Is F1 road car relevant? like Skinny jeans

Much talk about Formula 1 these days is about how to fix the sport for the future. Waning viewer numbers, fewer fans at races and a lack of sponsors all suggest that the series is having difficulties at the moment and yet if you listened to the cultural wave of hybrid delight and sustainability, you would think F1 is perfectly poised for success.

For many fans, the slide started with the 2014 spec V6 turbo hybrid engines and the FIA even considered a second spec engine that was cheaper for the 2017 season. The reason the new hybrid spec was brought in to F1 is that Mercedes and Renault were keen to have a format more closely matched with their mass production road car engines. A format that would be closer to their own road car efforts in which to make F1 a more attractive reason to participate.

That makes sense if you are a manufacturer. Get the series to move toward a sustainability message and technological format and then you’ll get people/companies writing checks to participate in the sport. The opportunity to rapid prototype technology in the crucible of F1 is also a very appealing element of F1 for manufacturers and engineers.

When you consider the future of road cars, you read a lot of predictions that a small ICE component coupled with batteries for power and harvesting is the way forward. I’m no road car engineer but I am a consumer and while I do see smaller ICE components and turbo boost to make them torquey, I am not sure when the predicted wave of hybrid and all-electric car buying is supposed to begin. Right now, it’s in the single digits among car sales.

An “industry” needs an angle and it is much like trying to repackage a product or create a new one on the wave of a cultural movement. I tend to think that hybrid electrics cars are like skinny jeans; trendy, popular right now and craftily targeted to certain demographics that manufacturers are trying to energize with this new wave of excitement. How to translate ideological cultural mores into dollars. Appeal to social responsibility and you may just find you can get marketing and investment cash much easier than you can if you were peddling V8 normal combustion engines or baggy jeans made from fossil fuels.

Fair enough but that isn’t the trend in car buying right now. To suggest that road cars only need 200bhp and a small ICE with lots of electrics, batteries and energy recovery systems to putter around town is missing large and vast segments of the market. Regardless, that is the movement that is supporting F1 as we speak.

Road car engineers aren’t lost

Safety Car 2010 C 588

One of the recurring narratives I hear from fans—not necessarily F1 engineers—is that F1 is the hub of car innovation and without them, road car engineers wouldn’t have as many cool technology pieces for their road cars such as paddle shifters and other F1-based tech that has trickled down. There is some cross-pollination but to slather road car engineers as incompetent if not for F1 is really nonsense.

Mercedes’ SLS AMG Electric Drive road car was instrumental in helping their HPP group—the folks who build the F1 car—refine their understanding on how to work with large batteries. The innovation was working in reverse and that’s no surprise when you consider that consumer technology has been leading commercial application for over five years now.

Mercedes isn’t sitting around a garage in Germany waiting for the boffins in F1 to teach them how to innovate something new, the company has a massive effort in two-way communication capitalizing on the breadth of their engineering power to keep a consistent flow of innovation back and forth. They have engaged F1 as a rapid prototype series and crucible for road car engineers to work with F1 engineers to prove out technologies. I would venture to guess that the innovation flow is in favor of the road car division which is kept completely separate from their racing division.

For Porsche, their LMP1 racing division is completely integrated into their road car division as part of their technology transfer while using test benches and resources of the street car development department. For Porsche, and one would presume Ferrari, the relationship between racing and road car divisions are much closer as the 911 GT and Ferrari 458 are high performance road cars with racing as their DNA. No wonder then that the transfer of innovation is as much road car division derived as it is racing division.

Technology, not marketing

Renaultf1 engine1

One of the hold-out weapon arguments of the current form of racing, be it Formula 1 or Le Mans, is really what compels manufacturers to be involved in the series. Corporate involvement will be approved in the boardroom as long as there is a set of regulations that clearly define a road map for technological innovation. Technology and the creation or improvement of technology in a product has become a bigger driver than the old days of simple marketing or “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” types of approaches.

Very few manufacturers would spend $300-$400 million on a program that was simply a marketing effort which makes Red Bull quite the standout in a sea of reasoned road car innovation efforts. One need only consider Honda’s return to F1 as an example.

