Category Archives: Uncategorized

Innovations from Motorsport: Interview with Dr Kit Chapman

What impact do Motorsport technology and processes have on ordinary people? In his new book, Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save The World, Dr Kit Chapman gives an account of how progress in Motorsports has spilled over into the real world. Some of these developments might be expected. For example, the improvements in car safety or the more recent innovations in battery technology for electric vehicles.

However, there are plenty of innovations in unexpected places too. Lessons from Pit Stop procedures have been used in hospital handovers to save lives. Supermarket fridges are now more efficient thanks to knowledge of air flow from Formula One. Even the way F1 teams transfer data from car to garage has driven progress in wireless mobile networking. Perhaps the most clear example of the sport improving people’s lives came as a response to COVID-19: The Mercedes F1 team used their engineering prowess to produce breathing aids at an astonishing rate, using machines that previously produced pistons and turbochargers.

Picture of person using CPAP breathing system.
Example of a CPAP breathing ventilation system.

I was lucky enough to talk to Dr Chapman and ask him about a range of topics that arose from his work, including how Motorsport is similar to warfare, the current green credentials of Formula One, and why a self-driving car instantly crashing into a wall was actually a good thing.

Innovations from Motorsport

F1-Analysis: “I’ve been an avid Motorsports fan for decades, and yet there were several Motorsport innovations [from your book] that I’d either never heard of or are barely discussed. Why isn’t it talked about more?

Dr Kit Chapman: “When we look at Formula One people are generally focused on the races, and on the individuals. But we know that F1 is the ultimate team sport. We’re not talking about 10, or even 100 people. We’re talking about 1,000 people having input into these cars. It’s an R&D lab; a hidden world where all this tech goes on. It’s so easy to get a step on your rivals if you get something really, really good, so the team don’t like talking about the tech that they use and they’re always hesitant to share exactly what’s going on. That’s true even when they don’t need to be. I think that the secretive nature, especially when there are millions of pounds or dollars at play, has an impact on sharing the wider success stories.”

F1-A:Do you think that secretive nature may be holding back some of the innovation? They can’t just say “Here’s this new thing we’ve developed, anybody want to try it in their industry?”

KC: “To a certain extent it is. I think the problem is the lack of cross-pollination between industries. There’s a story where someone started using Formula One tech to monitor children on the wards of Birmingham Children’s Hospital, and the doctor only met a person from Formula One by accident at a conference. So it was this kind of serendipitous happening. When you look at something like the tech used in aerodynamics for fridge-freezers, that came about because an F1 team were improving the aerodynamic flow of Eddie Stobart trucks to reduce the amount of petrol they used. They then approached Marks & Spencer’s and said “Have you thought about using it on your trucks?” and Marks & Spencer’s said “Actually our big problem is with fridge-freezers, can you help us solve this?” So, there is a lack of joined up thinking, but once those collaborations start to happen, that’s when the magic occurs.”

F1-A:Yes, I noticed a number of stories where somebody just happens to know someone else in the right place.

KC: “That’s classic for Formula One. If you look at what’s currently going on with the Porpoising Effect that’s ruining Mercedes’ season, the fact is they just don’t know somebody who knows the solution. Ferrari called up an old mate who was working in the 1970s and he said “Of course, I’ll tell you what the answer is”. So it comes back to the old saying: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, as part of a wide, collaborative team.”

___________________________________________

In today's world of data analysis and big money, it's easy to forgot how much individuals contribute to modern F1. Other than a couple of high profile names (e.g. Adrian Newey or James Allison), there's often little consideration for how much of a difference an individual engineer or data analyst can make. Obviously this comparison of Mercedes' and Ferrari's porpoising issues is a simplification, but it's a stark reminder that F1 is, at its heart, a sport about humans. All the money, facilities and technology in the world won't save you if can't find the right people to ask.
___________________________________________

Comparisons to Science and War

F1-A: “A cynical perspective is that if you want to innovate in real life, you don’t put money into Motorsport, you put it directly into what you want to develop. Going via Motorsport doesn’t appear to be a very efficient use of money or time. Is there anything wrong with that perspective?”

