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Formula 1 Racing: Innovation with Environmental Impact

Posted on May 4th, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

formula one, formula 1

It’s race season, but there is even more than pure fan exhilaration on offer from Formula 1.  Technological innovation in the sport holds the promise to improve light weighting and emissions in our own consumer cars, too.

I was introduced to Formula 1 racing by many members of my family who are big fans of this exciting, highly technological sport. While it’s less popular in the U.S. and mostly based in Europe, Formula 1 (F1) is tremendously popular – any given race might be watched by up to 530 million viewers around the world, and the sport generates an average $145 million in annual revenue for each of the dozen F1 teams. The allure of F1 is hard to match: the speed, driving styles and strategies, daring feats, exciting road courses and international appeal, all combine with cutting-edge technology. Nothing can compete with F1 cars – they represent the pinnacle of technological advances in auto engineering.

Constructed from composites of carbon fiber and other ultra-lightweight materials, F1 chassis weigh around 1,400 pounds, which is half the average of a passenger car. They can reach record speeds of 230 miles per hour (mph), accelerating from 0 to 124 mph in under four seconds. Their 80,000 components are assembled by expert teams to ensure there is no failure during a typical two-hour race. With the goal of increasing reliability and curbing costs, F1 cars are currently regulated to have 1.6-liter V8 engines with a maximum of 18,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). This means that pistons can travel up and down up to 300 times a second – three times faster than in-road car engines. Teams like Ferrari (Italy), Mercedes (Germany), Haas (U.S.), and McLaren (U.K.) spend millions to develop F1 cars, and the technologies incorporated may well translate into what your daily driver feature in a few years.

Of course, with the high fuel consumption of these racing cars (4-7 miles per gallon (mpg), compared to 11-46 mpg in 2008 model midsize cars), F1 isn’t the first thing to come to mind when it comes to environmentally friendly sports. But paradoxically, F1 is embracing sustainability on multiple fronts: environmental, economic, educational and safety. Back in 2006, the head of the F1 governing body (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, FIA) called for sustainability awareness in the sport, and incremental steps have been taken since then. In 2013, a study from the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) found out that F1-generated emissions had been cut by seven percent overall from 2009 to 2011.  Another study showed that races contribute only 0.3 percent of the total emissions, with the majority generated during the product development and through choice of materials and electricity use. This has clearly defined engine design as the area to focus for greening.

Last March, the day after the start of the 2016 F1 season, the U.K. government’s Department of Transportation (DoT) announced over £38m of funding awards across the automotive sector to support emissions reduction projects, including an innovative initiative to deploy F1 technology to make family cars lighter and more efficient. The winning projects were chosen as part of a competition launched last September, the OLEV (Office for Low Emission Vehicles) Research and Development Fund, which encourages proposals for innovative projects aimed at cutting vehicle emissions. The funding combines £30m from the OLEV and £8.2m from Innovate U.K. The working prototypes will be unveiled from 2018, and could start featuring in passenger cars as early as 2020.

Among the 130 award recipients are auto makers such as Nissan and Jaguar-Land Rover (JLR), which will receive £1.7m to deploy F1 “light weighting” technology in commercial vehicles to make them more energy efficient. The technology could reduce the weight of steel components in cars like the Nissan Leaf by more than half, potentially extending by 25 percent the distance that plug-in cars can drive. The two manufacturers are already considered industry leaders in the use sustainable approaches for the reduction of manufacturing emissions. Nissan will be powering its regional office in France with energy generated from its electric vehicles, and JLR will invest £36m over the next three years in energy efficiency, renewable sources of energy and process improvements.

This is not the first time that F1 technology has been applied to increase sustainability in the auto industry, and beyond. Innovations such as turbocharging, fuel injection, and Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (Kers), which are used in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, were all developed initially for F1. Kers is also used for trams, power grids and buses. Other examples are Thermal Energy Recovery System (Ters), which works by harnessing the energy produced when braking, can dramatically cut fuel consumption by 30 percent, or a new aerodynamic device initially created for F1, which can reduce the energy consumed by refrigerators by almost half. Sustainability is increasingly important in the auto industry business, and is being embraced by F1 racing.

Ben Heatley, a spokesman for the famous McLaren F1 team, says, “As a sport, F1 needs to remain relevant, and that applies to our sponsors and partners. We’re backed by a number of the world’s leading corporations, all of which take sustainability seriously.”

The OLEV competition is part of the UK government ÂŁ600m commitment to support the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020. The decision to fund F1 research as part of this objective extends the trend of lower energy consumption from transportation to a high-performance sport, confirming the wide adoption of environmental values.

Take note, Formula innovation can come from multiple sources, such as the Formula SAE student design competition held by SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers). Read more.

More reading:

  • Complete list of the Winners of the OLEV Research & Development Fund can be found here
  • Article in Forbes on sustainability in Formula One


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