Motorsport innovates in lockdown

Monday 15 June 2020

There might not be any racing going on at the moment but the industry is keeping busy in many and various ways – here’s how.

In the midst of a global health emergency it may seem frivolous to ponder the impact on sport, given it’s hardly what most people would consider ‘essential’ work. But that rather overlooks the fact – as relayed in our own story in issue 12 of Revolution – there are 4,500 businesses employing 45,000 people in the British motorsport industry and its value to the UK treasury is as much as £10bn a year. That pays a lot of furlough cheques, if you take a simplistic view of how these things work.

And demonstrates how sport of all disciplines contributes to the nation’s finances, as well as its sense of prestige. Perhaps more so than any other, though, motorsport is particularly equipped to weather this storm or even help us out of it, given the concentration of manufacturing resource and talent it has at its disposal.

Indeed, as we detailed in another Revolution story (issue 8), the very qualities that make British firms so successful have been applied in other sectors, the agile working practices, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit already finding applications beyond racing. And so it is now, as the industry reacts with characteristic speed and presence of mind to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances we now find ourselves in. This includes the well-publicised participation of F1 teams in the VentilatorChallengeUK, the sense of glamour brought by their involvement helping attract mainstream attention. The demand from healthcare providers the world over for complex equipment is particularly suited to firms already operating in this field, and many have responded to the call to repurpose existing designs or develop new ones.

“The Ventilator ChallengeUK Consortium, under the leadership of Dick Elsy of High Value Manufacturing Catapult, is one of the more high-profile endeavours”

While competition is unexpectedly suspended on track, others are taking this opportunity to use the unexpected downtime to develop cars and technology that will give them a competitive edge once we do go racing again. Circuits, venues and stages may be quiet. But in factories and industrial units – not to mention conference calls from home offices and kitchen tables – the industry is adapting.

The VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium, under the leadership of Dick Elsy of High Value Manufacturing Catapult, is one of the more high-profile endeavours. This is the umbrella under which motorsport teams, suppliers and road car manufacturers including McLaren, Williams, Haas F1, Red Bull Racing, Racing Point, Renault Sport Racing, Ford and Aston Martin are collaborating with partners from aerospace and technology to design, build and deliver everything from visors and gowns to ventilators. For McLaren’s part, the group is working with around 100 suppliers, staff from planning, project management and purchasing are helping to procure parts, while McLaren

Racing’s machine shop is manufacturing ventilator components. Duplication and expanded production of existing designs has been picked up by the Automotive road car division, while ‘end of line’ testing equipment designed by both Racing and Automotive ensures all ventilators meet the necessary standards. McLaren Applied’s electronic knowhow has also contributed to the projects while, at a more practical level, Automotive has designed bespoke trolleys for equipment in clinical settings. “The collective of UK-based Formula 1 teams and their respective technology arms came together in response to the government’s request for support, focusing on the core skills of the F1 industry,” a spokesperson for McLaren tells Revolution. “F1’s unique ability to rapidly respond to engineering and technological challenges has allowed the group to add value to the wider response.

“The collective of UK-based Formula 1 teams and their respective technology arms came together in response to the government’s request for support, focusing on the core skills of the F1 industry”

This is a fantastic example of UK engineering and technology companies, large and small, coming together to answer a critical national need.” Williams Advanced Engineering has also been involved, work including production of a batch of Smiths Group ParaPAC300 ventilators for the NHS, a project Williams was able to create prototype parts for within two weeks of joining the project. 50 members of staff, some working remotely from home, have been involved. “We are proud to be working with so many innovative partners on this project,” says Craig Wilson of Williams Advanced Engineering. “WAE prides itself on speed of response and rapid turnaround; skills we can really maximise as part of the VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium.

We are all determined that the results of our collective efforts will make a huge difference and save lives.” A short distance up the M40, Prodrive is also involved in another similar project, in this case a new “cost effective ventilator for low-income countries” as a spokesperson describes it, the firm’s proven ability in motorsport, defence and medical work to rapidly develop, prototype and manufacture to tight schedules being put to good use. Near neighbour Aston Martin has also been involved with HVM Catapult projects, working with Multimatic and the Manufacturing Technology Centre to help produce Perspex shields to protect patients and healthcare workers.

“Times of crisis are also times of great innovation and we are delighted to be working with Multimatic and the MTC to produce the intubation shield for the intensive care staff,” says Aston Martin boss Andy Palmer. “Everyone we approached stepped up without hesitation and they should all be proud.” High-tech also meets traditional skills on this job, Aston Martin tooling usually used to cut complex leather shapes for its road car upholstery being repurposed to create the silicone joining sections used in the box’s construction. “It is heartening to see the response we had from Aston Martin and Multimatic,” says Clive Hickman of the MTC.

“To be able to put the sharpest minds and the best technology together to move this project forward at a rapid rate is testament to the British manufacturing industry.” Elsewhere in the motorsport world it’s been a case of the show must go on, albeit behind closed doors and with a view to maintaining that vital competitive edge for when competition does resume. At M-Sport in Cumbria a significant body of the workforce has been furloughed but those remaining are using the unscheduled downtime to work on the hybrid system due for introduction in the WRC’s new Rally1 category.

“The unexpected break in competition has allowed all the teams to spend some time developing their designs and finalising the technical regulations with the FIA,” M-Sport team principal Richard Millener told us. “We are progressing well and hopefully this will mean that we can meet the deadlines for the introduction of the 2022 car, which are already quite tight.”

Millener accepts this is a difficult time for teams like M-Sport but is looking forward to getting back out there when the time comes. Others still are demonstrating ability to adapt rapidly to changing working conditions, while taking what hope they can in the few good news stories out there. One of those is the Queen’s Award for Enterprise announced for Hampshire-based track design consultancy Driven International, right in the midst of the lockdown.

A small but agile team of architects, designers and civil engineers, Driven has worked on many projects in the UK and abroad, including recent updates to Pembrey circuit in Wales designed in partnership with the BARC and with input from race teams and other users. “It was only a small modification but it’s changed the circuit considerably,” explains Driven’s Ben Willshire. “It’s added an extra overtaking opportunity and given the F3 teams the additional hard braking area they wanted for testing, raising the circuit’s FIA grading in the process.”

The fact the vast majority of Driven’s projects are overseas – current ones include new circuits in Canada and Hawaii – Willshire and his team have had to adapt the way they operate. “All the staff are still working,” he says, “and we’ve had clients making use of the time to get into the nuts and bolts of design work rather than looking at site visits and surveys.

We can be using the time proactively so, fortunately, we’ve ridden the storm.” Like many in the industry who’ve previously been accustomed to international travel and site visits, the new regime has prompted reflection on new ways of working, work/life balance and a reduced environmental impact, all of which are beneficial practices Willshire reckons will endure long after lockdown is lifted.

For all these uplifting tales, it’s clear COVID-19 places enormous strain on everyone working in motorsport and beyond, and some will be finding it harder than others. Reasons to be cheerful may be few and far between but the fact the expertise and innovation within the community and industry has found ways to adapt and survive is typical of the can-do spirit that makes Britain a world leader in the sport. And a sign that, as soon as the flag does drop, we’ll all be raring to go once again.