F1’s real relevancy to the ‘Green’ road car industry

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The recent FIA 2013 engine regulations have sent Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo to the press to label the concept “pathetic”. Why shouldn’t he? Ferrari have no plans for a 1.6 liter 4-cylinder turbo engine in their stable. What about the rest of the world though? Has F1 rolled over and labeled itself the road car relevancy series? Well, depending on your point of view, maybe the answer is yes.

Carbon fiber has been a mainstay in F1 for many years and the exotic material has revolutionized the racing series by making the weight of the car much lighter and allowing teams to manage the balance of a car much better with ballast. That material has always been expensive but now there is a firm who is attempting to create a more affordable version through process.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has devised a way of making carbon fiber more affordable through a process similar to how knitting yarn is made. They even adopted a plant in Lisbon Portugal to help in the process. This may have a reduced cost of 25% less that current carbon fiber. The auto industry is very keen on this idea s they can use a less expensive carbon fiber for their panels and steel in current road cars. The reduced weight equals better mileage as well.

BMW is attempting to reduce their material production cost by producing carbon fiber at a plant near Spokane, Wash., where inexpensive electricity is created by hydropower. BMW buys power at three cents per kilowatt hour, which is close to a third the going rate across the U.S. and much cheaper than in Europe. All of this is because the benefits of carbon fiber and F1 certainly paved the way to car application for this material.

Another way F1 is relevant to the road car industry is the use of engines and this is the crux of di Montezemolo’s criticism. The new regulation has the series using a 1.6 liter turbo 4-cylinder engine in 2013 onward. Does this make sense? It may if you are looking to lure manufacturers back into the sport of attempting to make F1 an exotic test lab for manufacturers to poach from.

A new technology by Scuderi group is using compressed air and a different approach to engine design to increase fuel mileage by as much as 50%. The premise is easy, a current engines combustion point is not when the piston is at the top of the cylinder. Scuderi have devised a system that does allow for the combustion to actually occur at the peak of the piston and this increases the efficiency dramatically according to the firm.

An independent test shows that Southwest Research Institute built a 1-liter, two-cylinder test Scuderi engine and has been testing it for nearly a year. It generates 135 horsepower at 6,000 RPM. That’s similar to Honda’s 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, which generates 140 horsepower at 6,300 RPM. All of these concepts have been run ragged in the inner sanctum of F1 team engineering departments. They have studied the theory of engine design and perhaps they can be relevant to road cars after all.

The big news in 2011 is the return of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System or KERS. This technology makes its return after an ignoble debut in 2009. The concept is simple in theory. Harvest potential energy by braking and re-invest it into the performance of the car through a battery storage system. Williams F1 studied the issue and found that mechanically storing energy via a flywheel is a more efficient and cost-effective system than storing the energy harvested from the potential energy of a moving vehicle electrically. Part of the reason is the storage of the energy generated and the weight of the batteries needed to do so.

A technology that has been around for decades may be the answer. Panasonic has been working on a technology called ultracapacitors which are based on the old capacitors we saw in our TV sets. They can absorb large amounts of electricity quickly, and then discharge it just as fast. The cost to produce them is very high and they still have to work with batteries but the notion is it would be a lot fewer batteries.

PSA Peugeot Citroën SA of France has begun deploying ultracapacitors in its diesel cars in Europe. Chinese bus companies are putting ultracapacitors in hybrid buses. Guess what? F1 is already working with them and have been for some time.

All of these advances in car technology have been studied in F1 circles but the underlying theme here is that the dash to make cars greener is only relevant if F1 can continue to develop each system. The FIA seems intent on mandating a regulation and then freezing its development to reduce the cost of the series. Understandable if you want to protect the smaller teams but does it really place F1 in the major role as developer of the road car tech of tomorrow?

I’m not convinced of this to be honest because I think the road car industry has a brilliant set of minds working on their own solutions to the process of tomorrow. F1 may be a good testing ground for a manufacturer but that’s only if the FIA do not ban whatever technology you are trying to test. F1 has always focused on their own navel instead of worrying about their impact ton the road car industry. Has that changed?

F1’s interest in “green” technology is only as deep as its ability to make their car go faster around the track than other teams. If it doesn’t, F1 has little interest. While some in F1 feel they should do their part to save the world, others think the world may just be killing F1. Suffice to say, F1 has been at the touch point of road car innovation for decades and perhaps we really have the aviation industry to thank as F1 has taken a lot of their best ideas from them.


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