'It’s time for some hard truths about motor racing’s influence on road cars'

Even long-standing teams with road car divisions might struggle to point out where the tech transfer lies

Richard Porter opinion

The Well-Known F1 Journalist was up on his hind legs, raging through the civility filter of social media at the editorial boss of Certain Car Magazines That Aren’t evo. The Well-Known F1 Journalist was adamant that innovations from Formula 1 transfer to road cars all the time. The Well-Known F1 Journalist claimed to be amazed and astonished that other car media professionals weren’t aware of this. The Well-Known F1 Journalist said there was a long list that proved his point. The Well-Known F1 Journalist was asked to name something off this list and came up with an example that was incorrect. Yet still The Well-Known F1 Journalist raged on.

The Well-Known F1 Journalist was wrong. There’s little from F1 that ever makes it onto road cars. The white heat of motorsport might provide some advances in lubricants and metallurgy and, by extension, in the design of things like piston rings for high performance road cars, but even then the crossover is less than direct, simply because what’s required of a road engine is not what’s needed to power a racing car.

A bespoke competition engine is blueprinted, hand built, and designed to survive for a short amount of time under extreme stress. A road car engine, even one in a hypercar, has to last for the duration of the warranty and beyond. The greatest achievement of the W16 in the Bugatti Chiron is not that it can belt out over 1500 horsepower but that it can do so while conforming to all of Volkswagen Group’s toughest durability and driveability tests so that it’s as dependable and docile as a Golf when required.

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Conversely, there are two ‘F1 derived’ hypercars in development at the moment that, so rumour has it, are stuck in development hell. One is said to be unpleasantly noisy inside, the other has proven to be a bastard to homologate thanks to an engine that was built to race, not to do boring things like meet emissions rules and idle unobtrusively in a traffic jam. Little wonder there’s bugger all crossover between F1 and the road when the requirements of the cars for each role are so vastly different.

If The Well-Known F1 Journalist wasn’t talking out of his hat, where are the demonstrable road car changes shown by manufacturers who have flitted in and out of Formula 1? BMWs didn’t get less high tech or of lower performance when the company bailed on the sport. Alfa Romeos don’t seem to have got more sophisticated or demonstrated any tangible evidence of new thinking since they started to inhabit BMW’s old Swiss shoes. Even the long-standing teams with road car divisions might struggle to point out where the tech transfer lies. They’ll mumble something about carbonfibre, but laying up a handful of monocoques for a full F1 season is a discipline of little use when you need to turn out hundreds and thousands of road car monocoques a year. McLaren might also point to its centre-hinged paddleshift that allows up- and downchanges with one hand and which is, I grant you, quite nifty. But beyond that, direct F1 tech transfer is hard to pinpoint.

Look at this another way: plenty of road car makers don’t have an F1 connection and manage to match strides all the same. Lamborghini, for example. Or, in a less sporty realm, Hyundai. Are their cars less dynamic/reliable/efficient than, say, Renaults?

It’s easy to believe F1 is some glorious engine room from which innovations fly like sparks and that the cars in showrooms are somehow improved by association with the sport, but evidence, or lack of it, suggests it’s just not true. We’ve had more obvious, identifiable road car technology from aviation than from Formula 1.

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I was thinking about this again the other day when, fresh from reading The Well-Known F1 Journalist huffing about his mythical list of F1 innovations, I got talking to a friend about the last Ford GT. Just not cricket, said my mate. They rushed that car through and brought a gun to a knife fight just so they could claim class victory to play on the whole ‘50 years since ’66’ thing rather than having the bottle to go toe-to-toe with the big lads in the LMP1 category. I completely disagreed. Why would Ford spend a load of cash to get its corporate arse handed to it by Toyota when for the same or less they could grab what they needed, sell a nice story, and be home in time for tea and medals?

My friend was, I fear, romanticising racing as something other than ruthless and calculating. Just as, surprisingly, The Well-Known F1 Journalist had fallen under the ridiculous myth that Formula 1 directly and relentlessly improves and advances road cars. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t because – hold on, here’s the hard-to-swallow bit, as in both cases to think otherwise is to acknowledge an awkward truth that ruins the misty-eyed romance – motor racing is just marketing.

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