cycling and yachting teams. Both benefitted from the F1 team’s expertise in composites, aerodynamics, electronics and rapid manufacturing techniques, with the INEOS America’s Cup entry being the most visible project.

“As with cycling and sailing, Formula 1 is a sport that successfully blends human and machine performance, so we are in a strong position to learn from each other. Collaboration and innovation is a key part of success across our sports teams, which is strengthened by this partnership with Mercedes,” said INEOS chairman Sir Jim Radcliffe during the announcement.

Mercedes Motorsport CEO Toto Wolff stated that he expects Mercedes Applied Science to hit an annual turnover of £100 million within five years, adding, “In Formula 1 it’s all about speed of delivery, and our speed of delivery of technical solutions that are both competitive as well as safe is something that can be applied across a wide range of areas.”

McLaren Advanced Technologies adapted on-car sensors to provide the Department of Surgical Sciences at the University of Oxford with data to train surgeons, and aided London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital with patient hand-over techniques based on F1 pit stop choreography. Surgeons also visited Ferrari to observe techniques and sent video recordings of its own hand-over techniques to Maranello for advice.

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…and designed more efficient refrigerators for supermarkets
‘They quickly learned that strict routines are essential,’ Futerra found. ‘The predictability of well-drilled routines meant problems could be anticipated ahead of time. There was rhythm and order to pit crew movement; like a dance. Crews would practice their roles to perfection. Each member of the pit crew carried out their task in calm silence, in contrast to chaotic streams of conversation during hospital handovers.’

Williams Advanced Engineering and its associated F1 team – which retains a significant interest in WAE despite the sales of the entities to different owners – developed the ‘world’s fastest crib’: a pod designed for safe transfer of critically ill infants that keeps them temperature-controlled yet easily accessible. The Babypod is cheaper than traditional, bulkier incubators, and is produced alongside F1 chassis.

Working in conjunction with Aerofoil Energy, WAE developed simple and effective F1-inspired ‘slots’ designed to retain cold air inside of refrigeration cabinets by directing it back into the cabinet. To date 1m such aerofoils have been fitted to supermarket fridges in the UK, with a major supermarket chain estimating its electricity usage has been cut by 15% while aisles were on average 4% warmer, saving on hearing bills.

During race weekends F1 teams transfer an average of 350GB of data each between ‘remote’ garages and headquarters – at ultra-high speeds under climatic conditions ranging from winter testing in Spain through the humidity of Singapore and heat desert races. Such rapid data transfer is crucial for smart car and smart city applications, with future fleets of autonomous vehicles requiring instant connectivity to function safely.

Thus, F1 provides real-life laboratories for the Internet of Things while proving itself a pioneer in remote working practices before Covid-19 imposed these on other industries. Indeed, in 2015 McLaren assisted rail networks in communicating with trains travelling at high speed – using lessons gleaned from F1 telemetry. These enable networks to predict maintenance needs and assist with ticketing and recovery from disruptions.

Red Bull moved on to other projects post-Valkyrie…
Cycling, too, benefits from motorsport’s expertise – be they two-wheelers racing bikes, pedal-driven folding cycles or electrically powered. For example, Williams worked with Brompton to integrate racing battery technology into a folding bicycle. The resultant 16kg cycle took five years to develop; the 2.8kg battery stores 300Wh, enabling it to be removed and carried separately while delivering 50 miles on a single charge.

Williams is not alone in developing cycles: apart from Mercedes INEOS projects, Red Bull Advanced Technologies works with Swiss high-end company BMC on its products, some of which are now coming to market. Although RBAT, formed in 2015, initially concentrated development of Aston Martin’s Valkyrie hypercar, it recently switched to non-automotive projects and played a leading role in Covid-19 ventilator projects.

F1’s computational fluid dynamics (CFD) expertise has come to the fore in the architecture of high-rise buildings, with Wirth Research, the consultancy headed by ex-F1 car designer Nick Wirth, providing aerodynamic calculations for 22 Bishopsgate, a planned 278m, 62-storey tower – London’s second-tallest building when completed.

The architects were concerned that ‘downwash’ from the building would batter adjoining pavements, creating unpleasant conditions for pedestrians. Wind tunnel testing of proposed solutions would take months, so Wirth ran 25 variations of ‘high-res’ CFD simulations before identifying the most effective design – within three days.

Red Bull ventilator
…including ventilators for Covid-19 patients
“This technology has been refined at the coal face of F1 design and offers insights and levels of detail that no wind tunnel can achieve,” Wirth Research told Futerra.

Skyscrapers are not, though, the only high-flyers to benefit from motorsport’s innovative spirit: WAE developed a range of lightweight monocoque configuration business class seats for the Airbus A350, which save up to 4kg per seat. The weight saved across just 12 aircraft reduces annual emissions by almost a million kilograms of CO2 while saving £150,000 in fuel costs over the same period.

