Motoring

7 times new technology changed the F1 game

© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Technological advances in Formula One have been as important as who's behind the wheel. Discover some of the most important changes to affect the sport over the years.
By Eddy LawrencePublished on
Since its inception as a conduit for drivers' bragging rights, Formula One has become the automotive NASA, the unofficial collective home of research and development for the motor industry. F1 cars are now labs on slicks in which new driving technologies are invented, refined, and perfected. Many of these innovations had a limited shelf life, as the rules of F1 are updated to balance performance and reliance on driver skill with safety and the viewer experience, to keep the sport from turning into less violent, more boring version of Robot Wars. Nevertheless, the technological arms race is as much a part of the sport as chequered flags and ineffectively sprayed champagne – here we take a look at the sport's greatest game-changers.

Mid-engine placement

A black and white image of an F1 racing car from the 1950s.
Mid-engine placement
Back in the early days of motorsports, man's attitude to engine placement was unchanged since the chariot, with all the horsepower placed front and centre. This made logical sense, but drivers quickly found this led to understeer at high speeds. In 1957, the Cooper team switched the paradigm by placing a bike engine behind the driver but ahead of the rear axle, which, intentional or not, also provided more even weight distribution. The new architecture was seen as suspiciously radical at the time, but following Jack Brabham's back-to-back championship wins in 1959 and 1960, all manufacturers switched to the new standard layout for the 1961 season.

Monocoque design

Until the early 1960s, all F1 cars were constructed using a traditional space-frame design. In 1962, Lotus introduced the revolutionary aluminium sheet monocoque, ditching the load-bearing internal frame, and making the car effectively one large body panel, which distributes tension and compression across its surface. Inspired by aircraft design, this all-skin, no-skeleton design dramatically reduced weight, massively improving acceleration, top speeds and fuel efficiency. The concept reached its conclusion in 1981, with McLaren's unveiling of the MP4 (retrospectively known as the MP4/1), the first carbon fibre-reinforced polymer chassis – and later the inspiration for McLaren's F1, the first production car with a carbon fibre monocoque.

Active suspension

Ayrton Senna in McLaren MP4-8 during practice for the 1993 British Grand Prix
Active suspension
Arguably the gatekeeper of the modern era of F1, active suspension was one of F1's first electronic driving aids. First developed by Peter Wright of Lotus, and introduced in 1982 with the Lotus F1, it was most famously employed by Ayrton Senna in his 1987 Monaco GP victory. Using a synthetic spring linked to electronic monitors, active suspension could better control the car's massive downforces and compensate for conditions. Using data collected from each of the major circuits, active suspension could be programmed to effectively predict the road ahead, and adjust the car's suspension accordingly. The system ensured a constant ride height and maximised grip and aerodynamic efficiency. Unfortunately, it also minimised the fun of watching F1, and the tech was banned in 1994.

Turbochargers

Although rarely used, forced induction engines – aka turbochargers and superchargers – were allowed from the very beginning before being banned between 1961-1965. But a change in regulations in 1966 opened the door for their reintroduction and the tech came into its own when Renault scored the first turbo-powered F1 win at the French GP in 1979. By 1986, normally aspirated engines had disappeared entirely from the starting grid and turbos were achieving outputs of over 1,000bhp in qualifying. But the tech's weaknesses were already beginning to show. Drivers were effectively sitting atop unpredictable land rockets, which were becoming increasingly unstable and hard to control. The authorities ultimately deemed turbochargers too dangerous, and too expensive, threatening the existence of smaller teams. Although banned in 1989, the changeover to less powerful 16.l V6 engines in 2014 has seen turbocharger rejoin the fold.

KERS

Standing for Kinetic Energy Recovery System, it's effectively the motorsports version of the mushroom power-up from Mario Kart. Essentially a kinetic battery, KERS allows cars to bank energy lost during braking, and redeploy it at the push of a button to provide a short-lived boost to acceleration of approximately 160bhp. Introduced in 2009 as part of F1's drive to showcase sustainable technologies, it was a hit with fans as it made overtaking easier and more exciting. It was also popular with some drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, but not so popular with people who sign the cheques for research and development.

Traction control

The closest thing to autopilot F1 has seen, traction control automatically reduced power to the wheels in the event of wheelspin, allowing for more controlled acceleration, perfect starts, and the elimination of drift. The attraction for teams is easy to see, but the innovation didn't go down well with fans or critics, who complained that it hugely reduced the importance of driver skill, potentially leading to sterile tournaments dominated by the biggest spenders. It was eventually outlawed in 1994, with teams allegedly using loopholes to exploit the tech, before being permitted again in 2001. A more effective ban since 2008 has arguably led to more exciting race starts, but will traction control remain permanently outlawed? Time will tell.

Semi-automatic gears

Nigel Mansell at the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix
Semi-automatic gears
Debuted in the 1989 Ferrari driven by Nigel Mansell, semi-automatic gears use a two-shift barrel system to eliminate the need for a driver-controlled clutch. Those early '90s boxes changed gear in 30-50 milliseconds rather than 200-250 milliseconds, with later developments introducing seamless-shift boxes. They're also controlled using those super-cool paddles behind the steering wheel. Providing faster gear changes, while also allowing the driver to keep both hands on the steering wheel, semi-automatic gears had a profound change on '90s racing. But they also ushered in the era of the modern composite steering wheel, the Wii U-style amalgam of paddles, buttons, toggles, switches and screens which allow drivers to monitor and control every facet of the car's performance, from fuel mix to brake bias.

Halo

Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 Special Edition filming day at Silverstone Circuit
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 Special Edition livery
Many motorsport innovations make racing faster, but more dangerous. But there's a complementary quest to develop systems to keep drivers safe, such as fire suppression to the safety cell. The latest of these is the halo, introduced for the 2018 season to protect exposed drivers from large pieces of flying debris. Teams now have to build their chassis to incorporate this rules-mandated armour – now the strongest piece of F1 cars – causing hugely complex knock-on effects with aerodynamics and stress distribution. Although not universally liked, the halo could yet usher in a new era of design, as new challenges encourage greater innovation.