We Need Racecars
By Joe Thomson
New technologies have to come from somewhere. In the automotive industry the primary source of innovation is motorsport. Motorsport is a general term that describes a variety of sports involving the racing of motor vehicles. So the next time you drive your car, think about the ingenuity it took to accomplish such a feat of engineering, and how everything, from your rearview mirror to the basic layout of your engine can be traced back to motorsport. Without it, our cars would be decades behind where they are today.
Over the years, the automotive industry has made monumental steps forward in the technology that is put into cars. For example, the average power output of the top five most sold 2015 models in the U.S. was 164 horsepower, compared to the 115hp produced by the same models in 1995. Nearly every one of those advancements can be attributed to motorsport. The racetrack is generally where the most significant developments and first implementation of many new and costly technologies take place. The track is where automotive giants and small start-ups compete to accomplish the greatest feats of engineering. The extremely competitive nature of motorsport pushes companies to create the most effective machines possible. Contrary to popular belief, the innovations that come out of motorsport are not always geared towards speed. Things such as braking and fuel efficiency play a large role in the design of a racecar. Due to strict regulation, Formula One cars are not allowed to refuel during a race, which means the cars have to be efficient enough to perform throughout an entire race while using one tank of fuel.
One reason for higher overall power output is the use of forced induction systems in modern cars. There are countless models of cars that use forced induction systems, such as turbochargers. According to TurboSmart U.S.A. “The 1970s also marked the entry of turbochargers into motorsport, most notably into Formula 1. As with most automotive inventions, motorsport popularized turbocharging to the point where it became a familiar term to the general public.” In 2014 one in every five cars sold was turbocharged. This is a direct result of motorsport. Turbochargers harness the energy from the exhaust gas and use it to power a turbine that forces pressurized air through the intake manifold. This gives the engine more oxygen, resulting in more power. The added power of this system allows for large displacement engines to be replaced with smaller, more efficient turbocharged engines. Forced induction technologies have greatly contributed to the upward trend of power that average cars produce. Motorsports progressed this technology to a point where it is extremely common to find turbocharged cars, and they are continuing to progress the technology today.
In 2013 only 3.9% of new cars in the U.S. were sold with a manual transmission. The manual transmission is often associated with racing. This is somewhat of a misconception. The majority of professional racing teams rely on automatic transmissions to turn the engine’s power into forward motion. Before automatic transmissions were widely used in motorsport, automatic transmissions were less efficient, heavier, slower, and resulted in far more power loss than the manual equivalent. Motorsport truly revolutionized this technology, making it an extremely viable option for the average driver today. Statistically, modern automatics are superior in every way, thanks to their development in the world of car racing.
Another example of an extraordinary technology to be revolutionized by motorsport is Carbon fiber. The first car to incorporate carbon fiber was the McLaren MP4/1 Formula One car. The MP4/1 first showed the material’s great potential in 1981 when the driver John Watson spun the car at Monza Raceway. After the crash Watson said, "Had I had that accident in a conventional aluminium tub, I suspect I might have been injured because the strength of an aluminium tub is very much less than the carbon tub." Carbon fiber’s strength offers improved safety, because of its strength and rigidity. It also provides improved efficiency and acceleration, because of its light weight. Mclaren continues to be a frontrunner with the use carbon fiber in automotive industry. A prime example of this is the track-oriented version of the P1 model, which featured a carbon fiber monocoque chassis that is so strong it meets FIA rollover requirements for GT racing, meaning the structure of the car is so strong it does not require a roll-cage. BMW has taken the first major step towards mass production cars that use this material with their i-series line of cars. This progression would not have been possible without the materials developed for race cars. Because professional motorsports are so lucrative, technologies like carbon fiber can be developed even with incredibly high manufacturing costs.
The amplified risk associated of motorsport requires exceptional safety equipment. According to worldracing.com, “Safety cage with impact protection, energy absorbing crush zones, seat belts, headrests, and side supports, crash impact recording devices and impact studies, rearview mirrors, anti-fade hydraulic disc brakes, and anti-lock systems, traction control, active suspension and better handling, more stable tires with better grip, and better, resistance to catastrophic failure, anti-hydroplaning tread patterns, aerodynamic stability, and stronger lightweight (more fuel efficient) materials,” all have their origins in racing. These features save thousands of lives each year, and without them driving would be a much more dangerous activity.
What most people don’t realize is that most of the components in their car are a direct result of motorsport. Innovative technologies like these are expensive and take a lot of money to develop and produce. The world of automotive performance drives the progress of every car manufacturer. Because new technologies are so expensive, engineers working with race teams find cheaper and more efficient ways to produce and incorporate them into cars, making new technologies available for the average consumer. So the next time you flip on the TV and see a race, be glad -- because their work and dedication will make cars of the future possible.
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