UK in pole position to benefit from F1 engineering skills
As the Formula One circus gets back on the track in Melbourne for the first race of the 2014 season next Sunday, nerves will be tauter than ever. In recent years the sport has been dominated by the Red BullRacing team and its driver Sebastian Vettel, who clinched his fourth consecutive drivers' championship in 2013. But some of the biggest rule changes in the sport's history have made the season ahead far more unpredictable.
This year, the 2.4 litre V8 engines that have been in use since 2006 are being replaced by 1.6 litre V6 engines, with far stricter limits on fuel consumption. All the teams are facing a huge technical challenge as they adapt to the changes, and race strategy will be crucial. Red Bull has come up against some problems in preseason testing, but Melbourne is where "the bullshit stops", according to team principal Christian Horner.
Sitting in his office in Milton Keynes, Horner says: "This year is slightly more of an unknown because it is such a big regulation change, and of course certain engine suppliers will have got it right and some will have got it wrong. There will be a race against time [among teams] to get themselves in the best position they can."
He adds that it could be "a few months" into the 2014 season before a pattern of winners and losers emerges.
While the winning and losing will be played out on 19 tracks around the world, much of the work that goes into those performances will be carried out in the UK, in "motorsport valley", a business cluster in and around Oxfordshire.
"The garage at the grand prix is our shop window, but it's what goes on behind the scenes that makes the difference," says Horner.
As in past seasons, eight of the 11 teams racing in 2014 are based in the UK, including big names such as Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus. Britain has a dominant position in racing, and this stretches beyond the F1 teams to an entire supply chain feeding off the sport.
The figures speak for themselves. Motorsport valley is home to around 4,300 companies, employing around 41,000 people and with a combined annual turnover of around £9bn, according to the UK's Motorsport Industry Association (MIA). Almost 90% of those companies export their products and services abroad.
Chris Aylett, the MIA's chief executive, says Britain's position at the forefront of F1 is the result of "accident and circumstance" stemming from the 1950s and 1960s, when the country had plenty of airstrips and aspiring engineers.
"After the war, we had very little money but a lot of airfields that had not been bombed," he says. "We had engineers who were experienced in rapid research and development, aerodynamics and competitiveengineering – and a lot of them turned their hands to automobile engineering."
Competition in the sport has always been fierce. In the 1950s Enzo Ferrari, the driver and entrepreneur behind the Italian racing team and luxury car company, dismissed some of the new British outfits asgaragisti, mere "garage teams".
The modern sport looks very different, with F1 highly regulated and success in the UK built around motorsport valley and the Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire. But the fierce competition remains, and those at the top of the sport argue that the benefits of Britain's dominance of many aspects of F1 have a wider impact on the economy, in terms of jobs, skills and innovation.
Horner says F1 is "a shining example" of engineering excellence in Britain. "A lot of the teams and suppliers permeated out of Silverstone, and the UK has had a great heritage of creative design engineers and manufacturing."
Now, the innovation that comes from competing to build a winning car is being applied elsewhere. As well as McLaren Automotive, which produces luxury road cars for the super-rich, spinoff McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) is using some of the lessons learned from F1 in other industries.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis says that while "racing will always be at our heart", the demands of the sport put it at the forefront of broader innovation. "Formula One breaks new ground and other industries follow. And because of the concentration of Formula One in the UK, we have a significant advantage."
MAT works with companies in several industries, such as healthcare, but it is also transferring its expertise to other sports.
"The UK has punched above its weight in recent Olympic Games, and a small amount of that success is attributable to Formula One," says Dennis. He cites McLaren's work in sports including cycling, sailing, canoeing, rowing, bobsleigh and skeleton, where its engineers help with improving equipment and enhancing the way athletes approach training and racing. "Across those sports," he adds, "we have helped win 32 medals, 17 of which have been gold."
Other F1 teams are diversifying, too. Williams has taken motorsport expertise into sectors including mass transport, particularly the use of energy-efficient technologies.
Claire Williams, deputy team principal and commercial director at Williams, says the cluster of high-value, hi-tech engineering companies in motorsport valley dispels the notion that "Britain doesn't make things any more".
Ultimately though, while the glamour of F1 racing will undoubtedly attract aspiring engineers, the sport can have only a limited impact on the engineering skills shortage bemoaned by Britain's manufacturers.
"For many years," says Dennis, "if you were bright enough to become a top-class engineer, you were also bright enough to know that there were probably better career options available in the City. Formula One has always been a relatively small, but important, counter to that suction pump of talent."
This is not to say that F1 teams are taking an altruistic approach to the skills shortage – the benefit to the wider economy of its innovation and the fact it fits in with the government's agenda are purely coincidental.
Horner says: "We don't get involved in politics. Our job is to be a sporting team, a racing team, and our focus is very much on going racing. But David Cameron recognises clearly the value of engineering in Formula One."
For now, though, a week before the first race at Melbourne, all teams have their minds on the battles ahead. The outcome is likely to depend on the performance of the all-new engines, particularly those built by major suppliers Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari.
"Everyone is excited about this season," says Tim Urquhart, automotive analyst at IHS. "It will be about the engine, and the team that integrates it best into the chassis will probably win."
Pre-season tests indicate that the Mercedes engines – used not only by Mercedes but also McLaren and Williams – have the edge, followed by Ferrari and then those from Renault, used by Red Bull, Lotus and Caterham.
Dennis says F1 fans should expect "some exciting racing and real twists and turns" this season. "About the only certainty this year is that we all face a lot of uncertainty. All of our talented engineers have worked incredibly hard over the winter and will continue to do so as we fight for every single point."
While there are greater unknowns this season, the chances are the first driver to cross the finishing line in Melbourne in a week's time will be from a British-based team, in a British-designed car.
The eight Formula One teams based in the UK are (with engine providers in brackets): Red Bull (Renault), Mercedes (Mercedes), Lotus (Renault), McLaren (Mercedes), Force India (Mercedes), Williams (Mercedes), Caterham (Renault), Marussia (Ferrari).
Of the 4,300 companies in Britain's motorsport valley 45% of them are involved in high-performance motorsport engineering; 31% in related non-engineering services; and 24% in a combination of the two. Across motorsport valley as a whole, 87% of companies sell products abroad.
For example, at McLaren's technology centre in Woking, not all the engineers are focused on the start of the 2014 Formula One season: some are thinking about toothpaste. It seems unlikely but McLaren has taken 50 years of F1 expertise and applied it to GlaxoSmithKline's toothpaste production line at Maidenhead.
By taking the principles at the heart of F1 pitstop changeovers – where efficiency is everything and a second can decide a race – the factory has become more productive to the tune of 6.7m tubes of toothpaste a year. And that's just on one production line.
The work by McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT), a spinoff from the F1 team, enabled GSK to cut the time it takes to change over one toothpaste brand or flavour to another from 39 minutes to 15 minutes. Those efficiency gains of more than 60% allow the pharmaceuticals giant to supply the market more quickly and reduce costs.
More than two years after a partnership began between McLaren boss Ron Dennis and GSK chief executive Sir Andrew Witty, the collaboration is to be rolled out globally. McLaren teams will go into around 70 GSK factories around the world, including in North America, the Middle East, China and Japan. The projects won't all be about toothpaste, but all are about improving efficiency.
Jim Newton, market development director at MAT, said: "We're not just looking for a short-term impact, we're looking to alter how the people we work with think about approaching improvement. It's hopefully a lasting impact for GSK in terms of productivity."