Futerra found that were every A350 in operation to be fitted with such composite seats the total annual saving in CO2 emissions would amount to over 25,000 tons, rooted in the same variables as F1 contends with daily: space, weight, and safety.

F1 is at the frontline of sustainable fuels development – as outlined previously the next engine formula will be designed around such fuels, forcing suppliers to follow suit for road car usage. F1 will not, of course, brew the fuels internally, but their prescription will foster rapid adoption. Were all petrol and diesel cars in the EU to switch to such fuels, the region’s carbon footprint alone would shrink by over 6%; imagine the global impact.

Safety has not been neglected, either: The FIA recently research into a low-cost helmet for use in developing countries, where the primary mode of transport is mopeds. UN studies found that “Low-quality helmets may give riders false senses of protection. In case of a crash, a rider using a low-quality helmet could get more severely injured or even killed.”

FIA helmet distribution programme, Tanzania
Low-cost, high-standard helmets have improved road safety
Todt laid down a challenge to the FIA Safety Department: create a low-cost, high-standard helmet for use across the globe. It should be affordable (wholesale price of $10), be comfortable in hot, humid regions and certified according to UN helmet regulations. Working with Spanish helmet manufacturer NZI, such a helmet is now being field tested.

“In a changing world, faced with important challenges, it is necessary to go further,” said Todt. “This is why we launched the ‘Purpose Driven’ movement, to amplify the initiatives that help us achieve our objectives in terms of health and safety, environment, gender equality, diversity, inclusion and community development.”

These projects provide but a snapshot into the innovations and technologies that have been developed or honed by motorsport. There is a raft of others: for example, motorsport’s contributions to improvements in 3D printing, first adopted by F1 over three decades ago, enable surgeons to replicate limbs to microscopic levels of accuracy, thus improving the comfort and quality of life for recipients.

The resultant Futerra Report on the Contribution of Motorsport to Health, Safety and the Environment concludes: ‘Led by the FIA as guide and standard bearer, motorsport will now move as one community towards a better future, a future where motorsport is not driven only by performance – but [also] by purpose.’

As Connelly pointed out, motorsport’s overall contribution extends far beyond cars simply chasing each other around in circles during weekends. Its overall contributions to society deserve to be shouted from the rooftops of the high-rise buildings designed with input from F1-developed techniques.

In the process motorsport has created diverse employment opportunities for the many bright minds who honed their skills by making race cars go faster, further and safer by enabling them to transfer those skills to other industries as inevitable budget caps and cost saving programmes are imposed. Such diversification creates additional revenue streams for teams – effectively sponsors who don’t demand even stickers.

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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...

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5 comments on “Motorsport benefits us all in surprising ways – it should shout that fact from the rooftops”

  1. Thank you for the insights Dieter. I was aware of the Mclaren, Red Bull and Williams ‘spin-offs’ and their success, but never realised the scope of and the benefits beyond the automotive industry (apart from the COVID-19 response).

    In the pursuit of relevance to the outside world, also mentioned in the five keypoints for the 2025 engine formula, this is an important marketing factor for F1. Also a way to detatch itself as being only (fossile) fuel burning entertainment.
    I can see how the huge motor homes can double as high-end market places to display knowledge and cutting edge technologies (if they aren’t doing that already).

  2. In order to quantify the influence and impact of motorsport on the wider world, the FIA commissioned the innovation consultancy Futerra to quantify the contributions.

    I haven’t read the report or saw the presentation yet*, but just by the description in this article I can see that Futerra did a perfect job like most consultants do; tell the customer what they want to hear.

    Great article @DieterRencken

    * I found a link to the presentation.

  3. Good to read about this wide range of influence of innovation into the wider world. To me the most important thing that shows throughout this is the procedure, the focussed attention that can help galvanize ideas and hunches into making things better fast.

  4. That was getting hard to read – F1 technology just hasn’t been and isn’t going to transfer usefully into the world as of a now. Most of the tech on display is hopelessly barking up the wrong tree suiting petrol driven, line coded path.
    The world outside changed while nobody was looking – fast, safe, self driven and 100mpg.

  5. From a technological perspective, and I class myself as a “techie”, F1 and motorsport in general has made incredible advances over the years. You take really clever people, motivate them through competition or public need and look what comes out. An fine example is what is going on currently in America’s Cup Racing, simply mind blowing.
    The flip side, as delphi alludes, is that the impression out in the world is what I dub the Slaughter House Approach.
    You may have the worlds best, cleanest, most humane and overall efficient slaughter house in existance, but you can’t sell the vegans and environmentalist on it because it still is … a slaughter house. Going to b a bumpy ride.

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