Five motorsport technologies that made it into road cars
Few things can test your machine like doing fast speeds for long periods of time in less than ideal conditions. Be it Formula 1, LeMans or even WRC, motorsport is the best proving ground for future technologies. Companies like Ferrari, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes, Volkswagen and many many more pride their cars for having motorsport pedigree and it doesn’t just translate to an ‘AMG-line’ trim level or a badge on the outside, the advancements and benefits are more than skin deep. A lot of the things we take for granted in our cars today, survived an acid test on track (or off it). Here are five of our favourites!
Automatic gearboxes are a joy in the city. You don’t have to fiddle around with the clutch or gear stick in stop-start traffic or worry about knocking a gear down before making a quick overtake, the car does it all for you. Yes, there were automatic transmissions before their racing applications, like the Hydra-Matic transmission from GM in the 1940s. However, Porsche was toying around with the idea of a performance oriented double-clutch automatic since the 1960s, to help shave off vital seconds from lap times. They finally dropped in the PDK (Porsche DoppelKupplung) in the 956 race car in 1984. They refined the gearbox through the year and into the next year before putting it into the 962, which won the 360km of Monza in 1986. This was the first time the world truly saw the performance benefits of an automatic gearbox and the rest is history. Today, almost all racecars use some form of automatic or semi-automatic gearbox and nearly all road cars today offer the option of an automatic gearbox, for performance benefits and for comfort. Paddle-shifters are now the preferred mechanism to operate these automatic gearboxes, and this technology originated in Formula 1 cars!
Aah, carbonfibre. One of the most expensive options you could tick on any supercar’s options list and it’s pattern can be commonly spotted on the dashboard of your neighbourhood boy-racer’s dinky 1-litre hatchback. While the sticker is not going to save you any weight or add any performance benefit to the car, real carbonfibre is an almost magical material in performance cars. It offers incredible structural rigidity without being heavy. Carbonfibre was used extensively in the aerospace industry already but in 1981, Mclaren debuted the first Formula 1 car built around a carbonfibre moncoque, the MP4/1. The idea came around when engineers needed to make the chassis thinner and lighter but a material like aluminium just wouldn’t be strong enough to withstand an impact. They turned to carbonfibre and after most companies in the aersopace industry turned them down for being a bit too ambitious, Hercules Aerospace helped build carbonfibre monocoque for the team. While most competitors and onlookers were skeptical about the safety aspect of the wonder material, at the 1981 Italian Grand Prix in Monza, John Watson got into a terrible crash and walked out largely unhurt, putting rest to everyone else’s skepticism. The MP4/1 also won a few races in that year while competitors hurried and played catch up. Now, nearly every car that races in a competition features carbonfibre in some place or the other while car manufacturers use it extensively in their perfomance models. Carbonfibre was first seen in roadcars in the early 90s — the McLaren F1 had a body made largely of carbonfibre and the Bugatti EB110 had underpinnings built on carbonfibre too. Carbonfibre’s benefits extend to electric and hybrid cars too, as BMW proved with the i3 and i8, both of which use carbonfibre and CFRP (carbonfibre reinforced plastic) to provide strength while making the cars lighter, thus improving efficiency.
Loose gravel, uneven surfaces and punishing conditions. The ideal ingredients of a rally stage. In 1977 Jörg Bensinger, chassis engineer for Audi at the time, came up with the idea of an all-wheel-drive car for rallying after seeing the benefits of all-wheel-drive on the Volkswagen Iltis in the snow. This gave birth to the Audi Quattro. The Audi Quattro entered the world rally championship in 1980 as a course car since it was not yet homologated. Audi used the time as testing ground, while most other competitors were struggling to find grip in their front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive cars, Audi’s Quattro set the stages alight. The Quattro could go faster than any other car, in any conditions and it dominated the next three years of the world rally championship. Audi’s Quattro road car subsequently became an icon as did their technology that now features on most of their high performance cars as standard.
Tyre manufacturers use motorsport in a big way to promote the product, but it isn’t just marketing gibberish. Race car tyres need to last on a race track under immense load over a huge amount of laps, which leads to a huge amount of research and development to make sure the tyres perform well. While race tyres cannot be used in a road going car directly, the learnings from motorsport development play a crucial part in developing tyres for the road. This obviously does apply to high performance road going tyres, but also to eco-friendly sets since fuel efficiency matters on the racetrack too. Companies like Pirelli, Michelin, Goodyear and even MRF and JK Tyre closer to home have all used their fantastic motorsport heritage to develop some of the safest and best performing tyres for our road cars today. KM Mammen, Chairman, MRF Tyres, told us “It looks all black on the outside but there's so much of technology involved regarding compounds, construction and everything.” at the sidelines of the 2019 MRF Challenge championship's season finale.
With modern cars, as soon as the sun goes down, the headlights turn on automatically so that your vision is never compromised at any point of time. But even headlight, or headlight technology rather has been honed on the racetrack. At LeMans, and other endurance races, drivers need to see far enough ahead since they are travelling at breakneck speeds in absolute darkness. The conditions at the Nurburgring 24 hours and the 24 hours of LeMans are some of the harshest you can find, with no lights on track other than the main straights to provide illumination, the race cars need to have really bright beams. Most endurance cars feature a yellow film on their headlights since yellow light refracts lesser and therefore travels further, even in foggy conditions. However, companies like Audi have been experimenting with new technologies like xenon and LED and more recently laser beams, all of which were developed on the racetrack. Audi's R18 TDI, a contender in the WEC's LMP1 class, was the first endurance car with all-LED headlights. Now, most premium cars offer LED headlights at least as an option, while flagships from companies like Audi, BMW and Mercedes even feature laser beams that offer a much further travelling beam of light.
These are just a few technologies that have been developed via motorsport that have now found their way into our cars, among many more like disc brakes, rear view mirrors and even the massive wings on cars like the Porsche 911 GT2 RS. Motorsport is the ideal testing ground for companies who can afford to go there and the investment surely pays dividends when it comes to cutting edge technologies in road cars.