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




Ideas from across boundaries


Ideas from across boundaries
Ideas that inspire radical innovations often come from quite different fields.
A meeting at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will bring together innovators in Healthcare and Motor Sports – to explore their use of real-time data.

Health monitoring and motor sport currently have a common interest – in making use of real-time data from multiple sources. A novel cross-industry partnering and innovation event will take place at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on 24 March with the help of experience in F1 (see below for details). The focus will be on remote monitoring, data acquisition, better analytics and ease of use. Keynote speakers Include Magna, Leica Biosystems, Siemens Healthcare and the Williams F1 racing team.

With the never-ending segmentation of technologies, the need for cross-boundary links is becoming ever more vital. The Innocentive website is a classic approach – in which problems are posted, and it is from other fields that solutions commonly arrive. Open Innovation (P&G) is one source of such links, art and business another (Watershed, Bristol), innovation workshops a third (BT Labs) and partnerships between designers and technologists (Dyson) another.

Increasing life spans and longer independent living mean that holistic health-monitoring can be a valuable asset to health services; but making effective use of the data is, at least at present, more of an art than a science.

Events like this one at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory with leading-edge practitioners in motor sport and healthcare can help to inspire enduring cross-boundary links. (Maclaren once helped cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital to reduce the risks involved with changing the feed-lines when patients were handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care – by virtue of their expertise in the pit stop. See also ‘ideas via Intermediaries’ – below)

What is needed to encourage the use of real-time data, whether for domestic or public applications, is examples of systems management that are not merely intriguing, but have got real sex appeal; energy management or traffic management don’t have the appeal that F1 does!

If you are wrestling with a difficult problem, join me in this opportunity for thinking up sources that might inspire you with innovative ideas.

For full details of the event, contact

Ideas via Intermediaries – stories of different perspectives
Including how British Airways used a specialist operating theatre design company to enhance cleanliness in its planes; and another airline used the pit stop as a model for its baggage handling systems

The Internet of Thingummies – my worst Christmas dream
I assembled all my devices and told them that I was giving them all the boot! (

John Whatmore
February 2015