Wednesday 13th May 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of the first ever Formula 1 race. Since the start of the British Grand Prix back in 1950, the Formula 1 World Championship has visited 37 countries, waved the checkered flag 1,018 times, crowned 32 champions and, in the process, transformed itself into a multi-billion-pound business.
Whilst there are constant question marks over the sport’s environmental footprint and it’s escalating ?costs, Formula 1’s contribution to technology, day to day road safety and its influence on the global sports industry is not something that should be underestimated.
Technology for the road
Major motor manufacturers have had a presence in the sport from its very beginning. The likes of Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes and Honda are part of the sport’s DNA and have all expected a tangible return on their investment. The ‘trickle-down’ effect is something which the sport has always sought to promote, however, in reality it’s a little more complex than just the teams’ adoption and creation of technology which eventually translates to our road cars. Win on Sunday sell on Monday.
Instead, F1 often takes existing technology, and then pushes it to its very limit. The ‘perfected’ technology then feeds back into the real world.
Take the introduction of carbon fibre; in 1981 McLaren introduced the MP4/1. This was the first Formula 1 car to make extensive use of carbon fibre, which is not only lighter, but is also stronger than aluminium (the common material used in F1 up to this point). In the name of performance and safety, carbon fibre is used by all F1 teams now. Fast forward almost 40 years and the trickle-down effect is in action: carbon fibre is commonplace in sportscar manufacturing and is now even seen in everyday hatchbacks too.
Formula 1 cars have been using hybrid V6 engines since 2014. Despite the mass outcry from fans that the cars ‘aren’t loud enough’, quite simply the hybrid power units are the most efficient engines ever used. Compared to the normally aspirated V8 engines used up to 2013, the current V6 has 20% more power, and yet it produces 26% less CO2 emissions.
Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that this technology has made its way to the road, with Mercedes-AMG’s Project One hyper car using an F1-derived 1.6-litre turbo-hybrid power unit, Aston Martin’s Valkyrie utilising a Cosworth hybrid, and the INFINITI Project Black S transferring the potential of F1 technology from its partnership with the Renault team.
It’s not just performance technology which Formula 1 has helped to improve and innovate in its 70-year history. A sport which is inherently dangerous, F1’s pursuit of safety has been world leading since the 1960s. From the dark days of the 60s where drivers risked being killed or badly injured almost every weekend. The sport has now only witnessed one driver death in the last 25 years. The tech developed and implemented to protect F1 drivers has filtered down to protect drivers on the road around the world.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) were first pioneered in 1961 when the system was fitted to the Ferguson P99 driven by Sir Stirling Moss (the car also featured an early all-wheel drive system). Whilst ABS took some time to catch on in F1, it helped one of the most dominant cars of all time the Williams FW14B to dominant victory in 1992 and it’s now rare to find any road cars without the system.
The ‘crumple zone’ on road cars which helps absorb the energy of a crash impact, takes direct influence from the work engineered in Formula 1 too. Although first invented by Mercedes back in 1952, the technology developed by Formula 1 teams and the sport’s governing body (FIA) has helped improve the crash technology on our everyday cars. If you watch a modern crash in Formula 1, the cars often look fragile as shards of carbon fibre fly from the cars in all directions. This may seem dramatic, but the cars have been designed to absorb the energy before it is transferred to the driver in the rigid safety cage.
The business of F1
Until the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, no F1 car ran with any commercial sponsors; sponsorship was banned in the early years of the sport. However, after the tyre manufacturers began charging for their tyres, F1 sponsors were permitted for the first time to help boost teams’ income. It was one the most significant moves in the commercial history of the sport.
Colin Chapman, the owner of Team Lotus, swiftly signed a ?85,000-a-year deal with Imperial Tobacco. When Chapman’s equipe arrived in Monaco their traditional British racing green livery had been replaced by paintwork resembling Gold Leaf cigarette packets. In comparison, the first English football team to feature shirt sponsorship now a multi-million-pound industry was Kettering Town F.C. in 1976.
In 1981 F1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone convinced the teams to sign a contract, called the Concorde Agreement, committing them to race at every GP. He then took his ready packaged product to TV companies who could guarantee coverage. The teams controlled F1’s commercial rights but Ecclestone’s company, Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA), negotiated the deals for them and took a share of the profits.
The following year, Ecclestone signed a deal with the European Broadcasting Union to ensure F1’s coverage in Europe’s biggest markets. The decision to sign a deal with the EBU transformed F1’s finances, but by the time the series had established itself in 1987 Ecclestone unshackled it by dealing directly with the broadcasters.
From a commercial standpoint this was ground-breaking, and ahead of other international sports. For example, the first time the International Olympic Committee dealt directly with individual TV networks in Europe was ahead the 2016 Olympic Games!
After Ecclestone’s dealings in the early 1980s there was no turning back. The sport was bought by Liberty Media in 2017 for $4.6 billion and today more than 300 brands are involved in F1 as sponsors and partners, spending close to $1 billion annually in order to leverage their message in one of the world’s biggest sports.
What will the next 70 years of Formula 1 bring us in terms of technology, safety and the sport industry?