Formula One, commonly dubbed the ‘pinnacle of motorsport’, has seen a huge amount of innovation since its inaugural Grand Prix in 1950. With the first production car dating back to the late 1800’s and the sheer difference in design, it is often hard to see the overlap between the two. That being said, the ‘trickle down effect’ of F1 can be seen from the very beginning, and will most definitely drive innovation for the foreseeable future.
The most notable of F1’s innovations from the past come from the Williams FW15C. This F1 car saw electronics used in order to control vital systems such as traction control, anti - lock brakes, and also made use of an active suspension. While these concepts were already seen in road vehicles, electronic controls and having a central system was relatively new. While never seen in F1 as it was quickly banned, the technology went on to change the auto industry to the point of having computer aided driving as we see today.
All of these innovations are in the past, so let’s talk about the present and the future. In 2014, Formula 1 began the ‘Hybrid’ era, and has slowly inched towards more sustainable racing and technology ever since. There are a lot of complicated details regarding the innovation behind these revolutionary engines. In short, cars still make use of a combustion engine, but are equipped with systems to harvest and reuse energy generated by the vehicle to go back and power all other systems, including the engine itself.
While F1 was often previously concerned with sheer power and performance, this new technology requires a focus on maximizing efficiency. Mercedes - AMG Petronas F1 team, the most successful team of the era, have already stated that they have plans to debut this same engine technology in their AMG road cars. The MGU - H (Motor Generator Unit - Heat) is the component responsible for recovering energy from the vehicle, and is being developed by Garrett Motion for roadcars. This new turbocharger will allow for cars to be far more fuel efficient, which is a great step towards a more sustainable future.
Sustainable engine technology has also seen research into sustainable fuels. For the upcoming 2022 season, all teams have been required to use a new E10 fuel, which is a mixture of 90% fossil fuel and 10% renewable ethanol. Soon enough however, F1 aims to transition to 100% renewable fuel. Perhaps devoting such effort into fuels takes away from electric innovation, but several experts do not see it this way. Oftentimes, larger vehicles with a need for large power outputs (trucks, planes, ships) may benefit from sustainable combustion engines as opposed to electric. F1 is currently experimenting with increasing the power density of fuels, allowing for smaller tanks and less volume overall. Additionally, these fuels will have a net zero carbon effect on the environment, making use of carbon that already exists in the atmosphere instead. The effects of this research are already being seen, with Gulf Air carrying out low emission flights as part of their pre race routine.
Many feel that F1’s continued use of combustion technology undermines the progress made by other racing series such as Formula E (electric cars). While there is an argument to be made, with automotive giants such as Mercedes, Honda, Ferrari, Mclaren, and potentially Audi (Volkswagen) innovating in the space, there is a clear potential for a transfer of technology into the production car space. How quickly that comes remains to be seen, but I am personally extremely excited to see what the new era of F1 brings.