02 April 2022 |

F1 tech in everyday use 

By Trung Phan

How F1 technology has found its way into everyday use

Competing in F1 costs so much cheddar.

The combined parts of a single F1 car runs up to $20m (the engine can make up ~90% of the cost). Meanwhile, the top teams employ 100s of people and spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to win the tiniest edge. 

The richest teams — Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull — have spent $400m+ a year to win it all. To even the playing field, F1 introduced a budget cap of $145m in 2021. The cap is at $140m in 2022, but the engine cost and driver salaries are exempted from the budget calculation.

Mercedes calls F1 innovation the “fastest R&D lab in the world”.

McLaren developed a whole division — McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) — that adapted the race car’s telemetry and control technology to other industries (healthcare, transportation). MAT revenue hit ~$43m in 2020 but the unit was sold to an investment group last year (separately, Audi is in talks to buy McLaren for $550m).

Is it possible that the F1 teams connected to car businesses (Mercedes, Mclaren, Ferrari) pump up their technology to help justify huge race spend?

Sure. But — over the decades — there’s been a lot of race innovation that has found its way into everyday use. 

Unsurprisingly, the most visible examples are in road cars: 

Rearview mirror: This one is old school. Back in the early-1900s, race cars had two people in the car. The person in the back seat was called the “ride mechanic” and one of the jobs was to literally look backwards to see what was up.

In 1911, driver Ray Harroun won a race by driving by solo (lighter car = more aerodynamic). Instead of a second person in the car, he used a rear-view mirror (imagine if your job was replaced by a mirror). The NYT says “it was, quite possibly, the first rearview mirror on a motorcar.”

Paddle shifts — To change gears in an F1 car, drivers pull paddles behind the steering wheel (there is no stick shift). The innovation was made by Ferrari in the 1980s. At the time, it was paired with a new type of transmission system: direct shift gearboxes. Paddle shifts are now found in many road cars. 

Push-button ignition — Starting an F1 car is quite complicated. The engine has to be brought up to the right temperature before oil is circulated. When ready, the engine itself starts with the push of the button. The last step — a push-button ignition — is obviously widely available now. 

Aerodynamic designs — Sleek vehicle bodies were adapted from the race track to the city streets. Car manufacturers also use the “underbody trays and sculpting like race cars to reduce turbulence and drag underneath the vehicle.”

Brakes and suspensions — Disc brakes were invented for F1 cars in the 1950s (compared to drum brakes, discs were easier to maintain and keep cool). Independent wheel suspension now common in road cars were largely perfected on the race track. 

Regenerative braking — In 2009, a number of F1 teams started using a braking system called kinetic energy recovery system (KERS). Energy from the braking system was stored to later be used during acceleration. The technology has found its way into hybrid drive-trains and public transportation vehicles.

F1 technology and best practices have also found its way into non-road car industries.

Hospitals — This is my favourite example of F1 knowledge transfer. In the mid-90s, a Children’s Hospital in the UK improved its ICU hand-off process by consulting with the Ferrari F1 pit crew team. 

The hospital recorded its surgery room operation and Ferrari suggested a new protocol. One big change was for the hospital to have the equivalent of a pit crew “lollipop man”; this is the individual that holds a sign on a long stick and only waves a driver through after making sure everyone else on the team has put the tires on. 

After changing its protocol, the hospital’s error rate dropped from 30% to 10%. (The Williams F1 pit team similarly helped a hospital in Wales improve its neonatal resuscitation process). 

Manufacturing — In 2011, McLaren applied its pit stop best practices to help pharma company GSK improve its toothpaste manufacturing line. Specifically, the company had difficulty in transitioning production between two of its most famous toothpaste brands: Sensodyne and AquaFresh. Following McLaren’s input, the manufacturing capacity squeezed out “an additional 6.7m tubes of toothpaste a year”. 

