Technical The Lotus, The Comet and the myth of “Trickle Down” Technology


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Who would have thought you could compare a Lotus Type 79 with a De Havilland Comet Aircraft? Now you may think there isn’t much you can say that they have in common or you may think I’m going to mention some sort of ground braking technology that they share between them but the truth is much simpler than that. I’m going to argue that these two represent the top of an evolutionary chain and that what has come after has been nothing more than re-inventing the wheel to improve on rather than develop whole new areas of design.

The De Havilland Comet was the world’s first passenger jet airliner. It represents the conclusion of 50 years of aircraft development from the Wright Brothers to the point at which it made its debut flight. Now ask yourself this, since the world’s first jet liner took to the skies, how far has aviation development got in the next 60 years? Sure the jet engines have improved in power and are more fuel efficient, there is a lot to be said for modern avionics and the materials used in the construction of aircraft have improved but at the end of the day, if you want to fly long haul you are going to do so in a pressurized, four engine, jet airliner much like the De Havilland Comet.

In my opinion the same applies in Formula One. The Lotus Type 79 represents the point at which Formula one development effectively ended. Worse still, any avenues of development that may have led to interesting areas of design have been pinched off for either safety reasons (a valid point in most cases) or by the FIA being desperate to prevent another financial arms race. The bulk of F1 design since 1978 have been about aero, with the exception of a brief period in the mid 80’s when there was a race to see how much horse power you could get into a four cylinder turbo without an explosion on the scale of an atomic bomb. It’s more about trying to make the wheel as round as possible rather than inventing something better than the wheel (yes that may be possible). As recently as two years ago when three new teams joined F1 from scratch (without buying into another outfit) for the first time since the Toyota in the early 00’s or the truly awful Lola Mastercard effort of the mid 90’s, even with a clean sheet of paper on which to design their cars we still saw three identikit formula one vehicles roll off the production line.

We have become so used to the jet passenger liner or the formula one car in its present form that there seems to be no real motivation for a dramatic change in the way things are designed. While I actually thought they looked awful, the proposed Dallara flying arrow shaped car that was a contender for the next generation of Indy car was at least a step in the right direction and it’s great to see that it will have its day on the track in the form of a prototype LMS car.

This brings us neatly on to the second part of the title the myth of “Trickle Down” technology. Ferrari were complaining this season about the lack of relevancy in modern F1 and how they feel that the design of Formula one cars should allow for the eventual use of the technology in GT cars and presumably across the range of all Ferrari sports cars. In Formula one terms the car that could be seen as exploiting as much technology as possible to maximise its aero was the Williams FW14B of 1992. This car had just about every driver aid it was possible to cram onto one F1 car and won the title at a canter. Now you would have thought that systems like Traction Control, ABS, Active Suspension and Semi Automatic Gear Boxes would have began their life in F1 and then trickled down through sports cars into the average family hatch back sometime later. Well, if you look at their origins, this is far from the case. The Anti Lock Braking System was first developed for aircraft landing gear as far back as 1929 and was used on the Ford Zodiac in the 60s and for the first time in F1 on the Fergusson P99 four wheel drive car. By the mid-70’s almost all of the American Car makers were offering ABS as an option on and by the late 70’s and early 80’s so were Japanese and European based car makers. In 1971, Buick were offering a car with Traction Control and by the mid 70’s all the cars in the Buick range came with Traction Control as standard, long before Nigel Mansell had turned a wheel in F1.

Semi Automatic Gear Boxes can trace their origins even further back to the 1940’s. There is even a suggestion that the first “Paddle Shift” gear box can be traced as far back as the Bollée Type F Torpédo" of 1912. In F1 the first semi-automatic gear box featured on the Lotus Type 76 which used a button on the gear lever to activate the clutch and a sequential rather than gated gear leaver action.

Perhaps the only true F1 inovation could be Active Suspension which was developed by Lotus in 1982 but not raced. It was later used on the Lotus 99T which won two races in the hands of Ayrton Senna in 1987 using the hyrdaulically activated system however it was again shelved by Lotus as being too heavy to be effective. The system found on the Williams FW14 in 1992 was an electronically driven system and sadly that had all ready been developed and was used on road going cars from Mitsubishi, Citreon and BMW severall years before Adrain Newey’s car.

