A Brief History Of Speed: The Tech Evolution Of Formula One

A Brief History Of Speed: The Tech Evolution Of Formula One

Formula One kicked off way back in 1946 and immediately started earning a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous sports. Ever since then, the only thing that has gone faster than the drivers themselves is the speed of innovation surrounding their cars. This is a brief history of speed.

The organisers at the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile introduced rules for the engine capacities of cars almost immediately, but little to no concern was given to the safety of the drivers or the spectators.

Cars with atomic bombs disguised as engines raced around narrow, often dangerous tracks, piloted by men in no helmets, no safety gear and definitely no harnesses. It was man and machine in perfect balance: a volatile mix of meat and gears designed to propel a piece of metal around a track as quickly as possible.

This drive to win saw companies invest millions upon millions of dollars on research and development, hoping to come up with the next big innovation that would change the balance of the grid back into their favour. For this reason, the FIA — now known as FISA — had to constantly stay on top of teams trying to side-step the system by inventing something that didn’t exist yet on a battlefield of innovators.

Rules changed year to year to ensure that both drivers and spectators were looked after, subsequently implementing new safety technology every new season while working to gradually reduce crashes and injuries.

Technological improvements saw cars get faster, lighter and smarter over the years. The early 1960’s saw roll-bars installed, along with other driver safety gear like a double-braking system, fire protection for fuel tanks and a quick-evacuation cockpit. The FIA also made helmets mandatory for the first time in the 1960s.

The 1970’s brought safety technology to the spectators, with double-re-enforced crash barriers installed, along with three-metre high embankments on the track with hay bales banned as barriers. 1975 also saw the rule that demanded drivers wear fire-proof suits in the car, should they crash.

It wasn’t just technical improvements that the FIA got involved with: the body also wanted drivers and spectators to say yes to the ongoing safety of the sport, so certain technologies have been gradually banned over time to get around teams exploiting loopholes.

Air brakes were banned in the early 1960’s, certain construction materials were outlawed in the 1970’s and coming into even this latest season of F1, the FISA — as it’s now known — is making more bans on certain types of engines.

Safety was also increased when medical air was required to be pumped into the driver’s helmet, while mandatory evacuation crews were stationed at race meets.

The FIA and FISA have tried to keep pace with different aerodynamic technologies designed to improve engine cooling, downforce and braking performance. The end-game of the regulatory agency is always to maintain a level playing field against a tide of relentless innovation.

The only year that the FIA mis-stepped in relation to technology was in the dark year of 1994, when the agency outlawed all electronic aids in F1 cars racing on the track. ABS brakes, launch control at start, traction control in the corners and active suspension are all banned. As a result, cars were more unwieldy in the hands of drivers, leading up to the tragic San Marino Grand Prix race at Imola, Italy.

During the Friday qualifying session, Rubens Barrichello hit a corner at 225kph, ploughing his Jordan car into the top of a tyre wall in a sickening crash that left him unconscious. The Saturday qualifying session saw Roland Ratzenberger come off the track at speeds in excess of 300kph, suffering fatal head injuries. In a tragic crescendo, the pole position qualifier, the great Ayrton Senna, tragically died after coming off the track and slamming into a wall at over 200kph.

Imola was where it all changed for modern Formula 1. Safety technology was reimplemented in order to start slowing cars down and making the sport safer for drivers, teams and spectators.

That technological intervention continues today with the FISA prescribing that all engines in the 2013 must be more fuel efficient. That means that high-revving V8s are being swapped for smaller, quieter 1.6L turbo-charged V6 engines, complete with exhaust muffling technology. Paired with a kinetic energy recovery system that feeds power back into the flywheel under braking (KERS), the new cars will likely produce around 750 brake horsepower. That’s still monstrous, but the car that Senna drove at Imola in 1994 had roughly 1200bhp.

Innovation is also going on off the track as well, so that viewers at home can get a better experience when watching the race.

The future of Formula One broadcast technology will be the ability to cater to both one-time viewers and purists, said the face of Network Ten’s motorsport coverage Greg Rust.

Small, light cameras and the viewers’ increased use of dual-screens means that now, and probably more so in the future, networks are able to show the minute details that purists want, as well as the visually-exciting footage that captures the attention of new fans, he said.

That, combined with increased use of HD audio and and heat-seeking lenses, have made the coverage of the sport a much more enjoyable spectacle, Rust explained.

“The sound of an F1 car is very unique, is infectious.”

Recently, as cameras have become lighter and smaller, is has been possible to insert them in drivers’ helmets. This provides an angle rust said casual viewers might not find all that interesting, but for the purists, it’s fantastic.

“It makes them feel like they are part of the team.”

F1 teams are constantly pumping-out a deluge of technical information, which might bore someone who does not know much about the sport. But to someone who follows it closely, it’s a good thing.

Having broadcast technology that allows viewers to interact — switching between different teams, or angles — means the sport has been able to adapt, and cater to two different viewer bases.

Technology is not just important for viewers. It has commercial benefits as well, Rust said. Now, company logos can be broadcast onto the track, meaning advertising revenue can be achieved without disturbing the sanctity of the track.

The science of speed can’t be achieved, refined or improved without the advance of technology, and F1 is still a multi-billion dollar industry that not only makes racing more exciting, but also gives the cars that you and I drive around better speed, fuel economy and safety.