Why Honda came back to F1

McLaren Honda USGP

Honda says that technology was definitely a big part of their decision to return to F1. The knowledge gained from it’s hybrid format will trickle down to their road cars in the future. They are keen to lean more about combustion, high-pressure direct injection systems, turbocharger efficiency, fuel and lubricant technology as well as hybrid battery, power electronics and heat regeneration.

For Honda, the road car division already has a firm grasp on turbo combustion and direct injection technologies but where it may gain headway and insight is in the heat regeneration area and a key attraction of F1 is how quickly the concept of heat regeneration has come to reality.

Once again, F1 isn’t always teaching road car engineers how to do their job so much as identifying a regulatory framework and rapidly testing those innovations in what would otherwise take years in the road car divisions. This, then, is F1’s appeal.

One might argue that if Toyota and BMW are making serious advancements in hydrogen engines, then perhaps the next wave of F1 regulatory parameters could be hydrogen technologies and other key regenerative systems to innovate with.

Not all who wander are lost

Arrivebene Ferrari team monza 2015

The key here is that not all of F1’s technology trickles down to road cars. That simply doesn’t happen. It does help manufacturers find ways forward through innovative technology and sets direction for them by informing them in which ways the automotive world is heading. Again, looking for the technological and cultural wave to ride.

The key here is that the FIA’s regulatory change to hybrid turbo V6’s was specifically in the wheelhouse of manufacturers such as Mercedes. For Mercedes, the innovation paths are more closely aligned than ever thanks to the regulatory framework and the crucible of F1 and competition is the motivation for serious innovation and rapid prototyping that simply isn’t in the road car division at that level. The speed in which an idea can be developed and the risk involved is much higher in F1 than the automotive world.


F1 car engine renault 600

The direct relevance for road cars could be the thermal efficiency that F1 cars experience. Manufacturers are all shooting for 40% thermal efficiency and this can be directly translated to road cars. On one hand, you could argue they may have done that with the old V8’s but coupling the thermal efficiency with regenerative properties from MGU-H systems and KERS adds to a complete ecosystem and it could be argued which division, racing or road, innovated what? Then again, that’s the current appeal to F1 for manufacturers because the two divisions working together is a real plus for Mercedes although Ferrari and Porsche have, perhaps, always had that luxury.


Force India Garage

The challenge then becomes the other teams who are not aligned with a manufacturer. What is the appeal of F1 for them given it has completely capitalized on its appeal to the manufacturers? Where can Force India, Williams F1, Red Bull and Sauber gain from their involvement if they are also not getting a larger portion of prize money? Remember, sponsors aren’t flocking to the series like they used to and the reason the series is viable is through race hosting fees, TV broadcast rights fees and advertising which comprises of the prize money that these non-manufacturer works teams rely on but get less of.

What compels them to participate in a sport that is catering to manufacturers and becoming more and more expensive with the technology evolution and changing regulatory format that champions technology on the leading edge of capital investment and R&D? Is it any wonder the engine supply contracts tripled? There is that fickle factor to consider when heavily weighting your series to manufacturers who can come and go with little notice leaving big voids in the series.

Does this or will this eventually mean that the non-works teams will need to be a second format or a two-spec series in the future? That is exactly what the FIA and Formula 1 were implying with their announcement that unless engine supply costs didn’t reduce, they would offer a tender for a second spec engine that is cheaper.

Follow the money

Money Bag 600

The fact is, free money isn’t around anymore. Tobacco money isn’t propping up the series and unfortunately the technology industry isn’t filling the void so you have to hand it to F1 for capitalizing on it’s main appeal of innovation and rapid prototyping for manufacturers.

If tomorrow, the world ditched the cultural wave of hybrids, sustainability and skinny jeans and went to V12’s and acid-wash relaxed fit jeans, then perhaps F1’s appeal might change and a new regulatory direction would be created. The point is, follow the money and that’s exactly what F1 is doing. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here in my 501’s (which I’ve worn for decades) watching the ebb and flow of innovation, money and cultural mores.

