Will Gray

Tech Talk: How F1 technology is spreading its wings

Will Gray

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McLaren has played a key part in two sporting successes in recent weeks despite its F1 cars being beaten by Red Bull in Singapore - so just how is F1 feeding into other sports and why is it so important?

Last weekend England's rugby squad secured a quarter-final berth at the World Cup in New Zealand thanks in part to technologically-advanced training developed by McLaren, while less than a week earlier Mark Cavendish had become Britain's first male cycling road race world champion for 46 years riding a bike developed in conjunction with the team's same off-track engineering business.

The rapidly growing McLaren Applied Technologies, run by the McLaren group alongside its F1 operations, is just one example of the increasing off-track focus being taken by Formula One's privateers.

Engine manufacturer Cosworth, for example, is already a major player in performance sailing and recently announced they would be supplying their electronics to the America's Cup Challenger of Record, Artemis Racing, with an all-new 'LightWave Processor' to help them prepare for the next competition in 2013.

Cosworth has been a leader in electronics since joining with Pi Research under Ford's ownership (since sold by Ford and combined as the Cosworth Group). It has already supplied boats in the America's Cup field in the past and while the precise detail of what will be supplied remains secret, the fast reactive nature of the electronics used in F1 to measure and control a huge number of elements on the cars are perfect to be honed to meet the similar requirements of this fast-paced and highly demanding yacht racing competition.

Williams, meanwhile, has expanded into a more unusual sporting sphere - that of golfing equipment - through partner 'Williams Sports', which makes use of the team's engineers and technology (and brand!).

Williams Sports used the F1 R&D department to develop a new rubber technology for their RT3 golf ball, which creates a soft feel that still travels as far as a harder ball. They make clubs too, using F1 CFD programmes to hone their aerodynamic shape and F1 materials for manufacture, including 'Densimet' (the world's second heaviest metal, used in F1 ballast and offering a compact weighting system for the clubs) and 'Inconel' (a nickel alloy, used for exhaust parts in F1 and to provide high tensile strength in the clubs).

According to Williams, the initial CFD analysis into the club shape for a driver showed that by introducing a top surface 'trip' and diffuser style geometry to the underside produced a smaller wake and improved pressure recovery - creating 19 per cent less drag and reducing the loss of swing energy.

That golfing partnership was agreed back in 2010, at which point Sir Frank Williams heralded it as the start of exciting times in off-track business for his company.

But while all three companies are also heavily involved in providing engineering and technology knowhow to industry, working on recoverable and renewable energy systems, electronics, structures and materials, it is McLaren that is currently stealing greater headlines with its involvement in other sports.

Their success has been in their ability to not only take F1 design, testing methods and materials into other areas but to apply an F1 mentality that leads to innovative approaches in a range of competitive sports, including a major two-year project with UK Sport covering cycling, sailing, rowing, canoeing and winter sports.

The bike used by Cavendish was developed in conjunction with S-Works and involves the obvious elements of F1 crossover development - including carbon fibre construction to make the bike lighter and stiffer and aerodynamic analysis to reduce frame drag and improve riding style and position.

But it is not just equipment development that McLaren is focused on: the physical and mental elements of sport also cross over with F1's on-track approach - and the England rugby team's training set-up is the perfect example of this.

The RFU now embeds sensors in players' shirts to collect data on their performance on the pitch and McLaren has used their experience of rapid analysis of F1 data to develop analytic solutions that allow coaches to tailor training sessions to improve each player individually - although how influential this is compared to other off-pitch influences remains to be seen!

Ultimately, F1 has long been a sport influenced by both driver and machine but with increasing sponsor involvement and pressure on good performance throughout the sporting world, other sports now have to follow suit to seek out a competitive advantage from every element.

At a time when F1 funding is not as strong as it once was, using the experience of cutting edge technology is perhaps the only way the sport's independents can survive and thrive - as long as their talent is not spread too thinly.

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