KC: “So you’ve got to have a reason as to why you solve the problem, and this is a big challenge in science, in general. When we look at how science is funded, there’s fundamental science such as particle physics that’s the basic underpinning of science. Then you have science that makes improvements in a particular piece of technology. Generally that’s what gets the funding because that’s what gets results quickly. For fundamental science you have to wait 20-30 years before you start seeing an impact.”

“The big challenge is how do we move away from the questions that people think they want answered and move towards the questions that actually help everybody. That’s where sport comes in, because when you’re looking at trying to solve one problem it can spiral out into other areas as well. It’s all about looking at science from a holistic perspective and how it interconnects with other disciplines. So, it’s basically “What’s the question people are trying to solve?” and then approaching things from a brand new perspective, and that’s where we start seeing the real benefits. You’ve got to have a reason to actually do this research, and because sport is constantly trying to get better, we get to see rapid innovation. We see rapid innovation from sport and war, and to be perfectly honest, I would much rather have sports make the changes then get involved in war.”

F1-A: “The way you’re describing it reminds me of NASA and space technology, where you’re just trying to push boundaries and this opens up new avenues in ways that you’re not expecting?

KC: “Exactly! One of the things many people have said to me is “Why didn’t you write a book about NASA?” and the answer is that there are already other books exploring that. No-one’s talking about Motorsport and no-one’s talking about the impact Formula One has. I just found that there were so many synergies with really interesting areas of science, that people don’t even think about, and it’s having an impact in our lives right now.”

“In the next 10 years there’s going to be an even bigger impact with things like graphene, for example, which is a wonder material. The first place we need to try is going to be somewhere experimental. Where’s more experimental than sport? So we’re already seeing it emerging in cycling and tennis and we’re seeing it in crash helmets and we’re going to start seeing it in Formula One.”

The structure of graphene
Graphene’s structure means it’s potential is almost unmatched, but it takes experimentation to find the best ways to use it.

F1-A: “We’ve discussed space science driving innovation, you’ve mentioned war as (unfortunately) a great innovator too. Both of those are mostly, or wholly, funded by governments. Do you think there’s an argument for governments to start funding Motorsport?”

KC: *Laughs* “I’d love to keep governments out of Motorsports to be perfectly honest. I think we need to have this area where people can play and have a bit of fun. The moment you start getting governments involved they have an agenda, and they’re all trying to do something with a specific aim. For sport, they just want to be the fastest person to go around a track, and I think there’s a lot to be said for human adventure and pioneer spirit. Look at where governments have been involved in Formula One. Look at what’s going on with Haas and Nikita Mazepin. Whatever you think of him as a person and the political situation there, their car livery was based on the Russian Flag, and they were hardly subtle about it. People were complaining about that well before the invasion of Ukraine. So we’ve seen governments interfering in sport, and nobody wants it.”

F1-A:There’s an assumption throughout your book that technological development is a good thing, but you’ve mentioned some clear downsides of progress. For example, the historical mining of resources in the Congo or work carried out at Auschwitz on the development of rubber. Is it a fair assumption that technological development is generally a good thing?

KC: “I believe it’s always a good thing, because it expands our knowledge. And the more we know, the better we are. When I talk about technologies that are currently emerging into the sport, ones that have upsides and downsides, these are not the endgame. Theses are not the final technologies we’re going to see for the rest of our lives. In the same way that an internal combustion engine car is preferable to a horse, despite its downsides. So it’s useful to think about it as a continual motion towards the end goal. Yes, there are going to be stumbling blocks and yes there are going to be downsides to thing that we try out, but it all leads us to a better place. Even things like electric cars, they’re not going to be the endgame. We’re already looking at (nuclear) fusion energy, for example, which is going to be 20-30 years in the future. Don’t think about a greener solution as being the end game, it’s just part of the process down the road.”

