While its raison d’etre is to propel vehicles at breakneck speeds around a race track, Tim Brown discovers that the specialist knowledge of the motorsport industry is increasingly being exploited by mainstream engineering and manufacturing applications.
The British have always been obsessed with making things go as fast as possible using the least amount of energy, dating back to the early days of steam power and the Industrial Revolution. Despite being the original home of neither the automobile (Germany) nor motor racing (France), the UK has long been established as the international hub of the motor racing industry.
About 4,500 companies are involved in the Motorsport and Performance Engineering Industry in the UK, which generates revenues of about £6bn annually, of which £3.6bn is exported. There are successful firms nationwide but the largest concentration of motorsport engineering firms are found within ‘Motorsport Valley’, a business cluster which extends from Gloucestershire to Norfolk in a rough crescent shape between Birmingham and London, with its heartland near Silverstone in Northamptonshire.
The size of the UK motorsport industry, combined with its faculty for invention and rapid product development, has made it a valuable resource for larger engineering companies. Formula 1 teams, for example, have commercial partners from a diverse range of industries including automotive, aerospace, communications, defence, electronics, energy, oil and tyre manufacture. Strong relationships with companies such as Phillips, AT&T, Bridgestone, Boeing, Airbus, BAE Systems and Shell are for more than marketing reasons, as a network of knowledge transfer between these companies provides direct commercial benefits through direct input into their processes and products.
The links between the mainstream automotive sector and the motorsport industry are obvious and the two have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship. Henry Ford founded his company with the $1000 he won in a motor race and the Ford Motor Company has been one of the most consistent partners of motor racing ever since.
According to Chris Aylett, chief executive of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA), the automotive sector has drawn more and more on motorsport’s knowledge of efficiency, especially in the last five years. He highlights the development of F1’s kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) as an example of this knowledge crossover. Kers is a form of regenerative braking which acts as an energy recovery mechanism that reduces vehicle speed by converting some of its kinetic energy into a useful form of energy instead of dissipating it as heat as in a conventional brake. “We estimate that over well £20m went into the research and development of KERS almost overnight,” says Aylett. “That is the power and value that motorsport can bring. If an advantage can be found within the rules, then the sponsors or partners will find that money to exploit that advantage.” Two energy transfer systems were developed following the KERS ruling: Flybrid and Williams Hybrid. Both systems have now been adopted by a range of non-car applications including trains, boats, coaches and aircraft. F1 no longer actually uses either system. In February this year, carmaker Porsche announced that its 911 GT3 R Hybrid would incorporate the Williams model and the vehicle made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show.
Three years from the start of the F1 KERS project, Porsche has bought the Williams solution and is one of first mass production vehicle makers to implement the system into a standard model. “Not even Porsche could develop such technology as fast as the motorsport industry,” says Aylett. “Motorsport really becomes a kind of skunk works for mainstream engineering firms. That has become motorsport’s role with these bigger industries – defence, aerospace, marine and automotive – because motorsport is in the R&D prototyping business under the cover of entertainment.
Failure and success is actually what people are paying to watch, and if you’re trying something new you don’t even destroy your reputation by being last. People forgive failures in motorsport but when you go to the showroom they don’t.” Menard Composite Technologies is another company with a strong motorsport background that is finding business outside its core market.
The Oxfordshire-based company run by MD Kevin Lee, who worked for Tom Walkinshaw in F1 and the Toyota F1 team in Germany, has the contract to manufacture 1,000 engines for the Norton Commando 961 motorcycle and is also working for more than one aerospace company.
Parallels between the motorsport and marine industries are also numerous, not least because both sectors are involved in sports which serve as a proving ground for technologies which are hoped will filter down into the mass market.
“Marine is facing a real struggle with its energy efficiency program,” says Aylett. “They [recreational boat builders] are in an environment where pollution is very evident, so they have to take a journey into energy efficiency pretty rapidly and they very quickly realised that design, engine usage, diesel knowledge and light weight materials all exist in motorsport.
Marine is a slower moving sector but it is coming to similar solutions by its links with motorsport. It is not under a high degree of pressure to solve this overnight.” Offshore powerboating is one of the most obvious examples where motorsport technologies are being used in watercraft. Ilmor Marine Engines LLC is one of the leading engine manufacturers in offshore powerboating – powering the 99 Fountain Worldwide team to back-to-back Powerboat P1 Evolution class World Championship victories in 2007 and 2008. Considering that Ilmor Engineering has has triumphed in the Indianapolis 500 14 times, here is a great example of where on-track experience has translated into success on the water.
Motorsport developments have also found their way into more mainstream marine developments. For example, MIA Members Xtrac, Cosworth and Ilmor Engineering have recently worked together to design the revolutionary Axis Drive marine propulsion system for South African company Caudwell Marine, the boat builder started by mobile phone entrepeneur John Caudwell. This radical new design boasts zero power loss from engine to propeller and serves as a prime example of how the motorsport industry’s competitive and innovative engineers can achieve desirable results when plying their skills in other industry sectors.
In January 2007, the challenge of linking motorsport to defence was issued by Lord Drayson (then Minister for Procurement at the Ministry of Defence) and Lord Astor of Hever, Shadow Defence Minister.
Aware of the advanced engineering skills involved in designing racing cars which attain high levels of performance and reliability over variable terrain while enduring extremes of temperature, load and adverse climatic conditions, both parliamentarians were convinced of the synergies which exist between the motorsport and defence industries.
Greater interaction between the two industries has been mutually beneficial since then, and it has enabled the defence sector to utilise a separate set of brainpower to find novel solutions to its engineering problems. In addition, due to motorsports’ capability for fast lead times, the defence sector has benefited from fast delivery of its most critical programmes which are called ‘urgent operational requirements’ or UORs.
Companies with a strong motorsport bias such as NAR Group, Delta Composites, Xtrac and Alcon have had opportunities to grow their businesses with less seasonally-variable revenue streams.
Features of the motorsport industry make a very good fit with the defence industry, says Chris Aylett, due to the similarities between the motorsport arena and the theatre of war. “The UK defence industry was finding it hard to produce long production lines years ahead, and also fight guerrilla warfare, because the enemy is continually trying to find weaknesses in the equipment.
Motorsport operates exactly in that environment, that is exactly what motorsport teams do every weekend. The military are up against people who are innovative, inventive, competitive and fast moving. There is an old adage that motorsport is actually war without bullets. No motor race is ever held up due to the failure of the supply of a part. On the battlefield, where people need fast solutions delivered on time, the motorsport industry is able to deliver.” About one third of the companies tendering for a contract to build components for a new MoD-procured Light Protected Patrol Vehicle – which is intended to replace the Snatch Land Rover in Afghanistan – are members of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA). The consortium delivered their formal contract tender at a press conference in Coventry in July.
The Motorsport Industry Association runs two initiatives to assist motorsport companies diversify into other markets. The Motorsport to Defence and Motorsport to Marine initiatives have helped to develop motorsport-derived radiators, design techniques, computational fluid dynamics, charge coolers, gearboxes, brakes, suspension components and seals which provide performance and economical benefits to defence and marine vehicles.
Visit www.the-mia.com/motorsport-to-defence or www.the-mia.com/Motorsport-to-Marine for more details of how the MIA can assist the development of relationships with defence and marine contractors.
The Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) is the first point of contact for anyone with a disruptive technology, new process or innovation that has a potential defence application. CDE is a gateway between private enterprise and the Ministry of Defence, bringing together innovation and investment for the defence market. Please visit www.science.mod.uk/engagement/enterprise.aspx. for more information.