Formula One is at the cutting edge - not just of motorsport, but of automotive technology. And the new hybrid engines introduced last year are the latest in a long line of innovations that have helped to improve the road cars of the future. Formula One is at the cutting edge - not just of motorsport, but of automotive technology. And the new hybrid engines introduced last year are the latest in a long line of innovations that have helped to improve the road cars of the future.
From disc brakes to computer diagnostics, direct fuel injection to active suspension, the sport has continually either created new technologies or taken initial concepts and given them high-speed development.
The ultimate aim in F1 is championship success, and only teams that can deliver the best cars can compete.
Some of the best engineering brains from vehicle dynamics to aerodynamics to materials end up in the sport. They're enticed by the excitement of such an intense engineering challenge, with the drive to constantly improve performance meaning that teams never stop developing new technology.
The pace of progress is rapid and with the strong links to automotive manufacturers, both now and in the past, cross-pollination between the sectors is inevitable.
F1’s newest technology, hybrid power, is a case in point.
Since its introduction eight years ago, in the form of a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that transfers waste energy from braking into useable electrical power for propulsion, the progress has been clear to see.
Mercedes’ first system, introduced in 2007, weighed 107kg but was just 39 percent efficient. Two years later it was down to 25.3kg and 70 percent efficient and by 2012 it was a further couple of kilos lighter with an efficiency of 80 percent.
More importantly, a development loop was completed. The initial development of the F1 KERS was fed into the production of the manufacturer’s AMG SLS Electric Drive - then that knowledge fed back around to the creation of the fully-hybrid F1 car.
Back when KERS was first introduced, BMW was an F1 team owner and boss Mario Theissen said: There is an unrivalled development speed in F1. We are pushing the envelope on a weekly basis and we can explore unknown territory in a much quicker and more efficient way than a complex road car project.”
BMW Sauber F1 Team
Image credit: Eurosport
At the time, the F1 systems were no better than those found in hybrid road vehicles. But progress was quickly made and the future was inevitable.
"My expectation is the powertrain will change from the combustion engine and gearbox to a complex unit combining a smaller combustion engine, an electric motor generator, an electric storage unit, control electronics and probably a very different type of transmission,” he correctly predicted.
"The true innovation will then lie in the adaptation of these individual components and the integration into a more efficient powertrain. I think F1 can take the lead in that.”
That is precisely why Formula One remains something many car brands find hard to ignore.
McLaren, in contrast, have come in the other direction, going from an F1 team into a fully-fledged automotive manufacturer, having recognised the benefits of technology transfer and decided to use it to prosper for themselves.
"I can remember when carbon brakes were first introduced onto racing cars," said McClaren Group chief Ron Dennis.
"Nobody in their right mind would have thought they would have been developed to a point, now, where performance vehicles carry them as a commonplace technology. People thought composites would never be seen on production cars, but they are now commonplace, as are some of the electronic systems.”
McLaren F1 Team
Image credit: AFP
The new power plants, which as Thiessen predicted combine the ERS-K (KERS) unit with a small turbocharged petrol engine and radical turbo heat recovery technology (ERS-H), are perhaps the most road-relevant development in F1’s history.
The ERS units already deliver double the energy for five times longer than was available in the past and now, despite being combined with a much lower power and therefore more efficient petrol engine, the power units create power at the same level as in the past but with significantly more input from renewables.
In the road car world, hybrids are now an integral element in most car manufacturers’ forecourt line-ups. Toyota, the leader of that trend, has sold six million of the hybrid Prius since launching it in 1997. And all manufacturers are now following suit.
It’s not just road cars, though. Hybrid power can also be found everywhere from railway locomotives to heavy goods vehicles; mobile hydraulic machinery to ships.
Even some London buses are hybrid, using a flywheel system developed by the Williams F1 team, who have consciously developed a business around their knowledge of hybrid technology.
So although F1 may not have been at the forefront of early hybrid development, it is now well placed to accelerate it and feed that development back into the road cars.
"The fact that in less than five years a technology first developed for a racing car is now being installed on a renewable microgrid is testament to the ability we have to accelerate technical innovation,” said Craig Wilson, MD of Williams Advanced Engineering, who were awarded the ‘Pioneer Award’ at the British Renewable Energy Awards this year.
The tide is definitely turning - but where does it go from here?
As the price of fuel goes up and the price of this type of technology decreases, it is inevitable that hybrid engines will play a major part in the racing cars and road cars of the future.
Battery technology is moving slowly, and the poor energy to weight ratios are holding hybrids back. But with weight such an important factor in F1 performance, that is something that the sport’s involvement in hybrid technology will soon improve.
And these days, with a two-way feed, that means F1 is once again the driving force to push road car development into its next revolution.