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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

From racetrack to road: how Formula One technology is being used in everyday cars

We look at how carmakers are harnessing the technology used in Formula One to bring you some serious, road-legal speeds

The Aston Martin Valkyrie leverages the manufacturer’s partnership with Formula One team Red Bull Racing. Courtesy Aston Martin
The Aston Martin Valkyrie leverages the manufacturer’s partnership with Formula One team Red Bull Racing. Courtesy Aston Martin

Expensive, indulgent and wasteful. This is the perception many have of Formula One, and it’s understandable why this is the case. After all, top teams such as Ferrari and Mercedes are believed to sink annual budgets of around Dh2 billion (yes, with a “b”) in to their F1 programmes and, on the face of it, the cars raced by the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel bear little resemblance to the vehicles you and I drive.

Delve a little deeper, though, and it becomes evident F1 isn’t so far removed from our reality because there are benefits that everyday motorists derive via technology and know-how that has been transferred across from the top echelon of motorsport. This is particularly so in the case of McLaren, a company that debuted as an F1 constructor in 1966, but has since diversified into the domain of road cars. It’s been rather successful, too: the production-car division, McLaren Automotive, managed to sell 3,340 units last year, even though it has only been active as a manufacturer for the past eight years – apart from a brief dalliance with road cars with the aptly named F1 in the early 1990s.

The One hypercar from Mercedes-AMG, which has been endorsed by Lewis Hamilton of the German carmaker's Formula One arm. Daimler AG
The One hypercar from Mercedes-AMG, which has been endorsed by Lewis Hamilton of the German carmaker's Formula One arm. Daimler AG

Where the world of F1 and real-world motoring diverge greatly is in the budgets involved and the key parameters of each. With F1, the sole aim is to go faster, and this needs to be achieved within tight regulations regarding what you can and can’t do. Money is no object and each component of an F1 car costs megabucks. For example, an F1 vehicle’s front wing alone costs almost Dh800,000 (about the same as a showroom-fresh McLaren 570S). A new gearbox? Try Dh4 million. That would buy you four of the new McLaren 600LT, with enough change for a lifetime of servicing and replacement tyres.

Clearly, such eye-watering figures aren’t compatible with road cars because no company would turn a profit if their vehicles used components costing this much. Even so, former McLaren chief test driver Chris Goodwin says the brand’s road cars still draw heavily from their F1 counterparts. “Because F1 is so tightly regulated, they’re very limited in what they can do,” he says. “They [F1 teams] are constantly refining and updating. So rather than literally transferring technology across, it’s more about the philosophy. As a result, McLaren’s road cars have a lightweight carbon-fibre chassis, great cooling, great aero and great suspension design.

There’s a decent crossflow of personnel going from the road-car division to the F1 team, and vice versa, so there’s a transfer of knowledge going both ways.”

The McLaren Senna, named after Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, is the closest road-legal vehicle to an F1 car. McLaren
The McLaren Senna, named after Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, is the closest road-legal vehicle to an F1 car. McLaren

McLaren recently released the limited-edition (500 units only) Senna, named after the late, great, Ayrton Senna, and this bewinged monster features all the F1-derived aero and cooling know-how at the company’s disposal, with more scoops, vents and downforce-generating features than you can poke a stick at. It’s the closest road-legal vehicle to an F1 car, at least until the Mercedes-AMG One (Lewis Hamilton is due to be one of the first owners) and Aston Martin Valkyrie (leveraging Aston’s technology partnership with Red Bull Racing) hit the market in the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, F1 aficionados will be aware of the legacy of the Brabham name in the sport. The late Jack Brabham was a three-time world champion, and he founded the eponymous F1 team that contested 394 races from 1962-1992, notching up four world championships along the way. The hallowed moniker might be long gone from the F1 arena, but it has recently been reprised on an imminent track-day car – dubbed the BT62 – that will be rolled out from the end of this year. A mere 70 units will be built, at a price of about Dh5 million each.

For this spend, buyers will get an ultra-rapid 700hp weapon that should be able to nail down quicker lap times than just about anything else available to the public. The BT62 will feature F1-inspired pushrod suspension, carbon-ceramic brakes, slick tyres, carbon-fibre body panels and a comprehensive aero package designed to maximise downforce. While the car has been designed purely for track use, there is talk of a road-legal conversion as an option.

The BT62 by Brabham, which has links to the former Formula One team of the same name. Brabham Automotive
The BT62 by Brabham, which has links to the former Formula One team of the same name. Brabham Automotive

Look further back through the motoring annals and you will find Ferrari was also a motorsport constructor before diversifying into the domain of production cars. Company founder Enzo Ferrari originally had little interest in building road cars and only went down this path to guarantee the financial viability of the race team. From modest beginnings, the Ferrari road-car division has mushroomed to the extent that, according to some surveys, the prancing horse brand nowadays registers in the public’s perception with gravitas on the level of global heavyweights Google, Nike, Lego and Disney.

Ferrari is on track to shift 9,000 cars this year, earning a net revenue of more than Dh14 billion in the process, so what began as a reluctant by-product has flourished in to a booming business. And as is the case with McLaren, Ferrari transfers some of the knowledge gained from F1 to its road cars. The most obvious example was the LaFerrari hypercar, which featured F1-derived tech such as a carbon-fibre monocoque chassis, active aerodynamics and a Kers (kinetic energy recovery system) that supplemented the V12 engine with short bursts of extra power.

Soichiro Honda, founder of the Japanese carmaker that took his name and has its own illustrious F1 history, once famously said, “Racing improves the breed.” That remains as true today as it ever was.

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