Why Formula One has long been dubbed 'the fastest R&D lab on Earth'
The notion was that motor racing technology would sooner or later trickle down to the road car world. While that was certainly the case for some innovations and inventions, it was not necessarily true on a large scale.
The challenges of Formula One were often too specific or the cost for industrial-scale production too high to introduce certain technologies in production vehicles.
This, however, has changed in recent years. Since the introduction of full hybrid powertrains, F1 technology has become more relevant for road cars than it has ever been before.
But it is also true for other parts of the car - especially in the world of bits and bytes.
Here are five reasons why now, more than ever before, F1 is at the forefront of technology - from road cars to consumer electronics, from medical technology to smart cities.
1. Hybrid engines - Formula One makes efficiency mean power
From an engineering point of view, the hybrid power units used in Formula One are truly mind-blowing in terms of their thermal efficiency - in other words, their ability to convert fuel energy into useful work. When the internal combustion engine was developed by Nicolaus Otto in 1876, it had a thermal efficiency of about 17 percent. That means that only around 17 percent of the energy in the fuel was converted into useful work.
In 2013, one year before the introduction of hybrid power units in Formula One, the thermal efficiency of an average road car reached roughly 30 per cent, meaning that only about one third of the petrol in the car was used to propel it. In the summer of 2017, the staff at Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, UK ran a Mercedes-Benz F1 power unit on their dyno - and it showed an astonishing number. The F1 M08 EQ Power+ power unit reached a thermal efficiency of over 50 percent, making it the one of the most efficient internal combustion engines ever.
F1 hybrid power units are not just very efficient; they also have made considerable contributions to battery technology. The first energy recovery system was used for development testing in 2007, its energy store weighed 107 kilograms and achieved 39 percent efficiency. Since then, the weight has been reduced by over 80 percent; today, the lithium-ion battery energy store has a 20 kg minimum regulation weight. The efficiency has increased by 57 percentage points, reaching 96 percent today. At the same time the energy density has doubled while the power density has increased 12-fold.
The research that has gone into making an F1 car as performant as possible does not just give the team an advantage on the track, it also helps to make road cars more efficient; the same learnings that deliver improved power for racing, can also be applied to improving fuel consumption in the road-going environment.
2. Connectivity - F1 technology in your next smartphone
Formula One cars are probably the most connected cars in the world. A modern-day F1 car runs on high-tech sensors and the data they collect as much as it combusts high-tech fuel. To be competitive, F1 teams process a lot of data. An F1 car will sport hundreds of sensors logging thousands of channels of data, measuring all kinds of things around the car and power unit - from forces and displacements, temperatures and pressures to control parameters for power unit and gearbox as well as driver inputs.
Some of the telemetry data can be accessed in real-time as the car travels around the track at speeds up to 350 km/h and more; however, the type and amount of real-time data is limited by the control unit that is common for all teams. The majority of the data is only transferred from the car to the engineers when the car comes into the pits - either through a very fast wireless connection or with the so-called umbilical cord.
Tyres are a key performance factor in Formula One, so understanding them is crucial. During Friday practice, the team will fit an optical, infra-red tyre monitoring system onto the car to get a comprehensive picture of how different tyres are working and understand their respective single-lap and race performance.
Getting the tyre data off the car as fast as possible is important, as the car will only be stationary in or in front of the garage for a few moments. In the past, the team would either have to sacrifice track time in order to download all the data or the engineers had to wait until after the session to access the data.
In 2017, however, the team started using a system of two high-tech wireless technologies - 5 GHz 802.11ac and Multi-gigabit 802.11ad Wi-Fi technology, which operates in the millimetre wave 60 GHz band. The handover between the two 802.11 modes is managed automatically - so while the car is travelling through the pit lane, it starts to transmit the data wirelessly.
Once it is within four metres of the garage, it switches to a fast uplink, transmitting the data from the car to the garage at download speeds of up to 1.9 Gbits per second. In other words, transmitting one Gigabyte of data would take less than five seconds.
This technology is not a standalone Formula One product though. Qualcomm have developed it for the consumer market and used F1 as a high-speed R&D environment, putting their product to the ultimate test.
In the future, similar technologies will come to your smartphone, allowing for much faster download and upload speeds and a more reliable connection, or used in connected cars to enable them to communicate with the outside world.
3. A challenging environment - testing tech in F1
The life of a typical server rack is pretty easy. They spend their days in air-conditioned, access-controlled data centres, not having to worry about heat or cold or even moving around. However, that's not true for the servers that travel with the team.
The racks in the garage store all the car data and are of vital importance - and yet they have to cope with all the things that high-tech servers usually don't like. They are frequently packed up and shipped around the world, they have to endure temperature swings from just above freezing during winter testing to the sweltering heat in the desert of Bahrain, from the dry air of Abu Dhabi to the humidity of Singapore.
Vibrations and carbon fibre dust are also quite common in the garage, neither of which are known to be friends of computer hardware. At the same time, the data on those servers needs to be quickly accessible as well as encrypted on the spot.