Brining back my original point about the development of the F1 car. Once the point of the Lotus 79 had been reached (Monocoque, Single Fuel tank, Front and rear wings, Engine as a stressed chassis member, sculpted side pods containing the radiators with effective management of Aero over and under the car etc) the whole point of additional developments such as active suspension was to ensure the maximum aerodynamic efficency of the car. Things like mass damping systems, F ducts, walrus noses, flexi wings and blown diffusers are all the same idea centered on the same single concept of maximum aerodynamic efficency to put as much downforce onto the wheels as possible.

Even in terms of general development of an F1 car, monocoque chassis were in use in motorsport before the Second World War. Cars with wings and under body aerodynamics were pioneered by Jim Chapperell in Can Am racing long before Colin Chapman and his team began to develop under body aerodynamics. Having said that, Tony Rudd at BRM did design an early version on the Wing Car concept for BRM in 1969 however it never got out of the wind tunnel, in part due to the lack of finance at BRM and in part to John Surtees objecting to the BRM board that the design was far too radical and would detract from BRM’s current efforts on the track. So just to get to the point where we have the Lotus Type 79 we can see that the sport wasn’t as pioneering as we some times think it was.

It’s hard to see where F1 has contributed to modern car design other than in the branding of modern cars and the association with sporting success. It’s not hard to argue that the number of unit sales for Ferrari increased during their years of unbeleiveable success in the early 00’s.

So, do we forsee a time when F1 will move on from the current shape of F1 cars and become more radical? Has the sport ever been the pinical of motoring development or has it followed where others have lead? Has it become stuck in a rut, trying to find ever smaller percentages of speed from squeezing every last drop of aero efficency that the rules allow? What do you think?
I did see Luca on SSN yesterday using the old trickle down effect argument as a "Ferrari no win, rules no good" argument. I don't think building an upside-down aeroplane is relevant to your average car manufacturer - although undoubtedly benefits could occur, but these must be treated as the random accidents they are!
I'm really looking forward to seeing the comments but my thoughts will have to be carefully mulled over with the help of some Christmas wine.
Have a great Christmas everyone...
That is a great article Ca_a_t. Your conclusions mirror my opinion almost exactly.
Great to see someone do some real research into the origins of TC,ABS,semi automatic gearboxes.
F1 is not the the greatest inovator contrary to what most fans think.F1 takes existing technology and then incorporates into their cars.
Porsche put a wing on a sportscar even before Jim Hall did, in the Fifties I believe. F1 can't claim much innovation, its true, but plenty of refinement. Would McLaren now be able to sell their carbon fibre MP4-13C at a competitive price without John Barnard and the subsequent development of processes? It would have happened eventually, but I'd argue F1 accelerated the process. Likewise the adoption of KERS has stimulated a lot of research - much that is not directly applicable due to storage restrictions, but reducing weight, maximising efficiency and exploring alternatives to battery storage, with Williams Hybrid Power a clear example.
There are also examples of F1 technology being used for alternative aplications, such as the telemetry being used in medical applications. When something has to be designed to withstand the extremes that an F1 car puts it under, it allows for a more robust product.
Likewise the adoption of KERS has stimulated a lot of research - much that is not directly applicable due to storage restrictions, but reducing weight, maximising efficiency and exploring alternatives to battery storage, with Williams Hybrid Power a clear example.

But F1 teams had to be forced at wallet point to accept KERS. No one sat down with a bit of paper at an F1 team and thought to themselves, oooh we've got all this energey from braking for example, going to waste, how can we recoup some of that and use it to provide an extra boost.

There are also examples of F1 technology being used for alternative aplications, such as the telemetry being used in medical applications. When something has to be designed to withstand the extremes that an F1 car puts it under, it allows for a more robust product.

That's a good point. From most of what I looked at, with the exception of ABS, it was large family salloon type cars that were first fitted with things such as Automatic Gearboxes and Traction Control. A flappy paddle Ferrari GT car didn't appear until 1997 which was some four or five years after they first used that style of gearbox in F1.

