What has Formula 1 ever done for us?

picEver fancied driving an F1 machine? You may not realise it but you could well be doing it already – at least in part. There are plenty of elements of the cars we all use that owe something to the developments of F1.

There is nothing like the white heat of competition to drive forwards technical innovations. It was once warfare that provided the hotbed – and the test bed – for motoring innovation. Happily, these days we have a more peaceful way of setting the technological pace.

That is not to say that the ultra-competitive engineering environment that F1 represents is necessarily free of hostility – it most certainly is not. But what constitutes cutting edge technology one day can be part of the mainstream the next. For anyone contemplating a bet on Formula 1, the engineering developments that make Mercedes the red-hot favourite for the 2015 constructors’ championship can be the difference between cashing in or crashing out. But for the rest of us, those tweaks and top ups may well pay off down the track in terms of better fuel economy, improved safety or enhanced handling. Here are a few elements that have made the transition from F1 to the open road.

Energy transfer

Modern hybrids share with their more streamlined cousins the technology that translates electric energy from the braking system to supplement the power of the engine. Once upon a time this was the stuff of science fiction; today, it is merely a matter of a more fuel efficient hatchback.

Data is king

In-car telemetry is now fundamental to measuring track performance down to the millisecond. F1 drivers have to be as skilled with the numbers as they are with the throttle these days. It may not be quite as rapid, but what counts on the track counts a thousand times over when it comes to the domestic market. Just as race data allows engineers to scrutinise what happens at every point in competition, your car’s ECU (engine control unit) is storing up data that can help the designers at Toyota, Mercedes, Renault and their rivals iron out any glitches in their designs. In just the same way that F1 engineers take their lessons on a race-to-race basis, we are all feeding information back to the major manufacturers every time we check in for a service. Good designs are a product of good data.

Getting a grip

We tend to take traction control for granted, but it wasn’t so long ago that it was at the cutting edge. Originally designed to tame the runaway power that ever more powerful engines were producing, it was banned in F1 for a while in the 1990s before being reintroduced in 2001. These days traction control is fitted as standard to just about every domestic model in the marketplace. Of all the safety features that make modern driving so much safer than in years gone by, traction control is amongst the most effective. Around the world tens of thousands of drivers owe their no-claims bonus, if not something more substantial, to their traction control.

A material benefit

Carbon fibre technology has been the material of choice in Formula One since the 1980s. It was first used by McLaren in the 1981 season when John Watson and the unfortunately accident prone Andrea De Cesaris were at the wheel. From the outset, the lightness, strength, rigidity and design malleability of carbon fibre represented obvious competitive benefits. As De Cesaris also demonstrated, it combined those racing benefits with excellent safety enhancements. Mercedes, BMX and VW have all invested heavily in carbon fibre in recent years, and it seems that earlier uncertainties about the reliability of the supply which caused mass producers to hang back are now being overcome. It is no longer just the high-performance market that has taken the turn to carbon fibre.


Carbon technology also gets an honorary mention when it comes to putting the brakes on. Weight is one part of the equation that immediately appealed to the racing fraternity, but carbon’s ability to retain its integrity at extreme heat was no less a factor in its adoption. The same benefits made carbon an even better fit for the aviation industry – but that’s a different story. One again it is the high end that has taken to carbon for braking purposes. Their durability, tendency not to warp and that high temperature operating range – which reflects higher speeds – means that carbon braking is maybe making less of a mainstream impact than some of the other innovations described here.

Steering – but not like Stirling Moss

Once upon a time the super small steering wheels that F1 drivers were obliged to use (owing to cockpit constraints) were iconic in their own right. Back in the day, boy racers would make a point of downsizing their own steering wheels as a mark of their motoring machismo. But as the machinery has become increasingly electronic so the humble steering column has evolved to encompass a suite of controls that extend form gear shifts to radios, and from wipers to cruise controls. The days when the wheel incorporated nothing but an air-horn are long gone. The boy racers are still around though.


Racing lines were once just a matter of taste. It is only in recent years that the aerodynamic qualities of our cars have been seriously factored into their design. The keen appreciation of downforces in particular in F1 has seen a tight focus applied to all aspects of the way a car cuts through the air. With economy an ever-present concern any and every reduction of drag is calculated down to the nth degree. Adjustable grills and shutters are already a feature of many an up-market model and whilst the sportier end of the motoring market place will always put a premium of a sleek set of lines, the same rationale is guiding more modest designs as well.

Getting tyred

There is probably no one area of F1 tech that is more discussed than the humble tyre – except that when it comes to F1 there is nothing humble about the rubber. There is no immediate crossover between the tyres that we expect to keep their treads for thousands of miles and the sort of super slicks that might make it to 70 miles around a race circuit, but those extreme versions represent the state of an art that is integral to the safety and comfort of every single person on the road. The more we know when it comes to staying grounded the better. There is no one single development that we can point to as a zinger to make this point, but the continual involvement of companies such as Pirelli and Michelin in F1 is not just about the marketing. Progress is not always made in giant leaps, sometimes it is more of a smooth rolling, ongoing process.

Turbo turn on

Last but not least we turn to the one thing that is perhaps the most recognisable crossover of them all: the turbo. The late 1970s and early 80s are widely recognised as the golden age of the turbo in F1, even though the basic technology is almost as old as the internal combustion engine itself. The names Prost and Senna are redolent of a different age and a different generation of racing, but the take up of turbo technology across the motoring mainstream was near universal. As it happens the turbo is back in vogue in F1, accommodating for the smaller engines and greater fuel efficiency for which sport now calls. Elsewhere, it’s a safe bet that it’s not just the boy racers who are enjoying the benefits of their domestic turbos: everybody loves a turbo.

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