More often than not, nothing gets discovered until something is pushed to the limit. The heat of competition is the most rigorous furnace humanity has at its disposal, and in the automotive realm, motor racing is the white-hot crucible of innovation.
Both success and failure remain a constant at the expense of a mixture of ingenuity, luck, and desperation. And when that rare breakthrough does occur, an entire motorsport industry scrambles to adopt it.
Inevitably, with so much being demanded of passenger cars with each passing year, automakers also rush to engineer as much racing-derived technology as possible to improve upon safety, efficiency, and performance.
Having that certain new advantage also attracts discerning buyers and can be a marketing boon to whichever new model can tout it first, and so the pattern has been set for motorsport to chase the cutting edge and for the wider automotive industry to chase its mass market adoption.
Here are a few features your car may have that was first forged in motorsport. Some you may expect and some you may have taken for granted. Regardless, let's come away from this with a newfound appreciation for the amazing engineering our cars are built on.
Nearly everything that we’ve discovered so far that makes cars go faster was first done in racing, but not turbocharging. Patented in 1905 for use in radial engines, turbochargers got their wings (literally) in aviation with turbo-equipped prop planes of the early 20th century, which were found to have greatly increased performance without compromised flight range.
From there, huge turbochargers were engineered and fitted to equally massive marine and locomotive engines and lead to huge leaps in power. It was only until the 1930s that racing cars started showing up with them, and after an early period of exploding engines, the technology blossomed onto the consumer marketplace.
Through the 1980s, everything was being labelled as ‘Turbo’ to sound cooler; from children’s toys to appliances to TV shows. Fast forward to the present day, the majority of new cars are turbocharged to allow for motors of reduced displacement but with equal or increased output and fuel economy over larger ones. Conversely, the naturally aspirated engines have become a dwindling species.
Push Start Button
Starting up a car is a basic enough process, which in days past was done with the simple twist of a key. That won’t cut it in 2020 - too antiquated for our tastes. So instead, we use buttons, typically as part of a larger electronic ‘keyless’ entry and start system.
While it’s debatable if tapping a start button is appreciably better as an experience than using a key, racing teams could gain a crucial edge by getting their engine spinning a few milliseconds quicker than their competitors.
Individual trigger switches for electrical and fuel supply also gave drivers more granular control as well as a manual override should something unexpected happen. When activated in sequence, the big (usually red) start button would be pressed for a successful start up, and soon that act was embedded in the minds of the enthusiasts who sought to emulate, creating a demand for manufacturers to fill.
These days, these types of transmissions (or gearboxes) go by many monikers or acronyms that mask a much longer name: Powershift, SSG, TCT, EDC, DCT, DSG, or PDK. That last one stands for Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, which is fitted to many models from the German automaker from the 911 to the Macan as their default automatic option.
Porsche is credited with the development and refinement of the modern dual-clutch transmission, an evolution that took many years of R&D and testing but resulted in finished units being deployed in such legendary Le Mans race cars as the 956 and 962 in the 1980s, contributing to their on-track dominance thanks to lightning-fast gear shifts.
Of course, since then the technology has trickled down to passenger cars and is now far more widespread, even found in the new 2020 Proton X70.
In racing, equally important as going fast is to rein in all that speed. Let’s face it, without effective braking, you’re just a crash waiting to happen. Not that long after people started competing with cars, they figured that drum brakes just weren’t good enough, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that disc brakes began to appear on the tracks of endurance racing and Formula 1.
The technology mushroomed across all categories of racing as the advantages in lap times and safety were enormous, and by the mid-50s the first mass-produced passenger car was offered with the far superior braking tech in the form of the futuristic (for its time) Citroen DS. Following that, the system was miniaturised for use on motorcycles too.
More than 50 years later, it remains the most prolific and effective braking system in vehicles. Of course, the disc brakes used today are much more sophisticated, employing space age manufacturing and material science for optimal performance, longevity, and weight.
Tyres, as a concept, are probably the most primitive among the core ingredients of any vehicle. Before that, we had the wagon wheel - stiff and usually made of wood. The idea of a replaceable rubber outer layer, dampened by a pressurised chamber of air, was a revolutionary step forward.
However, with modern tyres, perhaps in no other category is there a more continuous stream of improvement being made that stem from motorsport. With racing as the perfect catalyst, the high performance tyres of today are offering levels of wet and dry grip, wear life, and stopping capability that were unreachable even 15 years ago.
With such brutal demands placed on race cars, tyre manufacturers constantly working with teams and drivers to deliver any small advantage in acceleration, braking, and controllability, leading to an evolving mixture of tread compounds.
The all-electric Formula E Championship goes further still as official tyre sponsor Michelin has for years been using the series as a test bed for road tyre development. Because most Formula E races are held on closed city roads, the Michelin Pilot Sport EVs are essentially street tyres, designed to be used on both dry and wet surfaces as well as to maximise efficiency (to reduce drain on the batteries).
Then again, they must also perform in high-stress race conditions and need to deliver as much grip as possible. The direct benefit is that the hard-earned lessons gained from Formula E are directly translated to the company’s off-the-shelf road tyres such as the Pilot Sport 4/4S and Pilot Sport Cup.
Wrapping Things Up
It's incredible to think of all the blood, sweat, and heartbreak that went into the tech and engineering that your car is built on - doesn't matter if its old or new. So long as it's running, there's a deep history of motorsports-derived innovation that it can trace its roots to. And that's just plain awesome.