F1 Hybrid Engines – A green solution?

F1-A: “Speaking of a green solution and an evolutionary process, I want to ask you about the current hybrid engines in Formula One. Do you think they’ve been good for battery technology development?

KC: “Formula One has been very good at improving power density. Batteries have two aspects. The first is power density, which is how much power you can get now. There’s also energy density, which is how much energy do you have over a long period of time. Energy density is where Formula E has been the upshot. A Formula One car wants that power immediately and then you can recharge it with the MGU-H and MGU-K. The problem I have with the hybrid is whether or not it excites the fans. I remember people complaining about the sound and things like that. Frankly, we have to get over it; we have to realise that those halcyon days of roaring engines are past us. I think it has improved technology and it has begun to improve acceptance and understanding of these technologies that we need to implement.”

A V12 F1 Ferrari engine from the 1990s
Fans may want them, but it’s unlikely a V12 engine will be seen in F1 again.

F1-A: “Do you think the engines give F1 legitimacy for being an environmentally friendly sport?”

KC: “I think it’s more environmentally friendly, but I wouldn’t describe Formula One as an environmentally friendly sport at the moment. Bear in mind it’s not just about the cars going around the track. It’s setting up the circuits, it’s the whole circus moving between countries and having a World Championship. The air miles your putting in and even the Media Centre which they move around, it’s incredibly environmentally unfriendly. Am I saying it’s a green sport? Of course not! There are alternatives at the moment that are far greener, we’ve briefly mentioned Formula E, although it’s not perfect. Extreme E have really tried to cut down on their environmental footprint, particularly moving everything around in one ship. But it’s not feasible for Formula One, and it’s not really the job of Formula One. The job of Formula One isn’t just showcasing and development these technologies, it’s bringing people along with them. It’s being able to share these ideas to a massive, worldwide audience of a billion people watching races. So, while I can’t say it’s environmentally friendly, I can say that I think it’s have a positive impact in its direction of travel, because it’s asking question and getting people to think about the right things.”

___________________________________________

At the time of writing the F1 circus has just raced in Azerbaijan and is about to fly out to Canada before returning to Europe. It's pretty clear that if the sport wanted to be more environmentally friendly there is some low hanging fruit. However, as Dr Chapman points out, F1 doesn't exist for the purpose of the environment. He's also careful with his choice of words, describing processes as greener rather than inherently green. This feeds into his narrative of weighing up the pros and cons of each development, and making sure that there is and overall improvement. Any suggestion that the sport is "green" is a sign that no further work needs to be done.
___________________________________________

F1-A: “When Honda announced last year they were leaving F1, they specifically mentioned wanting to go Carbon Neutral as a reason. The implication of this is that Formula One is fundamentally incompatible with that vision. What do you make of that?”

KC: “The decisions that car companies make are always very interesting. Extreme E is a great example. You have companies like Venturi who are very much pinning themselves as being the champions of electric, and they are not going into Extreme E; they’ve decided to go a different route. So the business strategies of companies aren’t necessarily what they say quite a lot of the time. There are certainly a lot of companies that are moving into Motorsport, not just because of the spectacle and the excitement, but because they think genuinely that they can develop technologies and they can test them. And there are different ways to approach Motorsport without Formula One.”

“It might well be that Honda thinks that you can get a bigger advantage in other areas of technology and that they can get a step on their competitors. I think they’re probably making excuses though. Bear in mind that Honda didn’t exactly have a very successful time in Formula One, it’s been a bit rocky, shall we say. Even looking back at when they abandoned it the last time and Brawn steps in and won the championship.”

F1-A:Honda have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with F1.

