• The Best Side of F1: The Story Behind Project Ventura

A pupils' podcast tells the fascinating story of how Formula One engineers helped in the fight against COVID-19 in just 100 hours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the entire world. However, the shared response in our sport that led to the setting up of Project Pitlane brought out the best in Formula One - innovation, speedy response, teamwork and top performance while under huge time constraints. These were all crucial ingredients in the development of the breathing aids urgently needed to treat COVID-19 patients.

But how exactly did it happen? How did the collaboration between Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains (HPP), the engineers from University College London (UCL) and clinicians from UCL Hospital (UCLH) come about? And where does the name 'Project Ventura' come from?

It was precisely these questions that students from St Edward's School, in Oxford, England, wanted to tackle in a 90-minute, four-part podcast series entitled 'The Ventura Project: How F1 met healthcare' which deals with the project's genesis and implementation.

Click here to listen to all four episodes of the podcast.

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The task is simple in outline, but difficult to master. An existing Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device had to be re-engineered so that it could be quickly put into mass production. Speedy response times and fast turn-around are part and parcel of everyday life in F1. Ben Hodgkinson, Head of Mechanical Engineering at HPP and Visiting Professor at UCL, met a former colleague for coffee and was immediately hooked by the project.

"I was pretty excited about how simple it was," he says in the podcast. "It was a solid plastic block with some ports for standard hydraulic fittings and a flow mechanism that I immediately recognised, and I thought: Wow! That's exactly the sort of thing we can do, and we can do it fast." No sooner said than done! Less than 100 hours passed from that first meeting to the production of the first device.

Such a quick turn-around time for the project was only possible thanks to the commitment of all those involved, who did not waste a single second. Ben adds: "We were all in London with only the clothes we were wearing, and once it became clear that we would need to stay a couple of nights, one of the students was sent out to buy things to wear and some tooth-brushes. The only t-shirts he could find were pink with the word 'Ventura' written on them, which we thought was just perfect, because Ventura sounds a bit like the Venturi thermodynamic device."

In order to win the race against time and have the required number of CPAP machines ready before the expected increase in COVID 19 cases, Ben called Andy Cowell and asked if he could get some of his team involved in the project. Andy asked: "When?" And Ben replied: "In about two hours!" Along with three colleagues, Ben immediately began to size up and carefully study a CPAP device. At the same time, Andy organised the purchase of a similar device on ebay so that it could be examined concurrently in the factory at Brixworth.

Ben explains: "I think we worked until about five in the morning and then got up again at seven, and we did that for three days in a row. I can honestly say that I've never worked so hard, not even in Formula One. Working in F1 is quite an intense and stressful job, but I have always managed the stress by telling myself, it's only racing cars. When you're working on something that can potentially save lives, there's not a thing that can alleviate the stress, so I pushed myself really hard."

The effort paid off. The devices were developed, produced and distributed to NHS hospitals in record time. In the end, the government ordered 10,000 of the CPAP devices built at Mercedes-AMG HPP's technology centre in Brixworth. In the process, no less than 40 machines were used that normally produce F1 pistons and turbochargers. The details required by other manufacturers to make the devices are now available to download free of charge in countries all over the world.

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