Williams have been one of the leading teams in Formula One for 30 years. In the 1980s and 1990s, they won the constructors title nine times and, in 1997, became only the third team to win 100 races. However, modest form in recent seasons and the ever-spiralling costs of producing a competitive car have led the company to seek alternative revenue streams by commercialising their technology.
In a historic move, Williams will become the first F1 team to establish a base outside Europe when a new technology centre in Qatar is inaugurated. While development of F1 cars will continue at their Oxfordshire headquarters, the Qatar centre will be tasked with developing technology for road safety and public transport applications. The centre's first two projects will be adapting Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (Kers) technology for use on metro transportation systems and developing an advanced driving simulator that can be used as a teaching aid to increase road awareness and reduce the number of accidents. While the prime motive for the company's diversification beyond F1 is to balance the books after increasing difficulty in securing partnership, Alex Burns, chief operating officer of Williams, says that the company was keen to play its part in making transport more eco-friendly.
"It has been increasingly difficult to get sponsorship and more expensive to be competitive in the constructors' championship, which is why we need to diversify our revenue stream. It is good that the sport can develop technology and play a role in reducing the carbon footprint." The centre, to be based in the Qatar Science and Technology Park, will employ 20 staff and will focus solely on these two flagship projects for several years. The decision to locate the new centre in Qatar is partly a reflection of the region's growing importance for the sport, but it also places Williams at the centre of their target market for their new product range.
Kers technology was developed to give F1 cars greater overtaking capability with a power boost by transferring energy generated while braking back through the wheels. The system works through a Magnetically Loaded Composite (MLC) flywheel that enables energy to be transferred very quickly. In F1, Kers has been used by several teams, including McLaren, and helped former world champion Lewis Hamilton win three races this season. In theory, the technology can encourage overtaking, thereby making F1 races more dynamic and exciting. However, in practice, the additional weight of the system has counteracted much of the benefit. It has been banned for the 2010 season but is likely to be reinstated in 2011. Beyond F1, Williams believe that Kers can make both public transport systems and renewable energy installations, such as wind farms, up to 35 per cent more efficient.
"Kers works like a hybrid vehicle, with power generated through kinetic energy," says Barnes. "The Middle East region has seen a large investment in public transport, and a metro is an ideal vehicle for the technology as it stops and starts frequently, maximising the energy that can be generated. Our studies have shown that it has the potential to increase efficiency by between 20 per cent and 35 per cent. There has been strong interest from Metro manufacturers in developing this technology."
In a parallel development, the technology will also be adapted to help make wind farms more efficient by stabilising their electric power supply. As well as energy efficiency, the company is also developing technology to increase road safety and once again they feel that they are in the right region to market the product. Sir Frank Williams, the team principal and one of the most respected figures in motorsport, says that technology developed for F1 can help make a significant contribution to increasing safety on roads.
"It is good to have a reason to exist beyond the races themselves. We can make meaningful improvements to road cars and help cut emissions." The motorsport icon said that F1 has been pushing technological frontiers for decades and that innovation engineered to win races has made a significant difference on the road. "The tyre is a good example. Modern tyre design was developed in F1 thirty years ago and has made driving safer and more reliable. We take that technology for granted now," he says.
The second project to be developed at the Qatar centre is a simulator to help increase learner driver awareness of road conditions and safety hazards. Scanned images of race tracks and optical technology provides a realistic, sensory driving experience. Such simulators are currently used as a training aid for F1 drivers, but the company hopes to develop a road version to be a key component of driving tests.
"We are developing software to enable road conditions and actual accident hot-spots to be scanned into a driving test programme," says Barnes "There is a very high accident rate in this part of the world and we are targeting transport ministries in the region to adopt this technology to help improve safety on the roads." The company have further projects in the pipeline and will explore these once the current projects are completed. It is researching the potential market for an online F1 game. Speaking about these developments earlier this month, Frank Williams was in pragmatic vein, on the one hand expressing his desire for the applications to be successful, but on the other eager to assure that Williams' focus would always be on the track itself. But with manufacturers pouring vast budgets into their F1 teams, specialist constructors had to compete commercially to compete at all.
"Car manufacturers have made vast resources available and this has raised the cost for the sport as a whole. It is not just a case of engines and technology. Having the leading experts on aerodynamics, for example, can make the difference between finishing on the podium or not. But we are not far behind and will have our time again." His comments, made prior to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, are more topical than he may have thought given the recent withdrawal of Toyota. Perhaps the economic downturn will favour the smaller teams after all. email@example.com