Connectivity & Data — F1 vehicles are absolute data hogs. A car produces 500 gigabytes of telemetry over a race weekend while the team’s car factory shoots out 10 terabytes of data week. Dealing with this data has a number of real-world applications per Mercedes

  • Qualcomm develops wireless uplink technology to transfer race data to the team (this innovation find its way into smartphones)
  • Pure Storage has to design server hardware that can withstand race track vibrations and pollutants (if it can work here, it can work anywhere) 
  • Various analytics groups help crunch the insane amount of data

Other than Pickleball, I can’t think of any other sport that creates as many real-world innovation. 

The argument for F1 drivers as the fittest athletes 

Ok, my F1 deep dive took me down this random rabbit hole: are F1 drivers the best athletes in sport?

Before anyone @’s me, I do not actually believe F1 drivers are the world’s fittest athletes. Nor do I believe that all athletes should even be compared on the same playing field. Just as there are different types of intelligence (words, numbers, EQ etc.), there are different types of fitness (strength, endurance, flexibility etc.). 

Having said that, Lebron is clearly the fittest athlete ever. But F1 drivers are super elite on the following dimensions (via Quora): 

Neck strength 

F1 racers experience greater g-forces than almost any other athlete. The dictionary term for g-force is “gravity that is multiplied during rapid changes of direction or velocity”. 

A driver can experience 5Gs during a turn, which is equivalent to 20KG of force on the neck (a heavy-ass helmet doesn’t help, either). For this reason, neck strength is a major part of an F1 driver’s training regime. 

TBH I used to troll people at the gym who did silly neck workouts. Turns out, the joke’s on me. Anyways, this Quora comment is on point: 

“For most of us regular mortals, the g-force from hard braking – going from 200 mph to 50 mph in under 2 seconds or 100 meters would pretty much relieve us of our heads.” 

Endurance 

F1 athletes drive for 2+ hours in a suit and helmet, often in very hot temperature (eg. Singapore, Saudi Arabia). A driver can lose 8-10lbs in water weight during a race. And their heart rates can stay elevated at ~200bpm.

It’s common to see F1 athletes compete in triathlons during their off-seasons.

Reflexes 

While driving at speeds up to 200mph, F1 athletes have to make lightning-quick decisions to win positions and avoid crashes. Such handling takes elite concentration and must be sustained for 2 straight hours. 

It’s made even harder by the fact that the drivers have to memorize the tracks, communicate with their teams and navigate the insanely complex steering wheel: 

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Links and Memes 

  • Vegas baby: F1 released the first visuals of its Las Vegas Grand Prix. The 14-turn track will pass through the Las Vegas Strip and major landmarks like The Bellagio, The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, Treasure Island etc. There was a Las Vegas GP back in the early 1980s, but a major snafu was that the race started at 3pm. If you’re doing Vegas, you gotta do the night. And the November 2023 race will start at 10pm 🥂🎉🔥. 
  • Leaked iPhone 14 specs: Shocking literally no one, there will be a bigger camera on the new iPhone (dimensions +5% this year). The smartphone is obviously a super mature product, so there are only so many points of differentiation now. Here’s an amazing table from @lee94josh showing what % of an iPhone announcement is dedicated to talking about the camera…the last 3 phone release presentations spent the most time on the camera.
  • Will Smith vs. Chris Rock: Every single take has been made…my favorite one is from Ryan Broderick. The day after the Oscar’s, he wrote an essay and coined the term “viral pre-exhaustion”, which he describes as “The dread and anticipatory boredom at the idea that this will dominate the national conversation for at least the next three days, the next week if Smith or Rock comment on it further, or the next month if some kind of governing body — either America’s or Hollywood’s — gets involved.” (Yep)
     
  • Magnetic slime: So, some scientists invented magnetic slime. Per the New Scientist, the “slime can be controlled by a magnetic field…navigate tight spaces and grasp objects, making it ideal for possible uses inside the body.”

    It’s pretty cool. But — of course — the quote retweets had some hilariously skeptical comments:
     

    • “MFs think they so clever like I ain’t seen Venom before”
    • “Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.”
    • “If you’ve watched ANY SCI-FI AT ALL, you know this project needs to be shut down immediately for the sake of the planet”

And here are some memes (see y’all next week):