Learning lessons from motorsport

Paul Boughton

With the automotive industry being so competitive, it is not surprising that motorsport remains an important platform for research and development. Alistair Rae reviews some of the new components.

Autosport International came at the end of International Motorsport Business Week, the first part of which included a variety of symposiums, conferences, seminars, workshops and a Business Exchange for one-to-one meetings. Environmentally-friendly technologies were discussed in length at the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) International Low Carbon Racing Conference, which was headlined by Lord Green, the UK Government Minister of State for Trade and Investment. Lord Drayson, a former Minister for Science and Innovation, officially opened Autosport International, though his other main interest was the launch of Drayson Racing Technologies' all-electric prototype race car. Autosport International is described as Europe's largest dedicated motorsport trade exhibition.

While this present article focuses on developments from motorsport that can find their way into road cars, it is notable that Autosport International also recognises that there are technology transfers from motorsport to industries such as defence, marine and aerospace. This is due to the sport's rapid development techniques, constant efforts to reduce the weight and size of components, and the knowledge of how to meet the required standard of reliability without over-engineering components and systems.

Drayson Racing Technologies and Lola Group used the Low Carbon Racing Conference to unveil their all-electric race car, the Lola-Drayson B12/69EV (Fig.1). This car has been designed to demonstrate the potential of 'green' technologies in the harsh environment of motorsport. Lord Drayson commented: "Electric racing represents a considerable new business opportunity for motorsport and underlines the growing commercial potential of green racing and technology. Electric-powered racing is really taking off with the launch of the new FIA Formula E world championship for electric racing cars planned for 2013 and we are thrilled to be at the forefront of the push for innovation at such an exciting time for the sport and industry.

"Indeed, the B12/69EV racing car that we are unveiling today showcases advances such as inductive charging, composite battery power, moveable aerodynamics and electrical regenerative damping, making it one of the most innovative cleantech motorsport projects in the world. With over 850 horsepower, it aims to be the fastest electric-powered racecar to lap a circuit."

Major components

Moving from complete vehicles to major components, a prominent exhibitor at Autosport International was Quaife Engineering. This specialist manufacturer of high-performance transmissions launched a prototype sequential transmission. Provisionally designated the QBE89G, this new in-line gearbox is the first from Quaife with seven forward gears. This format with ultra-close ratios suits the demands of front-engined, rear-wheel-drive cars with highly tuned, high-revving, smaller capacity engines with narrow power bands. The QBE89G gearbox also benefits from user adaptability and lightweight construction; an alloy two-piece casing helps to reduce the overall weight to 33kg.

As well as having seven forward gears, the QBE89G features a modular gear cluster and an open-face dog design for fast gearshifts. The addition of a pair of interchangeable drop gears enables end users to tailor the unit to suit their needs or those of particular race circuits.

From the outset, Quaife's engineers designed the QBE89G to run with an optional semi-automatic paddle gear change system. While the QBE89G has yet to complete its programme of bench tests and real-life endurance tests, Quaife is confident that production units will be available later in 2012.

Quaife's commercial manager, Mark Catterall, said: "We have had lots of interest in a wide variety of products including the new transmissions and the Atlas alloy axle. A well-known specialist sportscar manufacturer is interested in the seven-speed QBE89G in-line gearbox."

Xtrac, another transmission specialist exhibiting at Autosport International, had on its stand a new 1011 transmission for the Dallara DW12 chassis. Xtrac has been the sole supplier to Indycar teams since the 2000 race season and its latest transmission is smaller, lighter and more efficient, as well as being designed to be integrated fully within the car's improved rear crash structure. Not only did Xtrac work closely with Dallara, but the two companies also made sure that the gearbox is fully compatible with all three turbocharged engines supplied by Honda, GM and Lotus. Xtrac similarly consulted with Indycar and the race teams to understand what they wanted from a new transmission and has incorporated many of the features requested. For example, Megaline assisted gear change mechanism has been carried over, but it now powers an auto clutch anti-stall system.

