Eight driving innovations which came from F1

Traction control button
This sort of thing comes from F1. Fancy that!
"it makes sense for the guys with the biggest budgets to test new technologies in such a harsh and competitive environment"
  • | by Daniel Bevis

OK, you’ve read our guide to Formula One in 2013 and you’ve got yourself all excited.

Can you feel the thrill and magic of the world’s premier motorsport series beginning to permeate every fibre of your being? Go with it, let it take you. It’s a heck of a ride.

It doesn’t have to be a wholly passive experience. You drive a car, right? Well, bits of your car are ultimately derived from Formula One.

After all, it makes sense for the guys with the biggest budgets to test new technologies in such a harsh and competitive environment ,so that they can then share their findings with the manufacturers’ behind-the-scenes boffins. So you’re driving a Formula One car every day, kind of.

Well, you’re not, obviously. But you might be closer to it than you think: F1-derived technology isn’t just the preserve of the cash-rich supercar classes – even a humble everyday shopping hatchback owes much to the safety and performance legacy of Formula One.

Let’s take a look…


Car tyre

Your car’s tyres are extremely clever and complicated things. They’re not just rubber hoops, there are myriad permutations of compound, construct, tread pattern and much else, not to mention the various different dimensions that alter the footprint and performance – width, sidewall height, shoulder radius…

You may not see immediate parallels between your tyres and Lewis Hamilton’s – his are soft, squishy slicks which operate within a very specific temperature window and only last for an hour, how can they be? – but a lot of the knowledge about endurance, compound and so forth that these manufacturers are live-testing in F1 filters down to their commercial ranges. Wet braking, aquaplaning, lateral grip – these issues are more important in your road car because you’re not strapped into a safety cell.

Where better for tyre manufacturers to learn about these things than motorsport? And which motorsport is the harshest and most challenging for tyres? F1, of course.


Ferrari F40 door

This material, previously seen as being rather exotic, is increasingly becoming mainstream. Back in 1981, the McLaren MP4/1 Formula One car pioneered the use of a carbon-fibre chassis, something which is now the norm across the board, and made great advances in safety as well as performance.

The material is very light and immensely strong. So why don’t all cars have carbon-fibre chassis? Because it’s pretty expensive stuff, and quite complicated to work with. You can’t rush it, it’s very labour-intensive.

Supercars began to appear with carbon-fibre construction in the eighties (the Ferrari F40, pictured above, is a notable example – its comparative crudeness meant that interior sections were visibly held together with green mastic), and the material became a badge of honour for performance road cars.BMW

However, car manufacturers have been investing heavily in methods to build quickly and inexpensively with carbon-fibre; BMW, for example, are soon to launch the BMW i3 (above) – the world’s first production car made of carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic (CFRP). And that’s a small city car…

Disc brakes

Red brake calipers behind alloy wheel

OK, so these aren’t actually derived from F1, but are worth mentioning nonetheless. Their history dates back to the 1890s and they’ve been available on road cars since 1949, when the Chrysler Crown Imperial offered them as an option.

But it was Dunlop’s development of caliper-type disc brakes for the Jaguar C-Type racer in 1953 that pushed the braking format we know today into the mainstream. They were reliable, dependable, and infinitely more effective than the then-ubiquitous drums; Jaguar’s victories at Le Mans were more than enough to convince manufacturers that this was the way to go for road cars.

So today every new car in the world comes with this race-developed technology. Pretty cool, huh?

Rear-view mirrors

Rear view mirror

Actually, these weren’t developed within F1 either; in fact, the first rear-view mirror debuted at the Indianapolis 500 race in 1911.

It’s a fairly basic principle – when you’re driving, it’s useful to be able to see behind you. But cars had already been around for a little while then, so clearly the increased speed and danger of racing led to the ineffably handy mirror-on-a-stick that we now can’t live without.

Traction control

Traction control button

Rudimentary traction control systems were developed by General Motors back in the early seventies, but it’s the complex electronic systems developed for the Formula One cars of the 1980s that inform the systems on today’s road cars.

Traction control, as the name suggests, helps to provide as much traction as possible – on your road car, it’s there to detect when you’re losing grip and to shuffle the power around as necessary to keep you safe; on a Formula One car, the same is happening in order to bang in quicker lap times.

Electronic trickery to stop you skidding – that little flashing light that illuminates on your dash when you take an aggressive line through a wet, leaf-strewn corner is a direct link to your F1 heroes.

Multi-function steering wheels

Ferrari steering wheel

F1 cars have hideously complicated steering wheels. They have to – the cockpits are tiny and there’s nowhere else to put all the buttons; also, everything happens so fast that the drivers don’t have time to let go of the wheel. Everything is, by necessity, a finger-width or two away.

Modern Ferrari road cars have pretty complicated steering wheels too, incorporating more than just the horn that you’d traditionally expect, but also the engine start button, the indicators, the ‘manettino’ (for switching between chassis setup modes), the headlights, the windscreen washers… while your car’s steering wheel may not be this complex, you might have buttons for the stereo volume, the phone connection and so forth. That’s basically like radioing your pit crew, right? F1 tech for the masses, right there.


Porsche interior

Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems harvest energy under braking that would otherwise be wasted, and use it to supplement the car’s motive power. In Formula One, this manifests itself as a video-game-style power booster button. It’s been in the sport since 2008, and is already filtering down to road cars.

The gorgeous Porsche 918 is one car that will really prove how effective the system can be in day-to-day use. Hopefully manufacturers will tap into our juvenile lust for power-ups and be integrating go-faster buttons into the dashboards of family saloons in the near future…though the thought of botched aftermarket numbers are sure to give nightmares to car insurance underwriters everywhere...

Flappy-paddle gearboxes

Lotus steering wheel

Love ’em or hate ’em, paddle-shift gearboxes are all over the place these days. The Ferrari 640 of 1989 was the first F1 car to use flappy paddles, and by ’95 the conventional manual gearbox had died out entirely in the sport. Interestingly, this is now true of Ferrari road-cars, all of which now come with paddles rather than the iconic old open-gate manual shifter.

So if you drive an Alfa 156 with Selespeed or you’ve got an M3 with SMG paddles, you’re basically the same as Nigel Mansell showing everyone what was what back in ’89.

And there you have it – Formula One isn’t just a bunch of rich teams sending their highly-paid drivers out for a spot of high-end karting… it’s a hugely sophisticated test-bed to ensure that the cars you’ll be buying in the future will be safer, smarter, stronger, faster, and a whole lot cooler.

The fact that it’s a spectacularly entertaining sport is something we can count as a bonus.