Formula 1 and Innovation



Sunday’s incident will add to the continuous and intense pressure to make improvements that combines with a competitive test every two weeks to make the Formula 1 season an outstanding cockpit for innovation in the motor industry.

Next week: Imperial College’s Incubator encompasses four different kinds of accelerator.

Alonso’s survival in the Australian Grand Prix is a tribute to the crash structures of the car, though a set-back for McLaren this season. It will need all its innovation skills.

McLaren, like all Grand Prix participants, fights to improve the performance of its cars every two weeks, in preparation for the next event – a demanding schedule for innovation like no other. What marks out McLaren’s methods are: sheer speed of iteration and development, sophisticated testing and rapid feed-back; and predictions. All driven, no doubt, by boss Ron Dennis’s perfectionism.

Even during a race, wherever in the world it may be taking place, vast amounts of telemetric data is streamed back to the factory at Woking for instant analysis. Other sources of information include the driver, the mechanics, its observers, and cameras; and these are immediately trawled for ideas for improvements.

Between races, McLaren say that innovations can take place at the rate of one every thirteen minutes – i.e. several thousand between each two-weekly race. Some can be put into effect for the very next race; others might take longer.

McLaren relies on others for several aspects of their cars: engines have always been provided by others – though the supplier has been changed from time to time; as of course have tyres. Everything in-between is down to McLaren, and with their own wind tunnel to hand, aerodynamics is a focus.

The biggest development issues are testing and prediction. Alterations to one aspect of the car can influence others – particularly in relation to aerodynamics, an aspect of performance that attracts current interest. Its own wind tunnel provides a controlled test environment. And computer simulations test all aspects of performance. But there always remains a gap between those controlled tests and actual performance on the track – where only unique expertise can hope to predict performance.

Occasionally there are bigger break-throughs, such as when McLaren developed brake-steer, where braking one rear wheel pulled the car into the apex and caused the differential to transfer torque to the outside wheel when accelerating away from the corner. While advantages like this are always sought, they are rare and do not usually last for long before competitors learn about what you are doing and catch up.

The energy-recovery systems that the current regulations require are attracting interest, and the extra power that enhanced battery technology might deliver is seen as having potential; and intensive effort will evidently be devoted to its applications.

Feed-back and speed play vital parts in all innovation projects, and the tougher the problems, the more significant they are. Hand and eye, expertise and creativity pervade the whole of McLaren, driven too by the passion and expertise that motor sport engenders.

John Whatmore                                                                                                                         March 2016

For another slant on the management of innovation, see: The National Theatre’s Studio:  I visit a uniquely successful Open Innovation incubator – in the Arts. Oct 2012