F1 changes the world

5 min read

The Science museum pays homage to the technology that has come out of Formula One. Justin Cunningham pays it a visit

"The world of Formula One racing is not about glitz and glamour, parties or celebrities," says McLaren chairmen and chief executive Ron Dennis, speaking at the opening of the Fast Forward: 20 Ways F1 is changing our world exhibition at the Science Museum. "It is principally based on technology, and scientific innovation carried out under extreme time pressures under a relentless fortnightly assessment of progress reporting. "The world of formula one is no place for the faint hearted. It is tough; brutal in fact, it is survival of the fittest. It is the principle of not only motor racing, but of innovation under pressure." Despite its fanciful appearance, Formula One is actually a battle of engineering wit that relies on the hard work, lateral thinking and technical nous of the team. As an industry it sits along side aerospace as being on the very forefront of technology development and breakthroughs. But so what. Apart from entertainment, burning rubber and more than its fair share of carbon emissions, what exactly does this sport actually contribute to society? Well, quite a lot apparently. To highlight its achievement an exhibition at the National Science museum in London recently opened to highlight just what its contribution is. "Many technologies often find their genesis in racing car," says Dennis. "Unrelated industries can be beneficiaries of Formula One activities and innovation." He went on to say that key to the racing teams success has been its ability to innovate, adding: "It is no great surprise that successful teams that stay at the top, innovate at an incredible rate. By way of example we make a change to our cars every 20minutes throughout the entire Formula One session. And we do that every session. "We innovate at such a rate that a technology's future application is not yet realised. But they then find suitability in products or situations never foreseen by the original creators." It has to be said, some of the links at the exhibition were somewhat tenuous, such as a 4m long 2mm thick carbon fibre dining table likely to only attract interest from the kind of people with wallets that match those involved in Formula One. But, there are also technologies there that are making a real difference. Some of the most interesting examples of the technology migration can be found in the medical sector. Amongst them is the BabyPod. Transporting premature infants has, to date, been difficult due to the large and cumbersome nature of incubators. These usually require a dedicated vehicle that places a premium on its availability. There is also the safety risk if the ambulance is in an accident and even more of a challenge when a seriously ill newborn might need to be taken to another hospital by air. However, The BabyPod II, which is on display at the exhibition, allows babies to be placed in self-contained structures. The innovatory idea actually stems from the driver's cockpit of a Formula One car. Using the same technology, materials and design features that protect Formula One drivers from injury during a crash, it provides a security and warm environment at a fraction of the cost of the standard transport incubator. The mobility of the Pod means it is light enough to be placed in vehicles from a doctor's cars to a helicopter. Another interesting application of Formula One technology comes from the cars suspension system. Instead it uses the hydraulic dampers on a special lightweight leg support. The aim is to help reduce the damage associated with sudden and forceful impacts on knees that is likely to help with rehabilitation after surgery on an injured joint. But it has also been used as a preventative method to knee injury by the US military. The US Marine Corps, who regularly get injured while standing in fast moving inflatable boats, tested the brace. As the boats hit the water, the Marines' knees absorb the impact, an experience similar to jumping off a 2.5m wall every few seconds. The brace helps control the bending of the knee and realigns the leg before the next impact. There are numerous examples on display of where the technology has crossed over into defence. Perhaps the most interesting is the refuelling technology used in the pits. Where racing can be won and lost in the pits the aim of the game is to get fuel into the car as quickly as possible. The flow rate is some 12 litres a second. But spillage at this can cause an instant inferno. Rapid refuelling is also a problem faced by tank crews on active service. As a result it has lead to the development of a special leak free fuel cap that allows fuel to enter the vehicle quickly whilst preventing spillage. As the fuel costs more than £100 a litre to fly out from the UK, it is vital that not a drop is lost. But also capable of putting vehicles, and troops, out of action are mines and munitions. However, the composite materials use to form an F1 chassis, has been specially designed to absorb and dissipate massive amounts of energy and allow drivers to walk away from even the most spectacular crashes. The material is strong enough to absorb the high impact energy of a bullet or explosion. As a result, troops in Afghanistan and Iraq regularly make use of the material to help reduce serious injuries caused by car bomb and mine blasts. It has even lead to developments by F1 engineers to design carbon-fibre seat shells for use in lightweight 'jeep'-style vehicles. This includes a special aluminium honeycomb structure placed beneath the seat that is capable of absorbing massive amounts of energy and reduces 50g blast acceleration to 20g, greatly increasing the chances of surviving an explosion. Perhaps the two innovations that will enter the real world is firstly a fishing line. For the last 10 years F1 tyres had grooves cut into them to restrict the amount of rubber in contact with the track. Today anglers use the same design principles. A ridged or grooved pattern is cut into a fly fishing line. That means there is less contact with the rod, so reducing friction and allowing anglers to cast further and with greater accuracy than ever before. The wet tyres have also been the inspiration for a soft rubber compound on a pair of wellington boots to produce a slip resistant sole, perhaps finding suitable use in environments such as a oil and gas platform in the North Sea. One thing is for sure Formula One shows no sign of letting up the pace when it comes to innovation. "It is no great surprise that successful teams that stay at the top, innovate at an incredible rate," says Dennis. "By way of example we make a change to our cars every 20 minutes throughout the entire formula one session. And we do that every session." "But, to me, the most powerful role of the exhibition is to inspire the next generation of science and technology and engineering to provide answers for the problems of the modern world, the challenges of the world today, and the challenges facing Great Britain." Formula One meets the push bike Amongst the technologies on display at the Fast Forward: 20 Ways F1 is changing our world, is the Formula One of bikes. Manufactured by Beru f1systems the Factor 001 used Formula One design approaches, technology and materials. As a result the bike features hydraulic disc brakes and a carbon ceramic composite frame. But with prices starting at £20,000, it is unlikely to useful to the average cyclists for sometime. Monocoque wheelchairs At the heart of every modern racing car you would expect to find a special carbon-fibre shell known as a monocoque. This incredibly strong structure plays two important roles: it encases and protects the driver and acts as a frame to which the car's structural components can be attached. But a British engineering company has used its experience of manufacturing parts for F1 cars to create the world's first commercially available monocoque wheelchair. The new shape promises to offers an extremely strong but lightweight chair with a custom sculpted seat sculpted to fit the users body.