The air bag: Formula One now has a conscience and real-world use
Until last weekend, I hadn’t attended a Formula One Grand Prix for three years. There’s something about it that puts me off – there are so few similarities between the cars on track and ones you could potentially drive on the road. Le Mans endurance racing is another matter entirely – the cars actually look like cars, and a wide variety of classes share the track at the same time, which is a more visually interesting spectacle.
However, at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it really hit home that modern race cars are getting more “car like”, at least when it comes to the way they sound. I’ve heard plenty of fans bemoaning the loss of the screaming V8 engines and the fact that ear defenders are no longer essential items. But this difference, attributed to smaller, turbocharged V6 engines, is something I welcome with open arms (and ears), because it’s the sound of motorsport getting itself a conscience.
The former F1 driver David Coulthard made the point, while I was speaking with him last week, that the engine downsizing responsible for the lower noise levels has reduced fuel consumption by about 40 per cent in the past couple of years. That’s a staggering achievement, but has it negatively affected the sport? Not from where I was standing
More power, speed and efficiency, versus less consumption and fewer pollutants – it’s a familiar scenario in the motor industry, and turbocharging is at the heart of it. I wrote about this a decade ago, when I wondered why more companies weren’t harnessing the benefits of forced induction, where waste gasses expelled by engines spool tiny turbines, forcing air back into the combustion chamber for extra power? It seemed an obvious way to keep engines small while boosting performance and efficiency.
Greater minds than mine were obviously thinking the same thing. In the upper echelons of motorsport, car technology advances the quickest. When motorsport’s world governing body, the FIA, announces rule changes for the following season, manufacturers all sigh and get on with implementing the demands. Eventually, regular motorists get the benefit.
Modern F1 cars are tiny, but under their aerodynamically advanced bodies are tightly packed, mind-bending technologies. When I asked somebody at Infiniti Red Bull how much these cars are worth when it comes to the sum of their parts, the answer was approximately £4 million (Dh22.1m), but their true value has to include the costs associated with developing, building and operating them at the world’s premier race facilities. Suddenly, they’re worth 10 times that amount, and it begs the question: why do they bother?
Quite apart from the revenues generated by sponsorship deals and broadcast rights, F1 is a rolling prototype roadshow experiment, where men and machines are required to operate in conditions that constantly push the envelope as to what is possible without breaking.
These cars harness wasted braking energy and store it in batteries that sit beneath the drivers. This energy can then be summoned for sudden bursts of ferocious overtaking power, and yes, the hybrid systems that are going into Toyota Corolla taxis and the drivetrains used in hypercars such as the McLaren P1 and Porsche’s 918 Spyder, as well as a whole host of others, all borrow from the experiences of F1 teams.
Motorsport is a rich person’s game and always will be, but now all of us benefit from it in one way or another. Who’d have thought it?
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Updated: December 3, 2015 04:00 AM