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Maybe I’m in the minority here – and if so that’s fine… But I do think that F1 needs to be road car relevant – I believe that F1 needs to have some ties back to the consumer market, otherwise why exist? Brand awareness is all well and good, but very few companies have the bottomless pockets of Red Bull to pour upwards of $300m a year into a complex multi-year marketing campaign, and that’s only if you look at Red Bull and not include Toro Rosso or the money that they pour into so many other racing series as… Read more »


Why exist? Because motor racing is fun to watch (not to mention participate in)? It’s entertainment. What other raison d’etre does it need? Name another sport that is tied to some sort of pragmatic relevancy?


Motor racing is fun to watch, I agree. But there are lots of series out there that offer racing in lots of formats – given the cost of F1 and the complexity of F1 if there’s no road relevance than why would any company want to participate? Again, outside of Red Bull, what other team is involved in F1 strictly for brand promotion? Better yet, what team is successful in F1, that doesn’t need paying drivers in order to survive, that is in F1 strictly for brand promotion reasons? If road relevance isn’t needed in F1, what benefit does any… Read more »


Because it’s the “pinnacle of racing”. Sauber isn’t in it for marketing OR road relevance. Neither is Williams, Force India, or Manor. McLaren is now, but that’s only a recent development and their road car division only came about as a result of success in F1. And let’s not forget, it’s the car companies that have bloated the budgets in F1. It’s their large engine budgets that put an end to the independent engine suppliers (e.g. Cosworth). The factory teams are not expected to be solvent. Their budgets are R&D and marketing write-offs. Teams like Sauber and Williams and FI… Read more »


By what measure is F1 the pinnacle of racing? Is it more complex than WEC? Is it more technically challenging than WRC? Is it harder on the driver than Dakar or WEC? It might be faster than other series – but I’m not so sure of that either… Force India is definitely in it for marketing – first and foremost that team exists to market the brands of VJ Mallya (and some might argue to launder some of his money too). Williams actually does work to market the tech it’s developed for F1 into other areas including road car use.… Read more »


Williams are there to race, as is Sauber. The fact that Williams has created off-shoot businesses to support it’s racing and to be better able to compete only re-enforces my point. As for FI, if VJ were just in it to market his brands, he’d be a sponsor, not a constructor. I can’t speak to the money laundering, but that seems like a straw man argument. You can debate F1 as the pinnacle of motor racing in a contemporary context, but not in a historical one. And while you may not think it’s the pinnacle, you are most likely in… Read more »


P.s. I’m enjoying the debate. Thanks, MichaelB!


LOL! I was thinking the exact same thing after I skimmed your last comment..


I’ll start from the bottom this time and work my way up… I wasn’t a fan in the true garagistes era (before my time), but there’s an easy way to give the modern garagistes a level shot in today’s F1 – force the manufacturers to supply every one of their customers with the same engine that they run on their works cars. Not just the same engine though, but the same fuel maps, and the same ancillary software settings. Stop allowing manufacturers from selling teams last year’s engines, stop allowing teams to give their customers software maps that don’t provide… Read more »


It’s interesting…. I’ve been following F1 for over 30 years. I think a lot of our difference of opinion probably stems from that difference in how long we’ve been watching. For me it’s always been about the entrepreneurial spirit. I rooted for McLaren and Lotus and Williams because they had Prost, and Senna and Mansell (never did like Piquet! lol). But back then, even the top teams were still scrappy little operations. I resent the corporate involvement. My sport was great, and since it became about money, it’s been steadily declining. I supposed my real beef is with Bernie and… Read more »


When in doubt it’s always Bernie’s fault… I don’t think it’s the money or the manufacturers that are the issue – I think its the focus on “The Show” and Bernie and others trying to tinker with things in order to improve “The Show.” Change the rules for safety, change the rules for relevance, but don’t change the rules for the sake of “The Show.” Bernie, F1, and yes even the fans need to realize that not every race is going to be a thriller, some are just going to be dull. Change the rules to make the competition better… Read more »


