In the automotive world the potential benefit of trying something radically new is more often than not outweighed by the risk. Vehicle manufacturers cannot afford to try different technologies on a whim, it requires huge investment in testing and development. They need to be absolutely sure it will work before the Chief Executive signs off a cheque to the engineers.
Motorsport is different. In most formulas the regulations are so tight that if you can offer teams a quarter a second a lap the benefit is worth the risk of development time and budget. This is why motorsport is the breeding ground for new technologies. It allows theories to be tried and tested in a very harsh environment with an attractive risk/reward ratio.
To meet stringent emissions regulations vehicle manufacturers are developing downsized, force inducted combustion engines, alongside electric drive technologies. The dramatic changes to the 2014 Formula 1 regulations bring 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged engines and a bigger emphasis on the hybrid systems. This is helping to keep the sport current, but more importantly making it more attractive to vehicle manufacturers, such as Honda who will be joining the grid in 2015.
We have seen turbochargers in Formula 1 before. In 1977 Renault introduced the first turbocharged car and after that the 1980s were dominated by 1,000bhp+, flame spitting, turbocharged engines. At the same time in the automotive world we saw the launch of the Ferrari F40, Ford Sierra Cosworth, Audi Quattro, Nissan Skyline GTR, Porsche 911 turbo, Lotus Esprit turbo, the list is endless. The technology was widely adopted by almost every marque.
Now, with an emphasis on efficiency and fuel economy, forced induction is back and once again the manufacturers are using unproven technologies in the motorsport arena. For instance, most turbocharged road cars use a wastegate to vent exhaust gas from the turbine wheel once the required boost pressure is reached. This year’s F1 powertrains will use the Motor Generator Unit – Heat (MGU-H) to control the speed of the turbine rather than a wastegate. This allows the MGU-H to convert the surplus exhaust gas (which would normally just go to waste out of the tailpipe) into electrical energy.
I expect the same thing to happen in the newly found Formula E series next year (when teams are allowed to run their own chassis and powertrain), although it is well documented how much vehicle manufacturers have already invested in electric drive technologies. The very nature of motorsport will allow engineers to try things that they wouldn’t have normally been able to do. I am personally unsure as to how successful the series will be. I also feel that a driver having to switch cars mid-race because the battery won’t last does nothing for the reputation of electric vehicles. However, I am greatly looking forward to see how the powertrain technologies will develop. Which team will have that one ingenious idea that will enable a car to race the whole distance?
It will happen eventually, and I am willing to bet the idea will be conceived, designed, tested and proven in motorsport. When it does, just like all good ideas conceived through motorsport such as, disc brakes, rear view mirrors, traction control and carbon fibre chassis, we will see it in our road cars shortly after.