Formula One: The car's not the only star

F1 isn't just about speed. The technology behind it has helped the mission to Mars, healed injured Marines – and even keeps your boiler running

David Wilkins
Wednesday 11 March 2009 01:00

Apart from filling Sunday afternoons with the roar of engines and the squeal of tyres on Tarmac, what has Formula One ever done for us? If you've never given the subject much thought, you could be forgiven for thinking that the answer is "not very much". After all, F1 is a rich man's sport in which powerful teams focus on their own performance to the apparent exclusion of pretty much anything else.

But a new exhibition that opens today at London's Science Museum sets out to demonstrate just how great – and varied – the benefits of motor-racing technology are. Called Fast Forward: 20 ways F1 is changing our world, it shows, for example, how British soldiers are benefiting from the protective qualities of the light yet strong materials that were first developed for racing cars; and how hospital patients and premature babies may stand a better chance of survival than they would have done a few years ago, thanks to the transfer of F1 know-how to the medical world. Also, how borrowed motor-racing technology called "laso" makes it less likely your central-heating boiler will conk out next winter, and help anglers to catch more fish.

"Formula One engineering is a thriving activity in the UK," explains the exhibition's curator, Katie Maggs. "I hope the exhibition provides a unique perspective, and will appeal to a wide range of visitors, including those who aren't necessarily interested in motor racing."

While it's not surprising that advances made in Formula One tend to filter down to the cars we drive every day, motor-racing technology has less obvious applications as well. "A wide range of unrelated industries have been beneficiaries of F1 innovation," says Ron Dennis, chairman of the McLaren Group. Several industries exploit technical advances originally developed for space exploration, but so advanced are some of the innovations in motor racing that space scientists occasionally come knocking at the door of Formula One, looking for help as well. The casing of the 2003 Beagle 2 Mars lander, for example, used a special lightweight plastic first used in F1 exhaust systems, adapted to protect the craft's sensitive scientific instruments.

Modern cars use a monocoque, or single-piece bodyshell, a lighter, stiffer arrangement than the separate chassis and coachwork found on earlier vehicles. In modern Formula One cars, the monocoque is made of carbon fibre, resulting in an exceptionally light and strong body. Using the same principle, the Babypod II, a container used to transport babies requiring urgent medical treatment, which draws on Formula One cockpit design. It is lighter and far more easily stowed in cars and helicopters than a conventional incubator. "Almost everything needed for the baby's survival is provided within the shell," says Maggs.

A larger carbon-fibre monocoque-style structure, in this case designed to accommodate adults, is the Ovei Wellbeing Capsule, a diagnostics tool that captures data from the patient that is then transmitted to doctors and psychologists anywhere in the world for diagnosis. The Ovei's designer, Lee McCormack, also called upon Formula One engineers to help model the airflow through the capsule to cool the diagnostic equipment it contains.

Another F1-inspired innovation is the lightweight Gen3 leg brace. Designed by McLaren Applied Technologies, the arm of McLaren set up to exploit technical advances made in the team's quest for success on the track, the Gen3 was commissioned by the US Marines. It borrows principles used in hydraulic dampers and lightweight construction in Formula One to minimise the impact of the repeated shocks to the legs suffered by Marines travelling in rigid inflatable boats in heavy seas. As well as reducing the risk of injury, the Gen3 shows promise as an aid to the healing of civilian knees after surgery.

Formula One is a leader in the use of telemetry – every aspect of a car's performance is measured and recorded to provide the teams with the vast volumes of data they require to analyse and improve their cars' performance. The Factor 001 bicycle extends this approach to the world of cycling. The heart rate of the rider and the speed of the wheels are recorded for analysis; previously, it had only been possible to gather this sort of information in a static setting, but the Factor 001 allows it to be collected under real-world conditions on the road as part of the cyclist's training regime.

Some of the exhibits at the Science Museum show might appear mundane, but they have the potential to make everyday life safer and simpler. The Guardian wellington boot, for example, has an anti-slip sole that uses the rubber compounds and tread patterns used in Formula One tyres. The Boiler Buddy is even less glamorous – if just as useful – than an F1 welly. Magnetic filters used to remove tiny metal particles from engine and gearbox oil are adapted to combat the accumulation of sludge in domestic heating systems, which operate more reliably as a result. "The Boiler Buddy shows that the applications of Formula One technology aren't all elitist – they can be applied to everyday situations," explains Maggs.

Interior-design fans will appreciate the carbon-fibre dining table created by Terence Woodgate with the support of John Barnard, the engineer responsible for designing Formula One's first carbon-fibre chassis for McLaren in 1981. Although the table is 4m long, it is a mere 2mm thick, a tribute to the exceptional strength of carbon-fibre.

But it's not just specific materials or techniques that can profitably be borrowed from Formula One. In the ruthless pursuit of success, racing teams endlessly redesign their processes and strip them back to the essentials. Think how long it takes your local garage to fit a new tyre to your car. Compare that with the 10 seconds or less it takes for a team to change four wheels and brim the tank during a pit stop. Now imagine how procedures in business, government, or any other field could be transformed by applying the sort of intelligence, urgency and rigour that are the norm in motor racing. Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children worked with experts from Formula One in order to streamline the vital, complex process of transferring patients between the operating theatre and intensive care – and achieved a reduction in errors at the same time.

So, what has Formula One ever done for us? Quite a lot, as it turns out – and they've finally decided to tell us about it.

Fast Forward: 20 ways F1 is Changing Our World, Science Museum, London SW7, until 5 April 2010

Race for innovation: F1's smart spin-offs

Trekinetic wheelchair

This revolutionary device incorporates a host of innovations, but the fundamental difference compared with orthodox designs lies in the use of a moulded carbon-fibre seat based on the monocoque bodyshells seen in Formula One. All components are attached to this shell to produce a light, strong wheelchair that is particularly suited for use on rough surfaces.

Airflo low-friction fishing-line

The line has a ridged surface, giving it a star-shaped cross-section. Tests showed that 12 was the optimum number of ridges, and the reduced contact area with the rod, compared with that of a normal fishing line, means that there is less friction, just as a grooved tyre enjoys less grip than a normal smooth 'slick' racing tyre without a tread. Formula One rules required the use of grooved tyres until 2008 in order to hold down cornering speeds.

Wind-turbine blades

Nottingham University experts working on carbon-fibre wind-turbine blades are drawing on Formula One knowledge of rapid component manufacturing. By, for example, improving the positioning of the fibres, it is possible to save time, materials and costs, and make the blades more readily available.

Guardian anti-slip wellington boot

This apparently ordinary-looking welly has a sole that benefits from Formula One know-how about soft rubber compounds and treads. The new design greatly reduces the risk of accidents for those who have to work in slippery conditions.

Fernox Cookson Boiler Buddy

It is difficult to imagine an application for Formula One technology further removed from the glamour of the racetrack than this, but the Boiler Buddy promises to improve the efficiency of central-heating systems by preventing rust and sludge building up. It uses magnetic filtration technology that was originally designed to remove tiny metal particles from Formula One engine and gearbox oil.

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