Video courtesy of Formula One
Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport. The fastest cars, the best drivers, the place where half a second is a lifetime, and technology changes perceptions of what the 'car' can do.
Drivers can corner so quickly that they experience forces of up to five times the strength of gravity just on their neck, and the cars produce so much aerodynamic downforce that at full speed they could drive upside down. So you'd be forgiven for thinking that these strange-looking things have nothing to do with your economic little hatchback.
A lot is said - in motorsport circles at least - of the 'trickle-down effect'; essentially this means that technology developed by experts in F1 eventually finds its way into the road cars we use every day.
Cutting-edge technology which is refined, simplified and repurposed to make our family cars better. But does it actually exist?
F1 has always featured a strong presence from what are now some of the biggest names in the automotive world. Whether it's the operation of a complete team or simply supplying bespoke engines, the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda and Renault have been involved in the sport in some capacity or another for many years. However, with every year that passes, and with every technological innovation, the cost of running a team in F1 increases. While a marque such as Ferrari has always used motorsport as prestige, other manufacturers have wanted to see more of a practical return on their investment.
Fast forward six years, and with F1 now introducing smaller hybrid engines which are focused on maximising fuel efficiency, Honda has announced its return to the sport from 2015. F1 technology is relevant once again.
Credit: Brian Snelson
The trickle-down effect is something which F1 has always sought to promote, but in reality it's a little more complex than racing teams creating things which eventually get used in our road cars. F1 has actually been more about taking technology that has been tried and tinkered with - often with limited success - and pushing it to its very limit. It's at this point that this 'perfected' technology then feeds back into the real world.
An example of this tweaking of technology can be found as far back as 1912, when Renault replaced the overhead camshaft in its race car with a double overhead camshaft. This meant a less restricted airflow at higher speeds as there was a wider angle between the intake and exhaust valves. Much of the development throughout the 50s and 60s was about engine performance, but gradually other areas of development became important, too.
The McLaren MP4/1, unveiled in 1981, was the first car to use the combination of strength and lightweight construction of carbon fibre to create a single-piece monocoque for the body of the car.
Motorsport has always sought to make its powerful cars lighter, and the pursuit of weight-saving was one of the primary reasons why F1 was so dangerous in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s - light material typically meant weak material. McLaren used carbon fibre from Hercules Aerospace to create the monocoque, and the results were immediately obvious. The car used by John Watson in the 1981 season was wrecked at the Italian Grand Prix and it is now a badge of honour for Hercules, which shows it off to visitors with sample footage of the crash. The message is simple: Watson would have died if it weren't for the strength of carbon fibre technology.
Video courtesy of Rillenreifen
Nowadays, carbon fibre is the norm in F1, and while the cost is still too high to bring that technology into full-scale production vehicles, high-end performance road cars use it to keep weight down while maintaining rigidity.
The first semi-automatic transmission, reducing the dependence on the clutch pedal, was developed by Chrysler back in the 1940s, and other manufacturers continued to develop variants of it after the war. However, semi-automatic transmissions never really took off as they were complicated and didn't really suit drivers, offering neither the ease of use of an automatic or the driving quality that comes with a manual transmission.
In the late 1980s, Ferrari developed a semi-automatic gearbox for its F1-89. After some early reliability problems - even Ferrari found it a complicated system - the gearbox proved to be revolutionary, allowing drivers to change gear quickly and reducing occurrences of accidental gear changes. In F1 cars, a missed gear means loss of valuable speed, while on the road it means compromised acceleration and even excessive revving resulting in reduced fuel efficiency.
By the mid-90s, all F1 cars had moved to semi-automatic transmission, while Ferrari was introducing it to the wider public with the F355. The original 1994 Berlinetta version used a manual gearbox, but the semi-automatic transmission was added in 1997. Paddles behind the steering wheel allowed the driver to change gear with immense speed, not having to remove their hands from the steering wheel or worry about a clutch. Although still an expensive system, many high-end road cars now use the 'flappy paddle' semi-automatic transmission.
The Williams FW15C is considered perhaps the most ground-breaking F1 car - so good they promptly banned it.
The brainchild of F1 design guru Adrian Newey, the 1993 racer took the use of electronics to levels never seen before. Traction control, active suspension, anti-lock brakes: these things were all in use in some form or another in production cars. However, the Williams car utilised new electronics packages to control these, a system so complicated that the car had to be plugged into three laptops when it was started.
Traction control and anti-locks brakes made it easier to drive on the very limit, and the active suspension could raise itself up, reducing drag to enable overtaking manoeuvres. The results were spectacular, with the Williams car routinely qualifying 1.5-2 seconds ahead of its rivals. F1 authorities may have banned these 'driver aids' for fear of them making the sport too artificial, but since then electronics have playing a much more significant part in the engine management, traction control and braking of our production cars.
Even the very tiniest changes can make a difference in F1, and eventually they too make their way to road cars. During its period of dominance in F1 during the early 2000s, Ferrari began applying a coating of diamond-like carbon to the inside of its engines, reducing the friction on piston skirts and tappets; lower friction means less power required to move these parts, so the same amount of power can move them more quickly. The same coating came to production car engines on Ferrari's 458 Italia, released in 2010.
All this brings us to 2014, where the trickle-down effect is really taking centre stage. Now F1 is all about making itself 'relevant' to the automotive industry, as the sport looks to retain the key manufacturers who increasingly want to see a return on their investment, much as Honda did. For the current season, that means that the roaring, naturally-aspirated 2.4-litre V8 engines have been replaced with 1.6-litre V6 turbos, working in tandem with a significant energy recovery system (ERS).
These are genuine hybrids, with two electric generators reworking energy generated by the car and diverting it back into powering the engine: one recycling kinetic energy from the braking system and another harnessing heat energy from the exhaust system. This latter unit plays an important role as it works directly with the turbo; instead of the driver having to deal with turbo-lag, where the throttle response is slowed waiting for the turbocharger to kick in, the ERS system jumps in to provide an extra boost, thereby smoothing out the power delivery. What's more, new F1 regulations have strong controls over the amount of fuel that can be used: a maximum of 100kg can be used, and the fuel flow rate cannot exceed 100kg per hour.
Why the change? Well, production car development is highly focused on improving fuel economy, both in the creation of more efficient internal combustion engines and the development of hybrid technology. Formula 1 is now required to make this trickle-down effect pay off in bigger, bolder and more obvious ways. While much has been made about how these new engines are much quieter than their predecessors, worries that they would be slow have largely been allayed, as drivers wax lyrical about wider torque bands.
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier has described the new regulations as developing a "completely relevant engine formula", and that has coaxed Honda back to the sport from next year. That means hybrid engines using cutting-edge energy recovery systems will be produced by Honda, Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari next season.
Considering Ferrari is 85% owned by Fiat, that's a whole lot of production cars set to benefit from the perfection of this technology in years to come. The trickle may soon turn into a torrent.