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Motorsport has a lot to answer for. Thrills and spills that entertain millions, inspiring moments that stick in the mind for decades. It’s created heroes, villains, and plenty of bedroom poster cars. It’s also made your day-to-day car ride a little easier to live with.
In the pursuit of speed, resting on your laurels is counterproductive. The norm needs to be tweaked and advanced to make sure racers have an edge over their rivals. As a result of all that development, tech can be sanitised and standardised for use in production vehicles.
Whether it’s going faster, safety tech, gearboxes, brakes, or even how you can change the radio station, there’s a solid chance motorsport, somewhere along the line, has influenced the car you drive on the road.
When it comes to going faster, motorsport certainly has your back. It’s the aim of the game, after all. Engine development - tweaking motors to produce more power - is a mainstay. But there are a number of ways to do it.
Turbocharging, something that’s common today, hit its heyday in the middle of the last century. Getting its start in aviation during World War One, it wasn’t long until people started wondering what would happen if you popped a turbo on a car engine.
The Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the Oldsmobile Jetfire were the first turbo-powered passenger cars, and made their debut on the US market in 1962/63.
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The first consumer car to have a turbo was the Oldsmobile Turbo Jetfire in 1962 - a decent attempt but the reliability wasn’t there. This is where motorsport steps in. Indycar used turbos in 1966, Porsche and its legendary 917 used a turbo to generate ludicrous power and took the first turbocharged Can-Am win, while Formula 1’s turbo era saw tiny engines produce silly amounts of power in the 70s and 80s as well.
Turbo ludicrousness arguably hit a peak with Group B rally in the 80s, with cars like the Audi Sport Quattro launching around the world’s gravel tracks at rapid speeds. Without motorsport learnings, the turbos found on daily motors wouldn’t be quite the same.
Of course, it’s not just turbocharging that got a boost from motorsport. Endurance racing, where every second counts, ensured that engines used their fuel as efficiently as possible to cut down on needless pit stops.
OK, your daily may not have a race-bred V10 on board, but turbochargers have essentially allowed cars to have more power for less weight, meaning less fuel consumption for the daily driver today.
The tech used to make the race cars go further for longer will have, in some form, trickled down.
What about how power is put down; a hugely important thing when it comes to going faster. You may be familiar with dual-clutch gearboxes; two clutches work on odd and even-numbered gears respectively, meaning each tug of a paddle results in an instantaneous gearshift.
Dual-clutch gearbox tech had been thought up just after World War II, but never worked. Porsche, however, had been experimenting with the idea since 1964. While others had developed prototypes in the early 80s, Porsche put its money where its mouth was and fitted a PDK, or Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe transmission, in a 956 race car in 1983.
Admittedly it didn’t perform well at first try, but race cars are the perfect test bed for tech like that – it’s pushed up to and beyond its limit. Thanks to its use at punishing events like Le Mans, the tech could be refined and made suitable for everyday cars.
Going faster is hugely important, but what happens if you go a little too fast and need to lose some of that speed? Or if it all goes wrong and you have an accident? Racing is responsible for some lifesaving tech.
Disc brakes have been on cars since forever. They can be big, small, made of carbon, made of iron, be vented, drilled... Their story is a long one. Many had tried to create a more efficient braking system for cars in the past, but cost and reliability became an issue.
They worked for big stuff like planes because they needed to be used hard but not often. In a car they were too fragile, until Jaguar came along.
Jag needed an edge for the race version of its XK120, the C-Type. The C-Type started off with drum brakes, but Jag’s engineers wanted to go faster for longer. So, along with Dunlop, Jag’s team got to work.
After much high-speed testing in the UK, and a live test on the fearsome 1000-mile Mille Miglia in Italy that saw the late Sir Stirling Moss and late legendary Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis surprise more powerful competitors by being able to out-brake them, the discs were deemed fit for purpose and took Jaguar to a Le Mans win in 1953.
The first mass-produced car to use them, though, was 1955’s Citroen DS. Due to this key milestone in racing development, cars of today are able to stop quicker and more reliably, and more importantly they are crucial in avoiding accidents and keeping us safe.
If a crash is unavoidable, safety structures and cells are essential. Safety tech is crucial in motorsport. Drivers going hell for leather need to be kept safe in the event of a crash.
Race cars also need to be as light as possible, which is why today they’re made of carbon fibre – strong enough to keep occupants safe in an accident, but light enough to keep cars competitive. Now, the best way to keep a car strong is to have the bulk of it made from one piece – a monocoque. That means the chassis of the car is a single part, with the rest bolted on. The first race car to do this was the Lotus 25 in 1962. It gave an obvious weight advantage, and, being a Lotus, handling too. The monocoque technique was quickly adopted.
