Materials and technology continue to shape motorsport

Uploaded 21 Nov @ 14:12pm

The first recorded race between two motorised vehicles, in this case, a pair of solid fuel-fired steam-driven machines, was run over an 8-mile prescribed route, in the late-summer of 1867. Whether the contest was a test of the vehicles’ performance, the drivers’ skills or simply a wager between two betting men is not clear. Indeed, neither are the identities of the two drivers as both were in breach of the prevailing law that required a warning red flag to be waved in front of a moving horseless carriage. Mel Dunkin dons his racing suit.
Similar two-man events followed at intervals in France and the United States but it was only in 1894, following the introduction of the internal combustion engine, that the world’s first large-scale motoring contest took place. On this occasion, 69 vehicles entered a trial to determine which would be permitted to embark on the 79-mile race from Paris to Rouen. The official winner from the 22 selected entrants drove a Peugeot and made it in 10 hours and 18 minutes with a Panhard in second place, taking a fraction over twice that time.
Contests continued, particularly in France, where city-to-city events grew in popularity until a string of fatal accidents led the French Government to ban racing on the open road. Inevitably, this led to a demand for purpose-built closed-circuit racing tracks, during the early years of the 20th century, and with it, the birth of modern motorsport.
While it is the battle for supremacy by the drivers that draws the crowds and helps to fund these events, motorsport has become as much a contest between manufacturers as it is between drivers. The racetrack provides them with an exacting test-bed that determines much of the technology that will eventually be incorporated into a company’s production models.
At some level, albeit reluctantly, most of us have gradually begun to accept that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered. Until its final demise, however, the focus of motor manufacturers will be to continue leveraging new technologies in the attempt to make engines more efficient and less of a threat to the environment, while also striving to improve driver safety.

Improved engine efficiency
In this area, motorsport has provided the proving ground for many advances now enjoyed by all owners of modern vehicles. Essentially, rather than continuing to build engines bigger, a policy that produced the massive V10 and V12, normally aspirated, beasts of the past, the focus of engineers
is now on smaller, lighter and more
efficient units.
Following a succession of rules limiting the size of the engines allowed, the awesome performance of a modern F1 car results from an engine with a permitted capacity of just 1.6 litres. Nevertheless, its 90o V6 configuration and short-stroke pistons, when combined with a turbocharger, can spin up to 15,000 rpm, more than double that of a road car engine with the same capacity.
The higher rotational speed was made possible with the use of lightweight pistons and narrower connecting rod ends made from heat-resistant alloys. Coupled with narrower
main bearings, this serves to offset the power-loss inherent in short-stroke engines. Later, the introduction of pneumatic valve springs saw the maximum revs extended to over 20,000 rpm.

Gaining traction
One of the simplest ways to get more speed from a vehicle is to maximise its contact with the road. This simple fact led the US tyre manufacturer, M&H Tires, to produce the world’s first slicks for use by drag car racers, in the early ‘50s. Its ‘Racemaster’ product dispensed with the traditional treads, allowing full contact between the tyre and the road. This innovative idea was quickly adapted for use by motorcycle manufacturers. However, it was only during the Spanish Grand Prix of 1971 that Firestone first introduced Formula One drivers to the benefits of slicks for use on dry circuits.
Since then, racing tyres have undergone further evolution. The introduction of nylon liners to replace the heavier fabric inner-casing has reduced their weight. In addition, ‘sticky’ thermosensitive polymers have replaced rubber to provide even greater adhesion, as friction with the road surface causes them to heat up.
While tyres provide the necessary traction, suspensions are responsible for stability when cornering at speed or driving on uneven surfaces. For racing purposes, suspensions must be as stiff as possible yet still prevent loss of traction that could destabilise the vehicle. McLaren was first to solve the problem with its secret J-Damper or ‘inerter’. It used the rotational force of a flywheel to cancel out the load on the suspension, providing a faster yet significantly smoother ride.
Other factors, designed to improve traction and boost speed were wider bodies with a lowered profile designed to reduce the gap between the chassis and the track, plus the addition of spoilers to further enhance the ground-effect. However, the FIA, concerned about vastly increased cornering speeds, were quick to set a minimum figure for permissible ground clearance.
Traction control systems, which employs electric sensors and advanced computer algorithms to manage the downward pressure on the track in order to minimise wheel spin, received a similar reaction from FIA regulators. They banned the use of computerised traction control in the early ‘90s, only to reverse their decision in 2001, by which time, this technology was already well-established in high-end production vehicles.

Lighter Bodies
Bringing an end to the rule of aluminium for use in the construction of racing cars, McLaren turned the sport on its head with the introduction of the world’s first carbon fibre monocoque chassis, in 1981.
Since then the promise of reduced fuel consumption combined with razor-sharp handling has seen the widespread adoption of composites in motorsport, along with some significant advances in their composition and production methods.
Apart from the obvious benefit of improved fuel economy, composites offer strength and longevity – properties that are vitally important to the safety of drivers and the structural integrity of vehicles. These properties have become important in other fields also. Following on from its F1 success, Williams Advanced Engineering has been adapting the use of its innovative fibre-reinforced polymers to create protective structures for use on the battlefield.

The future of motorsport
In light of Government pledges to phase out the use of fossil fuels, echoed by the almost-overnight discontinuation of diesel models by most vehicle manufacturers, it is reasonable to ask if there is a future for motorsport in the form we know and have learned to love.
Electric cars and hybrids are now a common sight on our roads. In the background, and almost unnoticed, Formula E racing has now entered its fifth season and has been gaining popularity both with sponsors and fans. Porsche and Mercedes have joined the ranks of those seeking a test-bed for their electric vehicle technology in Formula E racing. Furthermore, statistics suggest that close to 45% of existing motorsport fans have an interest in this new genre.
That said, it would appear that F1 is destined to remain as popular as ever, always providing the constantly-changing FIA regulations fail to suppress too much of its gut-wrenching excitement. In practice, until the very last drop of high-octane fuel has been exhausted, what seems likely is that there will be a friendly competition between the long-established and rapidly-growing genres in which each is set to enjoy an approximately equal slice of the multibillion-dollar motorsport cake.

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