KC: “Definitely. Some companies have a complete love and will never leave Formula one and certainly will never actively modernize. You know Ferrari, the prancing horse, is never going to leave Formula one, whereas some of your bigger boys like Honda, for example, they can dip in and dip out. If Ferrari wasn’t in Formula One would they be so successful? Probably not. Whereas Honda having a team in Formula One probably has far less of an impact on their sales of road cars. So it’s all about what the company’s priorities are and what the size of the company is.”

Fernando Alonso enjoying the sunshine after his McLaren-Honda broke down yet again.
Despite their eventual success, Honda’s engines were initially known for all the wrong reasons.

Working in Motorsports

F1-A: “You’ve studied Motorsports and interviewed many people in the field. A lot of young people want to get into Motorsports, what advice would you give them?”

KC: “Okay, so it kind of depends what you want to do in Motorsport if you want to be a driver, I would advise you to have at least 5 million in the bank. Have very rich parents who are understanding and preferably be a young white man. Alternatively, if you are before university then look at engineering or other areas of science, that teams are looking for. Aerodynamicists are always in demand. Computer algorithms [are used a lot] too.”

“If you want to be part of the wider circus, in media or in PR, for example, there are several things you can do one is to get more experience. Formula One is the top of the pyramid, but there are [smaller] races going on around the country every single weekend. There are very good young journalists already there, with their mics out going down the pit lanes interviewing the up and coming racers. You’ve got classic cars and the British touring championships too. You can get down to Donington Park or Brands Hatch or whatever your local circuit is, and you can get involved, you can volunteer. That gets your foot in the door that gets you an understanding of how the Motorsport world works and from there, you can progress. As a driver you have to start in karting and go through the formulas to get to Formula One, it’s the same thing for anyone else.”

Self-Driving Cars

F1-A: “You also mention self-driving cars in the book. Do you think there’s an appetite for spectators to watch a series with no drivers?”

EC: “Well, we have already have a a series: Roborace. In terms of appetite, I don’t think there is, because the thing that attracts people to Formula one and other Motorsport is a bit of peril, with actual people doing things to the limit. I think there is an awful lot to be said about the human element and I know that’s bizarre considering I’ve just been talking about the the technologies and how important tech is in Formula One. But the moment you take out that human aspect, the moment you take out that human competition you lose some of the fun and I think that it’s just the secret ingredient that makes most for work. I always I always call the drivers, “The meat in the machine” which is a little bit harsh, I suppose, but you know it’s like a beef sandwich you don’t just want to slabs of bread, you want the meat too. It’s a bad analogy, but you know what I mean.”

___________________________________________

Dr Chapman is clearly an enthusiastic for the potential of self-driving cars though and AI assisted cars. In his book he refers to an incident in Macau (below), where a huge number of cars crashed into each other on the first lap. He believes that a series of communicating AI would be able to safely slow down well before the danger was possible to spot from a human driver. The recent F1 incident between Perez and Sainz in qualifying at Monaco is a similar example on a much smaller scale. The driver(s) behind can’t see what is happening to cars around the corner, whereas an network system between cars could communicate this information instantly.

 However, it's not as if self-driving cars are immune from error either...
___________________________________________

F1-A: “There was an another incident you described in your book where a self-driving Roborace car instantly turns to the right on a straight and crashes into the wall. Doesn’t that kind of thing worry you?”

KC: “No, I think that that’s a good thing that happened! So we want to be making all of these mistakes while no one’s going to get injured. We want to use this as a test site, and we can learn from those mistakes. If everything went perfectly I would be more worried! I’d be thinking “Oh my God what’s the one thing that we haven’t accounted for?”. Whereas now we’re getting all these areas out there, we’re working out what we need to have in terms of emergency shut down, for example. Then, if everything’s gonna be far safer, so I would much rather have the technology tested and have these embarrassing mistakes earlier on rather then have it happen on the road, so now I think it’s a good thing that the car decided to pile 90 degrees into a into concrete barrier.”

