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F1 Development: The R&D motorsport race that never stops

Nowadays the technological developments that a team makes in Formula 1 are just as important as the driver behind the wheel, with milliseconds being the margin between success and failure. At the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1 is the most technically advanced racing series in the world, having a legacy of leading R&D within the motorsport industry. The big manufacturing teams Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and engine supplier Honda (Toro Rosso) flex their muscle each season, trying to gain an advantage over the rest. While the races end on a Sunday afternoon, the technological arms race between these manufacturers remains ongoing. Pushing the limits of R&D in motorsport, the team’s budgets go into the hundreds of millions of pounds.


Today’s Formula 1 cars contain the most advanced engines in any vehicle on the planet, far more sophisticated than the conventional engine found in a family saloon. The 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrid engines include components such as the MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic) and MGU-H (Motor Generator Unit – Heat). These highlight the intensity of R&D within the sports regulations, with the powertrain able to convert the kinetic energy going through the brakes and heat energy going through the turbo unit into electrical energy which can be used to accelerate the car. The teams use insight gained from their R&D in Formula 1 to push technology of the everyday road car further, Mercedes being the first to accomplish this with their soon to be released Project One Hypercar. The car will have a top speed of more than 218mph and can achieve 0-124mph in 6.0 seconds but will cost a potential buyer just over £2 million.

No-one's really done this [making a race car for the road] until now

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Formula 1 driver

More than just rubber hoops

The tyres are produced by Pirelli and show another aspect of the R&D efforts made to ensure Formula 1 remains at the pinnacle of motorsport technology. They play an important role in the tactics of the sport and are therefore developed to allow the cars to compete at their maximum. Pirelli have developed the 11 compounds of rubber used in the 2018 season purely for use in Formula 1. Each compound has its own unique characteristics which allow the cars to perform well at different tracks and in different weather conditions. Each season, Pirelli invests in R&D to create compounds for the next season which allow the cars to push the limits of speed even further. An example of this was at Monaco during the 2018 season, where Pirelli brought the new hypersoft tyre compound to a race weekend for the first time. This super sticky compound contributed to Max Verstappen being able to beat Michael Schumacher’s lap record which had stood since 2004. Verstappen went around in a time of 1:14.260 narrowly beating 1:14.439 set by Schumacher.

The invisible workings of a car design

One of the most crucial areas in developing a Formula 1 car is the aerodynamic package. Aerodynamics massively alter the performance of the cars, as downforce is incredibly important at the speed which the cars travel at. Fine tuning a racing car’s aero package for each circuit is commonplace in motorsports, but with the margins being so fine in Formula 1 the teams go to extra lengths to gain advantage. Niko Hulkenberg’s Renault team at The Baku City Circuit, Azerbaijan, last season show this aspect off, as they used an oval section of bodywork to effectively add an enclosed section to the turning vanes underneath the chassis to gain an advantage – something no team had done before.

To ensure the aerodynamics are most effective, the teams use multiple methods to test and form their design into the most efficient package possible. These include traditional wind tunnel experiments with precisely made scale models, CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) experiments using advanced mathematics and powerful supercomputers to churn through the complex digital models, and finally on track correlation testing to ensure the results from their experiments match what the car experiences on real circuits. Wind tunnel and CFD experiments are widely used, not just in Formula 1 but also in other sports where aerodynamics is an integral part of performance.

This season so far, McLaren have suffered from poor aerodynamics on track, which were unable to be solved in the wind tunnel. The problem has forced McLaren’s engineers to experiment on race weekends, using an array of sensors on the car to measure air pressure in different regions and Flow-Vis paint to reveal the streamlines occurring over the cars aerodynamic surfaces. This has all together limited the time they’ve been able to spend on ensuring the car has the best set up for the particular circuit they are racing on.

We have identified the general area of issues, so we know what we're chasing. What we don't obviously have yet is the solution in place

Zac Brown Chief Executive Officer of McLaren Racing

The reintroduction of the shark fin in 2017 was unpopular among fans but did allow for some innovations from aerodynamicists. The shark fin allows for the air to be conditioned around the roll-hoop section of the car. Teams attached a small wing, known as a T-wing, to the tip of this shark fin. The initial T-wing designs largely consisted of a single wing element placed in front of the rear wing. However, this produced large tip vortices which interacted with the rear wing’s flow structures, creating drag. A second design was then developed. This was a double T-wing with a “coat hanger” shape, which was produced to reduce the tip vortex size. Force India also developed the T-wing further adding multiple tiny wings to reduce the effect of separation of airflow from the shark fin.

This season has seen the mandatory introduction of a halo onto all Formula 1 cars to improve driver safety, but this has come with aerodynamic implications. The technical uncertainty facing designers was ensuring the titanium structure, which weighs just 7kg and can hold the weight of a London bus, has minimal impact on the car from an aerodynamic standpoint. Teams have had plenty of time to research and develop solutions. Last seasons end of season test in Abu Dhabi provided an opportunity for teams to test early designs. Some teams put vortex generators in the middle section of the halo, the aim being to reduce airflow disruption of the device. Haas’s ‘stegosaurus’ solution saw them put ‘teeth’ on the top edge of the halo and Sauber have attached a ‘lip’ along the halo.

Keeping the team on track

It isn’t just the car that requires a huge amount of time and investment in R&D for a team to be successful. Back in the factories themselves, where the cars are manufactured, the machines and processes are constantly being refined to improve their precision and efficiency, to reduce the lead time for replacement parts. The UK plays a major role in the in the Supply chain of Formula 1, with 6 of the 10 teams based here, many around Silverstone racetrack in an area often referred to as “Motorsport Valley”; a hub of British innovation. The UK’s Motorsport Valley is one of the leading examples of business clusters, akin to the likes of Silicon Valley. There are plenty of high performance engineering organisations here, one of which is DC Electronics which manufactures custom-built electrical systems for the motorsport industry, as well as offering a range of unique Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS) suitable for motorsport and road use.

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Formula 1 is a fitting stage for pioneering and development within the automotive industry and the developments made affect all of us, improving our everyday cars. If you’re a company undertaking innovation within your industry, get in touch today to talk to our team about how you could be funding this.