So, compared to a "regular" server in a data centre, the life of a trackside server is quite different - and quite challenging. It is precisely those challenges that make Formula One interesting for high-tech partners such as Pure Storage, the company that builds the on-track server. It's not just server technology that is challenged by F1 - it's all kinds of technologies - even those that seem to have nothing to do with Formula One.
So, while F1, for example, will - hopefully! - never become an autonomous racing series, its race cars are an ideal test bed for certain technologies that are vital to autonomous driving.
The sheer amount of data that needs to be processed locally on the car or sent to the garage make F1 cars a particularly interesting test environment in this regard.
Flash array servers tested in the team's garage are suitable to be put on airplanes and cruise ships or can be used as mobile data centres on trucks. But the technology transfer goes much further into non-related areas.
For example, technology partners have applied the learnings from their cooperation with the team to medical customers. The challenge in the garage is getting a huge amount of data from a machine - the car - into computer systems where the data can be analysed.
A very similar kind of challenge can be found in a modern hospital and in medical research institutes, where large amounts of data from machines such as gene sequencers or X-ray machines have to be transferred and then analysed.
4. Digital engineering and testing
Formula One teams today are very data-driven organisations. The 500 Gigabytes or so that are produced at the track over the course or a race weekend are just the tip of the iceberg. At the factory, we produce about five to ten Terabytes of data every week! Over the course of the year, the amount of data extends to over 350 Terabytes.
Virtually every department in the factory produces data, many of them in large amounts. Whether it's Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Wind Tunnels or test rigs - all of those technologies and test methods are data-heavy.
To put the annual 350 Terabytes in context - the press release pdf we distribute to media before each race is about 150 Kilobytes in size. Our annual data volume amounts to something along the lines of two billion press release pdfs...
Now imagine having to skim through two billion press releases, trying to find that one piece of crucial information that you are looking for. Not exactly an easy task - and probably not a whole lot of fun either. Which is why F1 teams invest heavily in areas like data analysis, data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence. The same kind of technologies that become ever more important in many other data-driven industries as well.
The team will, for example, use computational raw data analysis to try and spot patterns that indicate trends or failures of car components. With increasing computer speeds, more and more data can be analysed. Even complex data - for example images of tyre wear - can today be automatically pre-analysed before meeting the attentive eye of a tyre engineer.
How is this relevant for the outside world? Because many other areas use similar technologies. Whether you're trying to determine if a Formula One power unit is about to fail or a road car needs to be serviced soon - the solutions are very similar.
Both challenges rely on automated data analysis which triggers a reaction - whether that's a radio call to an F1 driver that he has to park the car or booking an appointment with your local repair shop in good time. And the similarities extend far beyond the automotive industry. Even human health data can be analysed in a similar way. While the problems are different, the tool sets are the same.
That's the reason why the F1 team in the UK has a number of joint projects with the Daimler R&D groups in Germany. It started as a specific collaboration on suspension modelling between the Brackley vehicle dynamics group and the ride and handling group in Sindelfingen. Even though the suspension requirements for a road car and a race car are very different, both groups benefited from the project.
The cooperation has since grown to include many areas of common interest where, although the applications are quite different between road car and race car, the tools sets being developed have much in common. The other area in common is that both the F1 engineers and the road car engineers work increasingly in the virtual world, that is using digital design, development and testing tools, as such their challenges and the tools needed to reach solutions can be mutually beneficial.
5. The fourth industrial revolution - transforming production technologies
Digitalisation does not only change the way F1 cars are conceived and developed, they also change the way they are produced. For a long time, the production of road cars and F1 cars were very different disciplines. While the former were produced on a large, industrial scale with a limited amount of customisation, the latter were manufactured in a highly customised process. Production costs also played a role.
Carbon fibre, for example, was never a cheap material, but the costs are limited if you only use it on two cars. Using carbon fibre in a mass-produced road car, however, was for many years too expensive, which is why the material was introduced in F1 in the 1980s but did not make it into series production until many years later.
With the rise of modern production methods, this gap between large-scale production and highly customised manufacturing has grown much smaller. This world is in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution and Formula One is at the forefront of it. Technological advancements in the world of connectivity and data processing mean that modern production tools live in the physical world as much as they live in the virtual world. While production machines used to be only good at automation - doing the same task over and over again - modern machines become increasingly good at doing different tasks.
They can build complex shapes, using a number of materials and are able to adapt to change. Technologies like additive layer manufacturing mean that you could potentially one day see machines that build car components one day and a pacemaker the next.
Formula One teams are comparatively small organisations, but they build a lot of different parts. An F1 car is basically a prototype that sees the introduction of new parts on a weekly basis, so the teams have to be able to not just develop, but also manufacture parts as quickly as possible. It's precisely this kind of experience with modern production methods that makes Formula One interesting for a company like Daimler.
Road car production is becoming increasingly complex with different models being manufactured on the same production line and more and more choices for customers to individualise their cars. So today's world of Formula One is a perfect environment for testing tomorrow's road car production methods on a smaller scale.