How Formula 1 is changing the world

Incredible engineering feats on the track can translate into efficiency gains in the real world...
13 April 2022

Interview with 

Kit Chapman, Falmouth University


F1 Simulator


Let's zoom straight into our next science spotlight. The 2022 Formula 1 races are underway and while there is always a lot of drama and excitement when the race cars are flying round the track at over 200 miles per hour, it is the feats of science and engineering off the track that are impacting the world that we live in. Julia Ravey speaks to Kit Chapman...

Julia - what science goes on on the sidelines of Formula 1 racing, and how has this been used during the pandemic?

Kit - There's so much science that goes on in Formula 1. When you look at cars around the track, don't see cars racing, think about the world's fastest R and D lab, because there are thousands of engineers that put those cars on track, and they're always coming up with great ideas to make them go a second, or a 10th of a second, or even a hundredth of a second faster. Those ideas spill out into our world. In March, 2020, we were in real trouble: we didn't have enough ventilators to keep people alive. Also, we didn't want people going on ventilators because, ultimately, if someone's on a ventilator, they're on it for a month. So, UCL were looking at how they could use what's called CPAP machines, continuous positive airway pressure. Rebecca Shipley was a professor there, and she contacted another professor, Tim Baker, who had previously worked in Formula 1. He made a few phone calls and called up the engineering team at Mercedes AMG High Performance Power Trains. They produce the engines for Formula 1 cars. They sent down three engineers and, within 26 hours, they had taken apart an old CPAP machine that they'd found. They copied it and prototyped it and, in 3 days, they had that on the ward. Within 12 days, they'd actually got medical approval from the regulatory agency of the UK, not just for that device, but a device that they had actually based on it specifically for COVID patients. Within 30 days, they had produced 10,000 of them for the NHS. They had turned a factory that produced Formula 1 car engines into a medical production facility. The quality of engineering that they do, and the speed in which they can do it, is phenomenal. It saved lives during the pandemic.

Julia - And the title of your book, 'Racing Green', also indicates that some of these ingenious inventions are sustainable for the planet as well. How are some of the engineering methods of Formula 1 helping our planet?

Kit - We've got regenerative braking, which is, when you brake, the energy can be turned from the brakes and help to power a battery in your car. Also, a lot of people don't know that the first ever purpose-built racer was actually an electric car. We're also seeing use of new materials. So, for example, McLaren have actually been making their drivers' seats out of flax fibres, and using that instead of carbon fibre, which is incredibly CO2 intensive to make. We're even making tyres out of dandelions. So, instead of using rubber from traditional Amazon sources, which has now moved over to Southeast Asia in Thailand, we were actually localising them and growing tyres out of dandelion rubber, which is just astonishing to me.

Julia - Fantastic. And are there any interesting developments in the world of Formula 1 in terms of advancing technology and engineering which you think will make an exciting impact on other industries in the future?

Kit - The one that I think is really exciting is graphene. Graphene is one of those wonderful materials. It's essentially one single molecule-thick chicken wire is the best way to think of it. We were in the position that the Victorians were in: the Victorians could never imagine what plastics would actually be able to bring to society. They had no idea about how we would use plastics in our daily lives. In the same way, we have absolutely no idea how graphene is going to be used, but we're already seeing it in Formula 1. They're looking at it in lubricants, in coolant facilities, to actually use carbon to cool down engines and things like that. They're looking at the body work, in terms of the electronics, because it's a fantastic electrical conductor. They're even looking at it in crash helmets. That's actually already being used. I think graphene is the big one that's really going to just span out and we can't even comprehend the changes that it's going to bring to our lives.

Julia - Well, very excited to see where that goes in the future. And just like the Grand Prix, your work has taken you all over the world, talking about science history. As a science storyteller, what is the most important message that you like to convey when you are communicating?

Kit - You are absolutely right. I've travelled to, I think, 76 countries now. I've gone down the Amazon, I've been around Cape Horn, I've literally circumnavigated South America. The thing that I would most want people to take away from science is how interconnected it is. Just because one idea is happening in one area doesn't mean it can't spin out into another and everything impacts. We're no longer looking at this as sole scientists striving and coming up with an idea and then doing it in isolation. It's now big teams and collaborations and everything joins together. It's all about the interconnectivity of our world, and that really pushes science forward


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