Ironically, in the light of Honda’s current failure to produce a race-winning Formula One car, it was the marque’s founder who said that “racing improves the breed”. Soichiro Honda was a firm believer in using the lessons learned on the race tracks of the world to improve his motorcycles and cars.
By Graham Duxbury
The legendary man also said that “what we learn through failure becomes a precious part of us, strengthening us in everything we do. So, let the tough things make you tougher”.
This gives us an insight into Honda’s unique philosophy, perhaps explaining why Honda will not make use of outside help to boost its ailing F1 programme. But that’s another story …
Much as the deadly heat of war spawned innovations like jet engines, synthetic rubber, radar and rockets, so fierce competition in motorsport has brought a slew of inventions to the auto industry, many of which we take for granted today.
Disc brakes, for example, are now common on family saloons, yet they were developed by Jaguar in collaboration with Dunlop to enable the C-Type Jaguar to beat the opposition at the 1953 LeMans 24-hour race.
Acknowledged design genius Colin Chapman brought the concept of monocoque construction to F1 with his revolutionary Lotus 25 of 1963. Until then, all racers had separate chassis and bodies. Today, “unibody” construction is ubiquitous in the auto industry.
Chapman, always ready to confront convention, was also the first to explore the benefits of underbody aerodynamics in the F1. The Lotus 78 of 1977 handled as if it was “painted to the track” said champion Mario Andretti. Today, cars with even a remote claim to a “high-performance” epithet feature a diffuser under the rear bumper.
In the late 1970s, British designer John Barnard began working with Hercules Aerospace to adopt a revolutionary, stronger-than-steel material for a chassis he was conceptualising with McLaren. His successes with carbon fibre composites resulted in a revolution in motorsport that has since trended into road cars.
The direct shift gearbox (DSG) was developed by Porsche in the 1980s and perfected by Barnard (working with Ferrari), who added gear change “paddles” to the steering wheel of Nigel Mansell’s F1 Ferrari in 1989. The Ferrari 355 of 1997 is claimed to be the first road-going car to be fitted with a paddle-shift sequential gearbox.
Carbon-carbon brake technology, pioneered in F1, has been adopted by production cars as carbon-ceramic brakes. Now a common option on performance cars, the Ferrari Enzo of 2002 was the first to have them fitted as standard.
Of course, there were dead-ends: in the 1970s Derek Gardner and Robin Herd both designed six-wheeled F1 cars which had little impact in the automotive world at large and Chapman built a turbine-powered car for Emerson Fittipaldi to drive in the 1971 Italian Grand Prix with the same result.
While F1 fans have witnessed a number of extraordinary leaps in development, it took the genius of British designer Adrian Newey to finally explore the outer limits of what was possible in his technical tour de force – the Williams FW15C of 1993. It is described as F1’s “Concord car” because, like the aircraft. it represents the peak of technical innovation in its field.
Newey perfected a computer-controlled, active suspension concept that Automotive Products was developing for road cars of the future. Being able to optimise ride height, no matter what forces are acting on the suspension, was a boon for aerodynamic efficiency.
The FW15C also featured anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, launch control, electronic stability control (ESP), fly-by-wire controls, active aerodynamics (via a push-to-pass system linked to the active suspension), and a fully-automatic, programmable transmission.
Unfortunately, the rule-makers saw these systems as ‘aids’ that minimised the role of the driver. They were banned along with variable speed transmissions, four-wheel steering, oval pistons (pioneered by Yamaha) and exotic materials such as beryllium and its alloys, all of which have had road relevance.
One can only imagine how 20-plus years of development of these technologies in the heat of competition would have benefitted the auto industry.
But times have changed and while F1 has made efforts to lure major motor manufacturers to the sport with the current V6 turbo hybrid rules, many industry commentators believe that costly, complex hybrid technology is another dead-end.
F1 has had its role as an innovator in the auto industry increasingly thwarted by the rule-makers and the more recent – and unexpected – rise in popularity of Formula-e, which has confidently staked its claim as master of an all-electric racing future.
Now, with autonomous driving electric cars on the horizon (Fe is adopting an autonomous racing car support series), there seems little F1 can do to climb aboard the (driverless) bandwagon, except maybe introduce a driverless safety car. Have we reached the end of an era?