I totally agree about the focus on The Show, and as you say, it’s a natural consequence of the focus on money, but I don’t think it’s as simple as the introduction of corporate sponsorship. Teams have always had to run themselves as businesses (except for the few, like Hesketh, that relied on individuals’ wealth). Lotus, or example, was always struggling to make ends meet. So sponsorship created an influx of money, but each team was still on an equal playing field. Get sponsors, spend the money to get good results, get bigger sponsors. The sponsors were in it for… Read more »


Except it’s not the Road Relevance that’s detrimental… It’s allowing manufacturers to provide worse engines to their customers than they provide to their works team… It’s introducing gimmicks to influence the quality of racing because the regulating body is either unwilling or afraid to force the teams into a level playing field, let alone actually regulate the sport because they sold off their controlling right. It’s allowing a sport’s promoter who over values the sport because he can get away with it – and get away with it without actually doing anything to promote the sport. The one thing I’ve… Read more »


Lol. I think F1’s answer to all those questions is… Yes. And, as you say, therein lies the problem!

I noticed you said “Bernie” several times…
But also, I’m not sure it’s a case of the one thing, but more, “and another thing…”

Anyway. Bernie, CVC and the absence of Flavio Briatore are clearly the root causes of our collective misery… Thank goodness we have Lewis’ shiny dungarees to cheer us up!

Negative Camber

Like skinny jeans, it seems many things have to have a mission or cause to rally behind. A reason to justify its mere existence. I find that is more Gen Y than others but I’d argue S&A’s point that racing is fun and entertaining. does it need a cause or does every initiative need to be planet saving, life saving, cancer curing etc? What if we did something for the fun of it and it benefitted no one? :)


Given the tractor trailer loads of cash required to own and operate an F1 team – I would say that F1 needs a reason more than fun and entertaining…. If F1 had a payment structure that made sense, if anybody could enter a car into F1 for just a few thousand bucks and a dream – then F1 wouldn’t need a greater good… But the costs are so high, and the barriers to entry are so steep – there’s no reason to get involved in the sport unless you can generate a return for somebody – be it sponsor, manufacturer,… Read more »


Totally agree. Also not convinced at all that a lot of F1 tech doesn’t reach road cars. Examples as obvious as disk brakes aren’t always going to be there, (though there certainly are some, the manual transmission is almost a memory, that’s nothing but F1 changing the automotive universe) but a lot of manufacturers are weaving methods advanced in F1 into part of their road car process. Working toward, for instance, carbon fiber components to ease the conflict between weight savings and safety. A current F1 power unit, for all the whining from the fans and teams, is a staggeringly… Read more »


Disc brakes appeared in sports cars before F1, and sequential gearboxes that enable the flappy paddle gear change came from motorcycles. F1 certainly uses and develops a lot of technology, but it is rarely the instigator.


Does it have to be the instigator? There’s no doubt that F1 offers some extreme mechanical and design challenges, and that the lessons learned from refining that technology to integrate into an F1 car can be leveraged in other areas of a company’s road or performance business.

I don’t believe that F1 drives innovation at a manufacturer – and honestly if it does, that’s a pretty expensive R&D model. What I do believe is that F1 development should complement and enhance existing development in the road and performance groups.


I agree, it doesn’t need to be the instigator. I think manufacturers are using their F1 programmes to attract high calibre engineers to their company, some may go to the racing divisions but others will stay with road cars. Transfer of technology is a spurious argument, particularly for someone like Ferrari who only started selling road cars to fund the race team.


And again, because in F1 really does provide an extreme test bed. Just look at Renault’s issues with dyno testing. They thought they had it, but only when the rubber met the road did they begin to find all the issues with the engine. That’s worth a lot.

Shell obviously gets a lot out of it’s participation as does Pirelli, in spite of some of the negative press.


I didn’t say discs came from f1, I was trying to pick an analogous race-road path to demonstrate how clear the path sometimes is and is not. I was a motorcycle racer, that was not the same transmission tech. you can shift an mc race box without the clutch if the throttle is closed, those systems just shut the throttle when the rider pressured the selector, then pop! it went in. different than real flappy paddle.