It wasn’t until 1981 when McLaren brought out its MP4/1 that carbon-fibre monocoques came to be. From there, carbon fibre became the go-to for race cars.
If you want to see just how strong this stuff is, check out this crash in the very first race of Formula E between Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost. Despite the car exploding into a million pieces as it hits the wall, the driver is kept safe. As the tech developed, its use in road cars became more prevalent as well. Cars like the Ferrari F40 and McLaren F1 used it extensively.
Thing is, it’s expensive to make, mould, and fix, so it tends to live on higher-end cars, though BMW’s i8 and i3 use it in their passenger safety cells. We’re a way off having a carbon- fibre-chassied affordable hatchback, but things like crumple zones, and safety-cell tech has all been developed and refined by motorsport.
When the weather gets nasty, having all-wheel drive can be a godsend. Water, snow, mud, and other nasties can make a two-wheel drive car a little tricky in extreme conditions.
While four-wheel drive has been around since the late 1800s, it was more of a novelty for production cars. It was mostly reserved for military and agricultural vehicles.
In the 80s, though, Audi used it to give its rally cars an edge in competition. During winter testing in Finland, Audi’s chassis engineer, Jörg Bensinger, noted that a VW Iltis used by the West German army could outperform Audi’s performance models so he suggested developing an all-wheel-drive system for road cars, one that was showcased in the Audi Sport Quattro S1.
It was hugely successful, giving Audi legendary status in the rally world, and giving its road cars a decent USP.
Nowadays pretty much every car gives you access to a heap of functions direct from the steering wheel. Need to change track? Pick up the phone? Switch driving mode? There’s likely a button for you to press to make it happen. While car manufacturers have been experimenting for years in road cars, race cars are where the tech has been kicking off in earnest.
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Since the turn of the century, Porsche has been refining how its race car steering wheels can make life easier for drivers – at first, in 2001, its racers got a radio button, and from there the functionality grew – pit speed limiters, settings for yellow flags, wiper controls, you name it. They’re complicated bits of kit - the 911 RSR’s manual has 27 pages on the steering wheel alone - but it’s been designed for drivers, by drivers.
Of course, having controls within easy reach is a huge advantage on the road as well as the track. OK, you may not need to adjust the traction mix on the fly, but switching the driving mode from ‘normal’ to ‘really fast’ without having to take your eyes off the road is a good thing.
Slicing through the air efficiently means cars can go faster and use less fuel. This, in racing, is an obvious advantage. Race cars need to be as efficient as possible when it comes to movement. This means advanced aerodynamics come into play. Vents to relieve pressure from the wheel wells, or to cool engines and brakes, have all made it from race to road cars.
Spoilers to reduce lift and actively push cars down on the road are great for an extra few milliseconds a lap. They make your road car go a little quicker as well as keeping it stable and planted at speed, crucial for safety.
Motorsport is constantly looking to develop tech to go faster and be smarter about it. While internal combustion development continues to find ways to go faster while using less fuel, the electric world is pushing hard not only to go faster, but to recharge faster as well.
In Formula E, when a driver lifts off the accelerator, the electric motor spins in reverse, effectively becoming a generator and recharging the batteries. This has the added benefit of slowing the car down, meaning less wear and tear on the brakes.
These innovations are also integrated into electric road cars, meaning we can all drive further on a charge, and replace our brake pads and discs far less frequently than on an internal-combustion-engined car.
Formula E itself constantly gathers data to feed back to road car development. The extreme situations batteries and powertrains are put in are invaluable to learn what they’re capable of. The reason road cars are tested around tracks like the Nürburgring is that in the space of a few laps, the stresses repeatedly put on components in such a short space of time show how they’ll react over hundreds of miles of regular driving.
Further down the line we may well be taking to the skies as well as the road. Thankfully, there’s a race series coming for that as well.
Airspeeder plans to use manned electric quadcopters to stage epic airborne races. So far no manned flight has taken place, but once the series is up and running it’ll show what can be done with personalised flight. We may not be as far from a flying car as you might think.
The car as we know it would have evolved far slower without the input of motorsport. Next time you’re behind the wheel take a moment to appreciate just what’s gone in to making your ride the way it is.
Turbo power courtesy of a need for speed and efficiency, braking developed to give an advantage where previously there wasn’t one, crumple zones and safety cells developed to keep drivers safe at extreme speed also exist to make sure you’re OK if the worst happens.
The legacy of motorsports innovation is that the cars we all see on the streets every day are faster, safer, and more efficient, as a direct result of the experimental technological platform provided by motorsport.
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