Those familiar with car racing know that the speed and excitement of the sport all comes down to the machine and the modern technology that makes it tick. Whether it’s professional racing simulators, the computer data used to improve aerodynamics or the energy systems that create power, motorsports would not be where they are today without the help of cutting-edge scientific innovations.
Here are five game-changing motorsport technologies.
If you think that the racing game on your game console is anything like the racing simulators used in the motorsport industry, think again. A state-of-the-art racing simulator costs around $4.5 million and is powered by more than 10 computers, each with a whole lot of processing power. These computers operate a monocoque chassis that sits on top of six hydraulic posts capable of vertical and lateral movement and is placed in front of a screen powered by multiple overhead projectors. A racing simulator can enable drivers to master the racing lines of most circuits in the world where every single millimeter and every contour of gradient has been recreated electronically. Professional drivers have discovered the top simulators are accurate to within one second of their real lap-time. Plus, simulators in conjunction with computational fluid dynamics (which we’ll discuss next), allow parts of a car to be modeled and trialed before they are given the go-ahead for production. Now that’s something you can’t do in your living room.
Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)
The role that computers have played in racing car design and technology can’t be underestimated. A few of the world’s top racing teams now have some of the most powerful “super computers” on the planet. A one-teraflop computer can calculate a trillion operations a second…and some Formula 1 teams have machines ranging from 20 teraflops upwards. These machines calculate Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), which is the airflow over a racing car. CFD can also be used to mathematically calculate any fluid flow, including the study of oil in the gearbox or water flow through radiators.
When wings first sprouted on racing cars in the late 1960s, the sport was revolutionized. From that point on, engines would no longer be the biggest performance differentiator – it was now aerodynamics. As the study of wings (downforce and drag) increased, so did the use of wind tunnels. Today, the study of aerodynamics in wind tunnels is one of the most important areas of research in motorsport technology. In a wind tunnel, a car is held stationary while it sits on a moving belt (traveling at over 150mph) which rotates the wheels underneath. Wind speed is accelerated over the car thanks to a closed-loop turbine and the airflow over the car is monitored by seeding the air with tiny bubbles of polystyrene latex and shining a laser over them. Wind tunnels give an incredibly accurate reading on how the shape of a modern racing car works and can back up modeling for precision performance aerodynamic engineering.
Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS)
As the world has become more environmentally conscious, noxious waste from combustion engines has been frowned upon. The world of motorsports has responded to this concern by increasing the development of regenerative and hybrid powertrains. Efficiency and fuel economy are more important than power output. In the last few years, racing series like F1 have seen the development of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS). These systems harvest kinetic energy under-braking, store the power in a battery and then allow the driver to decide when to release the additional boost of 400kJ. In 2014, new direct-injection turbo-charged engines in F1 will increase power delivery by double the amount.
Carbon composites are integral to a variety of industries today, but it was in motor racing that the material of carbon fiber was truly pioneered. Greater speed can be achieved by lightening the weight of the car, so aluminum was ditched in the mid-80s in favor of carbon fiber: an expensive, fibrous material fused together with resin at high temperatures. The benefits were immediately obvious. Carbon fiber can be molded into any shape, it can improve overall stiffness without adding too much mass and it is nearly three times as strong as steel. A typical racing car is now around 80-percent carbon fiber, which only contributes to around 20 percent of its weight. Most importantly, serious, life-threatening accidents in racing are predominantly a thing of the past thanks to the overwhelming strength of carbon fiber.