F1-A: Do you think there’s a possible perception issue? That even if a self-driving car is statistically safer it could be judged based on one 10 second clip that makes it look really stupid?

KC: “Of course. There are there are countless examples where people look at one example and go “that means it’s dangerous”. Statistically flying is the most safe transport for travel, but we see one plane crash, and we think that could be me. It’s human nature and humans are notorious for being terrible understanding risk. So I welcome our robot overlords. Let’s have the self-driving cars! I’m all for being chauffeured around by a robot.”

Transition away from fossil fuel cars

F1-A: “You mention different ways of powering cars: Electric, hydrogen or biofuel. Is there an issue around having different systems, and requiring different infrastructure for each one?”

KC: “It’s an interesting question because you’re right, the infrastructure is going to compete. The problem at the moment is we don’t have a good infrastructure for any of these options. Even for electric where it’s probably the most developed, the infrastructure is still hugely lacking. That is causing things like range anxiety that’s causing people to wonder whether they’d be able to get home. So we need to develop the infrastructure rapidly, but always think about what’s the alternative. In the early 20th century when we had trains, cars and horsing going around, and the first planes too. We found a way that works is actually a combination of things, and that’s probably the reality that we’re going to find with cars.”

Picture of an early electric car
Despite Electric Cars being with us from the start, the infrastructure is still playing catch-up.

“Biofuels has really taken off in some countries such as Brazil. Things like creating petroleum from chemical reagent which Paddy Lowe, who is very well known to Formula One, he’s already gone in with a company called Zero Petroleum. So, at the moment I think it’s actually probably a good thing [that there are different options] and it might well be that one becomes the clear winner, like VCR vs Betamax, we find one the world prefers. But again, these are not the end game, even though they’re better for the better environment, they’re not going to be the final technologies. This is a transition to something a little bit better, and why not explore different options?”

F1-A: “Do you think there’s a potential language barrier around electric cars? People are used to talking about “miles per gallon” for their car, whereas something like “Watt-hours per kilogram” is a totally alien concept to most people.”

KC: “The key part of any technology becoming mainstream is that it solves a problem that people have. If people need to talk to each other and get a new vocabulary, people will do that. Think about the late 1980s, if you said, the word “internet” to people, they would have no idea what you’re talking about. Yet now that’s part of our daily lives, I can talk about all kinds of internet terminology to your or my mum and she will understand what I mean. Language changes and evolves due to our situation. And if this technology is something that people want and we started doubting it the language will come.”

___________________________________________

Wheel Knowledge

F1-A: “To finish, a few quick fire questions. Who’s do you think will win the F1 this year?”

KC: “My heart says Leclerc but my head says Verstappen.”

F1-A: “What about the constructors?”

KC: “I think it’s gonna be Red Bull.”

F1-A: “Who do you think are the top 3 drivers on the grid currently?”

KC: “All right. Hamilton top, easy. Then… Alonso. I think probably people overlook Fernando.”

F1-A: “My mathematical model ranks Alonso very highly.”

KC: “To me he’s terrific, there’s no question about that. Obviously he won with Renault, but then he ended up at Mclaren and that was just bad timing. Personally, I still think Lewis’s is top for me though. Third would be George Russell, I think he’ll be a future world champion.”

F1-A: “It’s interesting that you haven’t picked either Leclerc or Verstappen, given they’re the favourites for this year’s championship.”

KC: “Don’t get me wrong, I think Max and Leclerc are absolutely top tier drivers and if you asked me for five names…”

F1-A: “All right. Who was better, Senna or Prost?”

KC: “Oh, come on! In a race, it would be Senna. If it was gonna have someone as a teammate then Prost.“

F1-A: “Thanks for your time.

KC: “You’re more than welcome.”

___________________________________________

Dr Kit Chapman’s book, “Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save The World” is available now from bookstores.

Click here to buy from Amazon (UK)

Click here to buy from Amazon (US)

___________________________________________