By Alisdair Suttie 23 May 2012
Wednesday 23 May 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
We see it on the television every weekend now the sun is out and summer is here. From Formula One through World Rallying all the way to MotoGP on two wheels, you cannot move for motorsport. Well, until the Olympics nudges it off the schedules for a couple of weeks.
With all of this money and skill involved in making cars go ever faster on track or stage, you’d hope some of it would go into making our road cars that bit more efficient and better to drive.
Recently, it was pointed out that Formula One on its own generates as much turnover and revenue as the economy of France. That makes F1 equal to the world’s ninth largest economy, though some might argue F1 will eclipse France if Monsieur Hollande pursues his policies to the end.
Franco politics aside, this almost incredible statistic shows just how huge motorsport is, and that’s just one branch of it. Altogether, motorsport is an enormous business and one funded to a large degree by the cars we buy and run.
So, back to the question of what do we get out of it?
On the face of it, very little technology immediately trickles down from top-end motorsport to everyday driving. It even seems to be a reverse trend, with the likes of regenerative braking only appearing on Formula One cars recently when it was featuring on some road cars a few years back.
However, while France may be struggling to hold onto its top 10 spot in the economies of the world as F1 muscles in, we can look to our Gallic cousins for evidence of motorsport working its magic on road cars. Yup, it’s time for Le Mans and the 24 Hours du Mans.
The 24-hour race at Le Mans is great example of where road and track meet in technological terms. This is because the rules are ever-changing and evolving in an attempt to level the playing field so that pure prototype racers don’t simply march off into the distance every time with the big prize.
Unfortunately, motorsport is also very adept at interpreting rules and making the most of the slimmest advantage, so the prototype racers do march off with the main prizes. The last time they didn’t was when McLaren won first time in the F1 road-going supercar. Yes, it was a supercar, but it was also the first and only time a road car has won at Le Mans at the first attempt.
Sadly, the McLaren F1 was not a car in a position to filter technology to a road car sister model. However, with Audi and Peugeot taking such a keen interest in Le Mans, the technology they work on for their racers does feature in cars you and I can buy.
Diesels have been the class of the field at Le Mans for many years now, with Audi starting the trend. This has led straight to direct injection technology for diesel engines in the Audis and other VW Group cars many of us drive for business every day.
There have also been major advances in the way a diesel engine’s turbocharger operates as a result of putting this technology to the ultimate test of endurance at Le Mans.
Renault may not compete at Le Mans, but it says the technology and knowledge garnered from motorsport means three quarters of the cars it will sell in 2015 will be diesel-powered.
Admittedly, there is a growth in diesel sales anyway and many more will come from diesel-hybrids, but that’s still a lot of diesel cars when history says they make up around half of the total sales in Europe.
For 2012, Audi has gone further with its fuel-saving technology with a car that uses four-wheel drive. However, this racer sticks with a traditional diesel engine for the rear wheels and electric motors for the front pair.
As the Audi racer slows, it uses regenerative braking to store electricity that it then releases back to the front wheels as and when required by the driver. Audi says this type of all-wheel drive system can be adapted to road use very easily as it is lightweight, compact and efficient as demanded by racing.
Others interested in electric power for racing are Nissan with their Leaf Nismo [pictured above] and Mitsubishi, which is attempting to beat the big power petrol engines at the Pikes Peak Hillclimb this year with a battery-powered car.
This sort of motorsport activity is essential to the development of the car and its power sources. Motorsport is a furnace where new tech can be forged and tempered in a short space of time.
The engineers and technicians who work in motorsport all have a can-do attitude that lets then push ahead when others think it cannot be done. It also mean they can jump start a technology that might otherwise take traditional car companies years to develop and incorporate into a useful working car.
When you sit back on a Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea, perhaps instead of thinking you could be Jenson Button or Jorge Lorenzo you should be thinking ‘I wonder which bit of that car or motorbike will be used in my next company car?’
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