“F1 needs to have some ties back to the consumer market, otherwise why exist” For the same reason that the actual activities of football, tennis, badminton, and competitive swimming have no ties back to the consumer markets: they are sports. “I would even bet that Aston’s decision to walk away from the Force India deal was less due to the “road relevance” AMR often runs four Vantage in WEC events; is (or coulda’ been) on the podium for GT class Le Mans; makes regular appearances in IMSA; and has one of the best presences in all forms of GT sports… Read more »


Except that not a single one of those sports has series that are similar and compete for eyeballs the way F1 does…. If F1 disappeared tonight, race fans could watch NASCAR, IndyCar, DTM, GP2, BTC, WTC, WEC, WRC, etc… And Road Relevance comes in many forms, it’s not necessarily a direct parts transfer from one program to another. As for AMR… If F1 is truly the “Pinnacle of Motorsport” then why wouldn’t a “no-nonsense” racing organization want to come to F1? What better way to show that you are a true performance outfit to be reckoned with than to jump… Read more »

Junipero Mariano

I think each division feeds from the production of the other. Also, the turbo-hybrid regulations may have been F1 peering into the future of road car technology. Electric motors driving and recovering energy from the wheels was well in place when the current regulations were being conceived, downsized turbocharged engines are the norm today, and the MGU-H concept will very likely come into play down the road. Racing may not invent the new tech, but it certainly does figure out how to optimize it. In regards to sponsorship and manufacturer participation, there is no one reason manufacturers get involved. Some… Read more »


F1 is the Large Hadron Collider of automotive R&D. And let’s not confuse road-relevance with incentives-for-large-auto-companies. As the crucible in which the extremes of automotive engineering are realized on a daily basis, F1 will always be road-relevant. What we’re really talking about here is getting the large manufacturers involved because that generates more revenue for FOM. That’s what the engine spec is all about. It probably wouldn’t fly, but if you want real innovation in F1, separate the engine manufacturers from the chassis manufacturers. Let Merc and Renault and Toyota and Audi and Ferrari build engines. Then let McLaren, Williams,… Read more »


Apologize in advance due to some of the post being regurgitated. I get the relevance, I really do and it makes perfect sense from a manufacturer perspective but my own narcissistic view is I want to see beautiful cars with ear splitting sound going like a bat out of hell. After seeing the sorry spectacle the last couple of years, I’m not sure “road relevance” and balls to the wall racing can be mixed in the same bowl with the final output being anything F1 fans want to see or believe in. Seems the sedan series or touring series cars… Read more »


It’s hardly narcissistic. It’s exactly what draws racing fans to races: competition, speed, sonics, “my team”, skilled drivers, risk, and many other intangibles. Things that people do not experience in their normal daily lives. It’s the nature of many popular sports. Mr. Camber, you’ve done an excellent job of sorting out the causes and context of today’s F1. Manufacturers have money, manufacturers want a technology test bed, and F1 (potentially) provides that, so long as the rules are changed to suit their engineering and technology requirements (although I think the manufacturer appeal to “road relevance” is quite strained and even… Read more »


Ok what about FOM only paying teams which owners don’t derive any marketing value for themselves from participating in F1? Give the money to Sauber, Williams and Manor. Everyone else is deriving marketing gains from being in F1, and it’s their problem whether that makes sense for them or not.


What problem are you trying to solve? Charity, in this case, would create disincentives to winning. So those teams would have no reason to try and raise their game. This isn’t like baseball or football where revenue is largely determined by the geographic market. And anyway you’d have to take Williams off the list, as they have viable side-business based on their F1 tech. Again, I think there’s a difference between F1 being an amazing R&D platform for road car technology, and it being an amazing R&D platform for large car Manufacturers. F1 will always be the former, but if… Read more »

Paul KieferJr

So, your asking me if Formula 1 is road-relevant. You want me to try to divide by zero again? Well, okay, but the last time I tried that, I almost lost the universe. I’d rather not go through that again. It was a harrowing experience.

Paul KieferJr

While I am loathe for us to become “tools”, the fact that I am aware in NASCAR of the Chevy SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry kinda undermines my argument. :D