The ability to change rapidly from one set of gears to another to provide different ratios has also been retained, only it is now possible to swap ratios without disturbing the crown wheel and pinion. Moreover, increased differential adjustment enables teams to further fine-tune the chassis from one track to another.

Xtrac also used Autosport International to present its 1007 gearbox, a high-specification transverse gearbox for high-performance, mid-engined supercars; the Pagani Huayra is the first road car application. Transverse gearboxes are often found in race cars, as well as front-wheel-drive road cars, where the engine is also a transverse installation. The challenge for a mid-engined sportscar is to match a longitudinal engine with a transverse gearbox, which requires bevel gears to turn the drive through 90 degrees. The advantage of this layout is that the gearbox is shorter in relation to the length of the vehicle, which can assist in positioning the mass of the powertrain exactly where it is needed to enhance handling.

Xtrac has recognised the importance of providing this exclusive sector of the market with a quality product and has applied the same standards of design and manufacture as it applies to its motorsport transmissions.

However, to provide the high levels of refinement required for a road car, the transmission is of a fundamentally different design, employing, for example, helically cut gears and synchromesh on all seven forward ratios. Xtrac says that it has optimised the packaging, weight and efficiency the 1007 gearbox, but without resorting to exotic materials and expensive and time-consuming manufacturing processes (Fig.2).

Thermal protection

Coatings specialist Zircotec unveiled an expanded range of plasma-sprayed ceramic and metal coatings at Autosport International. This included a new vanadium hard-wearing composite surface coating, and the company also exhibited its Zircoflex flexible ceramic heat shield material and Thermohold coating for protecting carbon composites. According to Zircotec, over 80 per cent of the Formula One teams utilised its surface coatings in 2011, with its ceramic thermal barrier technology being a key feature of the exhaust-blown diffuser that many F1 teams employed to generate extra downforce.

Peter Whyman, Zircotec's sales director, commented: "The technology was crucial for the teams who had not considered this in their initial design. Our coating reduces surface temperatures by 125°C and enables hot exhaust gases to pass over delicate carbon parts, protecting them from delamination. The technology began in the atomic energy industry, so helped reduce the introduction time as complete redesigns were not necessary."

Exhaust-blown diffusers have been banned from Formula One for 2012, but Zircotec has made the technology available to the mainstream automotive industry and elsewhere.

Numerous other exhibitors launched new products at Autosport International. For example, Swedish firm Öhlins launched suspension products from its Road & Track range and for the historic rally market, and Bremsen Technik introduced its Brembo HP2000 sport disc brake pads that replace original equipment (OE) pads to improve the braking performance of road cars. Gill Sensors returned to the show for 2012 to launch its Ultrasonic Fuel Flow Sensor that measures bidirectional fuel flow rate to 0.3 per cent accuracy in real time. Neville Meech, Gill Sensors' lead consultant engineer, explained the background: "Last time we were here there was interest in one of our products and how it could be adapted to fulfil different requirements. Now we are back with our new sensor and a number of governing bodies and major series are interested in using it as part of a control system."

There is a long tradition of motorsport developments helping to improve everyday road cars.

While the connection is not always obvious, especially when looking at the extreme examples of Formula One and Indycar, motorsport remains important to the development of future road cars.

Technology transfer

Zircotec is increasingly finding that its high-performance coatings are in demand from industries other than motorsport. For example, in the defence sector Zircoflex is being used to help keep crucial parts of military vehicles cool in harsh environments (Fig.3). The marine market also makes use of Zircotec's technologies, with hard-wearing coatings now applied to components onboard yachts competing in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Peter Whyman, Zircotec's sales director, says: "From our involvement in motorsport we have learnt to create lightweight parts that offer high levels of performance in harsh environments. Many of these technologies are transferable. We even have a road car project with a 'diffuser' that is coated with our Thermohold finish to prevent it being damaged by hot exhaust gases. We have also learnt to work faster. F1 deadlines mean we can turn around parts in the day now!"