Formula One - Science on the Starting Grid

When it comes to technology and the use of technology in sports, there's one sporting event that’s miles ahead. In fact, so far ahead, it’s lapped the others many times...
31 July 2012

Interview with 

Caroline Hargrove & Duncan Bradley, McLaren Applied Technologies


Meera -   When it comes to technology and the use of technology in sports, there's one sporting event that's miles ahead.  In fact, so far ahead, it's lapped the others many times.  Formula 1.  And one company pioneering developments on the race track are McLaren who in recent years have spun out McLaren applied technologies to spread their technology to other sports as well.  I visited their headquarters in Surrey in the UK and met Programme Director Caroline Hargrove to get up to speed.

Caroline -   Well, welcome to the McLaren technology centre.  We're just about to enter our boulevard that is also showcasing some of our old winning cars.

Meera -   Before us is an array of a range of McLaren cars.

Caroline -   We start with the very first Bruce McLaren winning car that he used at the age of 15 and he rebuilt.  It's an old Austin 7 and it sets the tone to show how motor racing has changed over the last 40 years.

Meera -   Very different.  It's gone from very much a big box-like shape to a very sleek, much closer to the ground, much wider.

Caroline -   And just even one look through our boulevard will show how aerodynamics have changed over the last 20 years.

Meera -   How big a part does science, technology and engineering play in F1?

Caroline -   It's all about science and technology from every nut and bolt, to the driver, what they eat, what they do as fitness programmes.  Everything is monitored in detail because actually, each team is quite large for two drivers when you think about it.  And it's mainly largely mechanics and engineers who are obsessed with the detail because it's about the detail.

The M7 car of 1968 gave McLaren their first Formula One wins. It is driven here by Bruce McLaren at the Nürburgring in 1969.Meera -   There are many aspects to Formula One - there's the materials you use to make the cars, there's the design of the cars, there's monitoring the movements and speeds of the cars and actually then also monitoring the driver inside.

Caroline -   Every single aspect must be done very carefully.  So, I'd say it's well-known in Formula One that carbon fibre has been transformational and it has been pushed to different limits through what Formula One has done.  And of course, the aerodynamics - huge amounts of time and effort spent in wind tunnels, especially in CFD which means computational fluid dynamics.  So lot of computational power is now available and makes that possible.  And then of course, what you learn from that gets into the design and the best suspension to cope with all of that.  And then of course, the driver has to drive this.  So, the systems, the operational systems, the data, the telemetry to monitor what's happening is quite a wide range of tasks that need to happen to make a car driving, and winning, a championship at the other end.

Meera -   Walking down the boulevard, you've got a range of cars as they've developed over the years here at McLaren.  So let's just stop by this one here.  We've reached the more modern cars, there's a range here stemming from 2007 onwards.  These are looking very different.  What have been the main developments to this car in terms of material and design?

Caroline -   Well interestingly, by the time that we're in this era, it's aerodynamics that is overwhelmingly different.  At the moment for example, we've got movable rear wings.  There are areas where the drivers are allowed to move their rear wing in order to reduce the drag that it provides.  Now you want the rear wing when you break so that it gives you the down force, but when you're going in a straight line, it brings you drag.  So there's a drag reduction system, DRS, that when you press your button, it changes the wing angle.  It gives you no drag or very little drag, so you're getting faster straight line speed, but then you flip it back up again when you want to break and you need a down force.  The key is the complexity of the steering wheel.

Meera -   There's a lot of buttons in there from what I can see.

Caroline -   Absolutely, If we lean over and look at one of these steering wheels, there are so many buttons...

Meera -   They're at least 15 or so.

Caroline -   Absolutely.  Some are rotary switches, some are buttons.  Of course there are things like a drink button.  All the others will affect say, break balance or different engine modes, or different differential modes, and these are very important these days because the cars can't refuel during a race so you start very heavy, and you're going to finish very light.  That changes enormously the characteristics and the balance of the car so you need to be able to prepare for it.  But the drivers have got to cope with that as well as coping with their driving.  

Meera -   All of this at high speed

Caroline -   Completely and all of this fighting off opposition coming to overtake them and vice versa.

Meera -   And just lastly, at the end of the Boulevard here, you've got something very different to a car, although actually not that different technically.  We've got a very slick-looking bicycle here.

Caroline -   McLaren Applied Technologies has been setup to exploit some of the Formula One technology that's come out into other areas and it makes sense for bicycles.  People see it but it was great fun to come up with a project that applied principles of finite element analysis, the use of the materials, so the carbon fibre in a certain way in order to provide this edge of performance on a bicycle.

Meera -   And you've actually seen quite good results with the bikes to date.

Caroline -   Absolutely.  We were very lucky to have Mark Cavendish as one of the specialised riders last year and the very first race of this bike came out, the San Remo Race was won by Matt Goss on this bike which was lovely!

