Possessing a great history, can motorsport still improve the breed?


For many years, highlights Iain Robertson, vehicle manufacturers worldwide have believed that their on-track and in-competition developments have led to greater things, not all vehicle related, which maintains an off-road impetus of high value.

Ever since the dawn of motorised transport, carmakers have sought to create a technological lead, not just to provide competitive advantages but primarily to build reputations and dependability levels. While the concept of the first-ever motor race, or rally, will have been centred on a ‘man-and-machine’ remit, as aeons-old as horse-racing, it was never more than a means to create kudos for whichever reason at the time.

As soon as vehicle manufacturers spotted the commercial potential, they would clarion it as loudly as possible to steal a march in the showrooms. The precept remains as vital today in Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC and World Championship Rallying, as it ever has done so. Although physical sales may not be as prevalent today, motorsport can still propel a brand’s image into stellar territory.

Naturally, anything that involves speed and either close proximity to other competitors, or the scenery, can result in some horrendous incidents. Although it took some time before the motorsports organising bodies got their acts into gear, on the safety front, by the early-1980s, racing drivers were not losing their lives on every other event. In fact, clinical environments were provided at circuits and ‘medivac’, usually by speedy helicopter, to the nearest medical centre, provided life-saving services.

While the premise is somewhat different, a close correlation has been created between wartime medical back-up and that of emergent treatment in motorsports. The ability to deal with burns, to stem blood loss and to return an injured person to on-the-spot stability are all essential elements, whether in a frontline battle, or in the race circuit paddock. Many of the transferred skills can be seen in ‘First Attender’ situations at road traffic accident sites, which has enhanced significantly the survival rates of victims.

When you consider the number of services (Army, Air Force, Navy) members that have returned from conflicts in need of limb replacements, very few of them truly appreciate that the use of lightweight alloys and fabrics (such as Kevlar) that have been developed in motor racing have also become their means to future mobility. In fact, companies like McLaren have lent their Formula One technology to a hive of specialists, in order to make life worth living for those whom may have thought that it was over. The combination of personal, as well as familial relief, let alone that of observers is tangible.

Vehicle developments, such as traction control, stability control, disc brakes, anti-lock braking systems, aerodynamics and semi-active suspension systems have all emerged, many of which are standard equipment on today’s road cars, as a direct result of having been proven on manufacturers’ race and rally programmes. The stresses and strains of motorsport have led to stronger seats, more resilient fixings, vehicle rollover protection and even laminated glazing, among an array of motorsport-related developments that have come directly from those arenas.

Yet, while deployment of costly race and rally drivers in areas of product development can harbour economic benefits to the carmakers, not least in publicity terms, their parameters, their desires, in terms of vehicle dynamics especially, are somewhat remote from the rest of us. Just because Colin McRae was involved in the final developments of the first Ford Focus RS did not make that car a dynamic delight. In fact, its on-road manners were sorely lacking, even though testing on a smooth and repetitively sinuous test track may have provided somewhat different results.

It is one of the problems associated with the perception of a close relationship between road cars, competition vehicles and the ‘stars’ that drive them. After all, a racing driver is going to seek handling that is body roll-free, steering that is instantaneous and brakes that provide glitch-free retardation. While the latest Honda Civic Type-R is a prime example of turning a race-developed machine into a road car, while it will perform faultlessly on a smooth racetrack, show it the lanes of any English county and disappearing backwards unwittingly through hedgerows becomes second nature, as the road version is intolerant of anything rougher than a billiard tabletop.

However, if any individuals understand ‘destruction testing’ better than engineers, whom are more familiar with on-screen scenarios, they are the archetypal rally drivers. A lot of the vehicle integrity that we take so much for granted in modern day motor vehicles arises from bashing nine-bells-of-hell out of early production examples. Where the weaknesses that may not be revealed in computer simulations are made clear, subsequent strengthening and re-engineering can be applied to ensure that the issues are not transferred to the road vehicles. This remains a highly valued aspect of motorsports’ involvement.

Yet, just because a car posts a lap record around the Nurburgring does not mean automatically that it is going to be one of the most rewarding of its type to drive. In fact, the opposite is more frequently the case. However, several carmakers operate vehicle dynamics operations alongside the famous German racing circuit. The key benefit arises from a closed venue that is often blighted by four seasons’ weather conditions in just one Germanic day! After all, it is far better for a car company to have its testing incidents in private, rather than declaring them to the world, or letting the public find out for themselves.

Intriguingly, both race and rally specialities continue to fascinate carmakers and their designers and engineers. As a result, several of them have dipped into the motorsport bag for launch inspirations for their latest models. You see, there is one final benefit, as long as you do not take it too seriously, related to the sheer excitement, the value of which can be monumental. Many medical and surgical procedures have benefited from motorsports but hanging a hat on the superficial aspects tends to obscure the major advancements, such as road safety, frugality and driver satisfaction. Motorsport still possesses a viable place in the vehicle manufacturing scene, if not as vibrant as it was thirty years ago.