Simply Wondering

The intersection between business, pop culture, sustainability and sport for the curious minds

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You may not like Formula One, but we all enjoy the benefits of "the fastest R&D lab on earth"

By Sara Neves · June 15, 2022 · 5 min read

Man working on F1 car

Over the years Formula One has been a common anecdote of how a group of people spend absurd amounts of money on what is considered a frivolous end. To be very honest, until recently I was one of these people who looked at the sport and asked myself if that money wouldn’t be better spend on other things. What I failed to understand, among many things, about Formula One was that at the heart of the sport is the desire of each team to find the technological breakthrough that will give them any advantage on the racetrack. 

In practical terms this means that ten teams, each with hundreds of people, driven by the desire to be the quickest on track and constrained by ever changing FIA regulations and conditions, are learning, testing and failing everyday (on track and off it) to develop a car that allows them to hopefully have the best performance, efficiency and reliability. This constant push for improvement and the financial resources to do so, let’s not forget this important part of the equation, create a unique environment where technology and processes are tested at a high pace and to the absolute limit. Hence being coined “the fastest R&D lab on earth”.

Really interesting video by the Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team of the factory showing what it takes to build an Formula One car.

For decades the learnings motorsport teams have made have trickled down to our common road cars. Classic examples of this are the rear-view mirror which was first featured in race cars as a way of giving drivers a competitive advantage by getting rid of the co-driver and their extra weight. The seatbelt is another example, first used by drivers to protect them from fatal injuries and are now a feature in every single car on the road. Or even the several buttons we can find on steering wheels in modern cars are there thanks to Formula One. In the 80’s drivers wanted an easy and save way to be able to modify settings while going 300km/h, so teams placed the buttons on the steering wheel!

These are just some examples of innovations that made their way into our road cars and that we can see as non-mechanic or engineers! Other things such as batteries, suspension elements, tyre technology and things I don’t have a clue about, can also be found in our common road car thanks to Motorsports. 

The end of Tobacco Era

Before 2006 Formula One was in large part financed by the tabacco industry, but the FIA prohibited tobacco sponsorship in order to comply with the tobacco advertising ban passed by the European Parliament and Council in 2003. This meant that all that tobacco money had to come from somewhere else. (There are some teams however who have been able to get around these laws in creative ways and are still sponsored by the tobacco industry.)

Teams started to reinvent themselves and created a new business model that took advantage of their amazing R&D capabilities with some even saying it could lead to teams funding themselves and do away with sponsorship in the future. This new model, the technology transfer model, means expertise on a variety of issues such as data analytics and analysis, aerodynamics and fuel and battery efficiency are sold as technology, goods and services to generate revenue. This explains why most teams currently on the grid have “small” companies that sell this know-how to all kinds of industries.

Technology transfer model

Maybe the most well-known example of this new business model is “Project Pitlane”. During the Covid-19 pandemic seven Formula One teams came together and used their technical expertise and rapid problem-solving ability to reverse-engineer and afterwards manufacture respiratory devices for the Nation Health Service. In just one month after the first meeting a 10.000 device order by the UK government was fulfilled and the design of the device was offered freely to anyone who wanted it.

Some less well-known examples are the case of several commercial airlines and an aircraft manufacturer who wanted to increase efficiency of planes by reducing their weight. To do so they partnered up with a Formula One team to design new seating using the resistant but light weight carbon fibre used in Formula One cars. Resulting in fuel savings and the reduction in C02 emissions.

Another case is that of a British supermarket chain who wanted to reduce the energy consumption of fridges and freezers in the stores, especially during the summer. Seen that Formula One teams have heavily invested in battery solutions and energy saving technology the chain asked them for help. What the team came up with was an aerofoil that is fitted into current fridges and freezers and that keeps cold air inside and moves warm air away. Not only did it reduce the energy usage by 15% in a simple way, it made headlines in the industry and currently chains like Aldi, Lidl, Walmart and Tesco use it.

Leaning into the role of "catalyst of innovation"

If we look at the history of the sport, we can actually see parallels with this new shift of Formula One and what a team such as Ferrari has been doing since the 50’s. In order to fund the team’s racing efforts, it started selling road cars using the experience and know-how gained in years of racing. In some way this is exactly what most Formula One teams are doing now. They are showcasing their technological capabilities while racing on Sunday and selling this expertise during the week to generate the income to go racing again!

Despite the self-serving interests behind this new business model, I don’t think anyone can deny the great contributions it has led to in a range of industries and ultimately our lives. In 2020 the FIA developed a report on this exact subject called “A report on the contribution of motorsport to health, safety and the environment” where it not just highlights some of these contributions but also positions itself for the future as a driver of innovation in sport and beyond it. Publicly recognizing in this way motorsport’s role as a catalyst of innovation through the years but also solidifying it as part of their identity and way for the future.

It is fascinating but does it matter to the fans?

Formula One is still somewhat of a mystery to me and before making this deep dive into the sport and its history I had no idea teams did more than racing or that the sport was responsible for so much technological innovation in our daily lives. Nor did I know it is a major source of added value to the British economy.

So, yes maybe my initial judgment about the sport was based on ignorance. But are these things really relevant to enjoy the sport? Several other sports spend and earn millions of dollars and no one blinks an eye. As such, I don’t think most fans really care. What I can say is that I find it quite fascinating and can’t name any other sport that has made so many contributions to our everyday lives. You?

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