The five technologies in your car that came from motorsports
Formula 1, 2015: duller than a vicar’s sock drawer. British favourite McLaren is nowhere to be seen, plucky underdog Caterham is actually gone, and the only way Ferrari stands a chance of scooping any meaningful silverware is if Rosberg plants one on Hamilton during a post-race conference.
Still, while we wait for the “king of motorsport” to get good again, we can console ourselves with the fact that normal car manufacturers have a vested interest in the top end of the sport: there are plenty of pieces of tech in everyday cars that have their origins in Formula 1. See how many your current car has:
1. Lots of horsepower from a small engine
This is a relatively new one: since 1987, the capacity of an Formula 1 car’s engine has decreased from 3.5 litres to just 1.6, bringing the displacement of Lewis Hamilton’s engine closer to the spec of your average road car. The size-to-performance ratio is mirrored in road cars: there are now plenty of three-pot, 1-litre hatchbacks with a turbocharger that allows them to approximate normal car performance. Give Formula 1 a few years and even performance cars might get away with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines.
2. Confusing steering wheels
An Formula 1 car is a complicated place. A driver might change brake bias a few times per lap, communicate with the pit team and change their fuel mixture or differential settings, as well as choosing which of the car’s eight gears they’d like to be in. Almost everything is done from a nightmarishly complex steering wheel that – hooray? – has made its way down to the humble road car. Even the modest Ford Ka has no fewer than eight buttons on its steering wheel. Climb into a car with actual Formula 1 heritage, such as a Ferrari 458, and you’ll need an instruction manual. Which leads us to:
3. Semi-automatic gearboxes
You’ve got Top Gear to thank for the term “flappy paddle gearbox”, but it does the job. The act of choosing a gear by pulling a paddle on the side of the steering wheel was invented in 1989 by Ferrari’s John Barnard: it simplified the process of choosing a gear by only allowing drivers to pull for next lowest or highest cog (Formula 1 drivers aren’t noted for their block changes), and ended the practice of them removing a hand from the wheel to reach for a standard gated gear lever. These days, even the Honda Jazz can be specified with a semi-automatic, paddle-actuated gearbox, allowing your gran to pretend she’s Kevin Magnussen while she drives to Scrabble Club.
4. Carbon fibre everywhere
This one’s less common, we’ll admit: your average econobox probably doesn’t have too much carbon fibre, but Formula 1 cars are positively riddled with the stuff. Why? Carbon fibre has an amazing strength-to-weight ratio – better than fibreglass and almost ten times that of steel. Formula 1 cars are made from it – including the top roll bar – because it’s lightweight, and money isn’t really a factor when you’re only building a handful of cars per year. Still, carbon fibre construction is making its way down the chain – the electric BMW i3 is hardly a performance wagon, but has plenty of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic in it, allowing the Germans to produce an electric car that goes the distance without compromising on safety. Which prompts us to remind you what happened when Top Gear crash-tested the all-plastic (not carbon fibre!) G-Wiz.
5. Traction control
Traction control is more a story of “we wuz robbed” than one where Formula 1 delivered a tangible benefit to motorists. The tech took off during the 1980s, and came to Formula 1 with a vengeance in the early 1990s. The benefits to mainstream motorists were obvious: with performance manufacturers looking to shave milliseconds from lap times, an accelerated development of traction control could benefit almost everyone. It wasn’t to be: Formula 1’s audience – and, famously, Ayrton Senna – hated traction control, as it allowed lesser racers to overdrive their cars into corners and be bailed out by a computer system, rather than receiving their rightful comeuppance of an embarrassing slide and a visit to the gravel trap. The divorce between motorsports and traction control is almost total – even the BTCC bans the technology, despite being ostensibly a showcase for road-going performance cars.