Meera -   Caroline Hargrove from McLaren Applied Technologies.  And the engineer designing the bikes she showed me is Design Director Duncan Bradley who showed me how the design of tour-winning bikes that speed through the finish line is down to the technology F1 is most famous for, telemetry...

Duncan -   Telemetry is all about the collection of data and taking information from a piece of equipment through to delivering that to an engineer so he can understand what's going on.  In the Formula One world, that would be how the engine is performing, or the tires are performing during a race, and then maybe altering our strategy accordingly to do that.  So, a lot of things that we do on a Formula One car, we can do on our say, a bike or an athlete.  So, in load conditions, the forces that are put through certain materials and from that, we're able to then see how well the material is performing with those loads and then maybe make a choice on the geometry around that or the material choice itself to make that even more efficient.

Meera -   How is the information actually collected?  So you are monitoring what speeds and potentially even things about the driver or athlete themselves, and how is that done?

Duncan -   When it comes to the telemetry system itself, and we are standing in the workshop that we're actually do all of that kind of thing now, we have a series of high speed data loggers, typically collecting a whole range of sensory information as well as how the equipment responds and ultimately, actually how does that translate into speed.  But really the key thing is actually, to interpret that data.

Meera -   So knowing what to actually do with the information.

Duncan -   Yes, indeed.  Some of these systems are extremely complex and the gains are very small so you have to really dig in to quite a lot of detail to really see the insight.

Meera -   An example here is you've got a section of a bike - in fact, we're surrounded by bikes here - there's a box located just underneath the seat.  Is this what collects everything about the cyclist and their bike?

Duncan -   Well yes, we can mount sensors pretty much anywhere on the body or on the bike.  So what we got here is a modern-day carbon fibre racing bike.  For instance, it would be really interesting for an athlete to know how the power that he's putting through the pedals results in speed at the back wheel, how the pedals transmit that to the frame, how the frame then transmits to the back wheels, but all of what happens actually in between.  So, really in quite high resolution detail, what's happening in that composite structure, what's happening between the plies of the carbon fibre, are they managing the energy in the most efficient way, is the bike flexing in the correct way.  If we understand that, we could then modify that structure to be even more efficient and save more of energy that the rider puts in, [ensuring the energy] makes it to the back wheel.  So you can see here, if the athlete pushes down on the pedal, it results in the frame flexing and power being delivered to the rear wheel.

Meera -   And the rear wheel is moving extremely fast...

Duncan -   Well yes, it moves extremely fast for a very long period of time.  So, if you're in one of the classic road races, you can be racing for 300 km so, you don't have to make many improvements to actually be quite a long way ahead at the end of the race.  It's all about marginal gains.

Meera -   So how do you then go to the next stage of working on your designs based on the information you've managed to get?

Duncan -   One area which we've done that recently is in a time-trial aerodynamic helmet where previous designs have been quite based around wind tunnel straight head-on speed, and head-on wind, but actually, when we looked into it, what actually was important was how the athlete was moving his head.  The real conditions out on the road and on the track are quite different to the optimum environment of a wind tunnel.  And by looking at those different types of influences from the environment, we're able to change aerodynamics of the helmet to give a much, much better performance over a race distance.

Meera -   And is this something that's being used by the cyclist now, out on tours or in the Olympics?

Duncan -   Yes, so currently, the helmets are being used in the Tour de France but will make an appearance in the Olympics.

Meera -   And how does it really differ in terms of what was accounted for to change the aerodynamics?

Duncan -   So within that particular example, we identified certain areas around the sides of the helmet which significantly reduced the performance of the athlete.  So with that project, we put a lot of effort into the computational fluid dynamics of the helmet and without being able to understand how that CFD or the computational fluid dynamics worked around the sides of the helmet in detail, we would never come up with the concept.  So, with a lot of sports, it's marginal gains.  You have to put together 2 or 3 things of innovation. That was just one on the helmet that we managed to find within that project.

Meera -   And this can and is being applied to quite a range of sports today.

Duncan -   So cycling isn't just the only thing that we're looking at.  Within Applied Technologies, we look at the Winter Olympic programmes, there's sailing.  In a sailboat, we have a lot of factors which can affect the performance of a boat.  It's not just the equipment itself but all the exterior environmental conditions, the wave conditions, the wind conditions.  The better you can understand that, the more optimal you can either sail the boat or you can design the structure to make most of the environmental conditions.  So, within that industry, we're really looking to give very fast, very accurate feedback on the sailboat in order for the sailors to really tune and optimise their own equipment.

Meera -   So, cycling and sailing technologies to name a few, all stemming from the speed and accuracy driven world of Formula One.  That was Duncan Bradley, Design Director at McLaren Applied Technologies.  


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