The wider point I'm making though is that F1 development is all about chasing the perfect aerodynamic performance within a given set of rules. I'm wondering where the next "outside of the box thinking will come from" since I don't think there's been a radical shift in F1 car design (other than that mandated by the rule book) since the Type 79. I guess an additional question would be, is there enough felixibility left in the rule book anymore to allow for that sort of jump in development as well as the time and money of teams to risk putting that much effort in to it. It's worth remembering also, that development work on what eventually became the Type 79 which was launcehd a few races into the 1978 season actually commenced at the tail end of 1975. So to get from concept to final production of the wing car took around 3 years and the development of the Type 77 and Type 78 in the interim. F1 teams are lucky if they plan 6 months ahead these days.
This is dated 2004.Long before F1 or Williams even thought about it. Description: The heart of the system is a 'self balancing' carbon and glass fibre cylindrical composite rotor, mounted on unique maintenance-free bearings.The bore of the rotor is lined with a magnetic loaded composite and forms the rotor of an integral motor/generator. The design can be configured to give power outputs up to 250kW without modification other than a change to the rotor magnetisation pattern. It has design life of up to 10 million charging and discharging cycles and is designed to be maintenance free. It operates in a vacuum with mechanical losses of only 138 watts - all other losses being electrical. It is modular in construction, standing approximately 1.2 metres high with a footprint of 600mm x 600mm. The power electronics consist of a standard bi-directional IGBT based switching system with suitable developed control software. It has an extremely fast response time, changing from coasting to full power discharge in less than 3 milliseconds. The system can be tailored to suit applications by group mounting of standard units and is compatible with most AC and DC traction applications.
Williams simply bought this company and developed the existing technology.
utomotive Hybrid Power Limited was established in 2006 to develop advanced flywheel energy storage technology for vehicle applications. In 2008, Williams F1 acquired a significant shareholding in Automotive Hybrid Power. The company was subsequently renamed Williams Hybrid Power Limited (WHP) and relocated from Norwich to Williams F1’s headquarters in Oxfordshire.
WHP is developing a version of its flywheel system for potential use as the energy storage element of Williams F1's Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) to be introduced in its Formula One cars in 2009. The competitive rigour of Formula One requires quickly deployable solutions to technical problems, as well as ensuring any such solutions are lightweight, robust and high performance. WHP is building on the Formula One experience to transfer its technology to a variety of other applications.
Great article CaT, I'd never challenged the view that F1 introduced these innovations to motoring. Who knows, maybe the next "new" development in F1 will be the heated rear window.
Great article, such a shame there was a design fault of the observation window, the UK could have been a huge player in the airline market. For some totally unrelated reason Williams springs to mind as an achiever of enormous highs, only to fade away as an also-ran.
Great article, C_A_T.

The last really innovative car I recall was the Lotus (there's that name again) 88, twin-suspension car which was never allowed to race. But its sole purpose was to keep from beating the driver to death while still allowing the car to run with the granite-like suspension that the cars of the era used.

As an aside, the winged Porsche which appeared at Le Mans in the 50s was a privateer (by the name of May, as I recall). I don't remember if he was allowed to race with the wing on.

The most innovative series I ever heard of was the late, lamented Can Am. But costs escalated so greatly so quickly that it killed off the series.

I think the current rulebook pretty much precludes the "blinding flash of inspiration" for which Chapman was so famous, and leaves the current designers looking for frog hairs of improvement.
Porsche put a wing on a sportscar even before Jim Hall did, in the Fifties I believe.

It was a privateer really, but the great days of the thirties saw massive innovation with Mercedes and Auto Union, they discovered Ground Effect, and also had a device similar to a Gurney Flap (so much so that he could not patent it). One thing that springs to mind is the Arrows/ Jordan Front wings, banned during the weekend for structural (that the best they could think of?) reasons.

Good article here...
Thanks tooncheese.

McLaren wanted to put KERS on their car back in 1998, but it was vetoed by the FIA (with hindsight, perhaps by Ferrari). Though Newey said he got the idea from the Montreal Metro trains, so it was only an original application of an existing idea. Personally I think we will see new ideas in the powertrain when the new engines come in for 2014, but who knows? The aero regs seem to get ever tighter.
That article is full of erors.
They state
1992 Drive by wire throttle (McLaren)

Wrong.1988 BMW 7 series.
I owned a 1983 BMW 3 series that was fitted with a limited slip differential.
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