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Formula One and the Future of Automotive Technology

Believe it or not, the sport known for greenhouse gases and burning oil is going green.
November 26, 2014, 2:00pm

​For Formula One, 2014 was the year the music died—if, by music, I mean the eardrum-shattering clamour long-produced by the oil and gas engines that powered grand prix cars around famous circuits like the Nurburgring, Monaco and Monza at over 300 kilometers per hour.

This season, the high-pitched roars of the old, gas-guzzling V8 engines has been replaced by a chorus of pops and whirs produced by new, hybrid V6 power units—as the engine/turbo/energy recovery system ensemble is now called.

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From trackside, the sound can be disappointing to those used to the old cacophony. However, the (lack of) sound from the new power units masks an incredible reality: They produce similar horsepower and more torque than the old V8s while consuming far less fuel. In other words, they are the future, the next step in the development of hybrid car technology.

F1, occupying the pinnacle of the motorsport pyramid, has already played an important role in the advancement of road car technology, and the new engines ensure this will continue. F1 cars may seem to have more in common with a fighter jet than your average family sedan. But while the crossover is not always obvious, it is there.

Things like lightweight aluminium engines, or powerful four-valve heads, and fuel efficient engine control units, were first christened in F1 cars before your average Ford, explained Craig Scarborough, who covers F1 technology for Autosport magazine. "F1 led the turbo road car development in the 1980s, when F1 ran with just 1.5-litre engines producing over 1000 hp; now, most road cars are turbocharged," he said.

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Right now, we are on the cusp of a whole new era of F1-inspired road car development. Under the new engine regulations for this season, the boost provided by the energy recovery systems is artificially capped. Scarborough thinks this restriction should be modified to make the cars even more efficient. "This closely matches the direction of road cars," he said, "with hybrid technology being seen as a performance aid, as much as a fuel efficiency aid."

Going forward, compound energy recovery will become more common in road cars, said Matt Somerfield, another chronicler of F1's technical side on his site, Somers F1. The sport is now pushing the development of this technology, with two motor generator units (MGUs) harvesting previously wasted energy from braking and the exhaust (one of the reasons the cars are so much quieter).

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This dual-MGU system negates the inefficient need to convert harvested energy and store it. Instead, one MGU can be harvesting energy while the other is using it, Somerfield explained.

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With the amount of money F1 teams spend to build their cars (big teams like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have annual budgets estimated in the $300-400 million range), advanced technology can be developed much faster—and under more stressful conditions—than it could as part of a road car development program.

For example, said Somerfield, "the original kinetic energy recovery systems in 2009 weighed in at around 100 kilograms and only had a thermal efficiency of around 35 to 40 percent, but by 2012 they had reduced the weight to around 25 kilograms and improved thermal efficiency to 80 percent."

Indeed, the new hybrid engines have been a remarkable about-face for F1, a sport not exactly known for being environmentally friendly. And while flying a small army around the world for 19 races is nobody's idea of saving the planet, F1 can now legitimately boast about its green credentials.

Not everyone is happy with the hybrid engines, though. There has been backlash from fans who prefer the deafening roar of the V8s and even from F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone, who told The Telegraph earlier this year, "I was not horrified by the noise, I was horrified by the lack of it. And I was sorry to be proved right with what I've said all along; these cars don't sound like racing cars." Those concerns have largely dissipated in the face of an exciting season of racing, but there are still plans afoot to see if the engine noise can be increased in the future.

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There are also areas outside of the power units and energy recovery systems where F1 could push future road car development, depending which direction the sport's regulations take. Electronic driver aids, such as active suspension, are currently banned in F1, but they have been used in the past and the regulations are always changing.

F1 can now legitimately boast about its green credentials

Scarborough and Somerfield both agree that innovations like moveable aerodynamics and active suspension are important for the future for road cars, as they can improve performance and efficiency. If the sport's decision-makers decide to, F1 could play a leadership role in these areas, as well.

Or perhaps the next big development is something not currently foreseen.

With hundreds of millions of dollars, legions of engineers and a mandate for constant improvement, you never know what tricks F1 teams will come up with next. And you never know when one of those tricks might find its way into the car in your driveway.