Motorsport In Your Commute
“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was a phrase originally coined by Ford drag racing legend Bob Tasca. In addition to contributing to the all-American 1,320 battleground, he was one of the most respected blue oval dealers in the country. Back in the mid-60s, Tasca supported big-block Mustang drag racers as a way of drawing in customers. His engine of choice was the factory-option 390, but after it proved unsuccessful against competitors from Chevy and Mopar, Tasca decided he would rummage through the Ford parts bin to make something better.
With a short-block Police Interceptor 428 in hand, Tasca added reworked heads with bigger exhaust ports and 1.66-inch exhaust valves, a large four-barrel Holley carburetor, and a 390 cam. Shoehorned into a ’67 Mustang chassis running street tires and a closed exhaust, the new powerplant was able to produce a low 13-second quarter-mile time with a trap speed of 105 mph. The top brass at Ford were impressed, and thus, the much-celebrated Cobra Jet V-8 was born.
In last week’s tech guide, I discussed how Formula 1 is the breeding ground for some of the latest developments in automotive technology. This week, I’ll take a closer look at the tech born on the track and brought to the avenue. Continue reading, and you may be surprised by a few of the best racing hand-me-downs currently prowling a road near you.
Click Continue Reading to learn about motor sport technology in road cars.
Efficiency is the name of the game nowadays, and every little bit of energy saved can add up to big dividends in the long run. That’s why you hear about those super-commuter hybrids and all-electric vehicles coming equipped with something called regenerative braking.
This tech is also in play in motorsport, but is typically used in a specialized form called a Kinetic Energy Recovery System. More commonly referred to by the acronym KERS, it was first introduced in the 2009 season of Formula 1. At the time, Ferrari, Renault, BMW and McLaren were the only teams to put it into use, with Renault and BMW later discontinuing it altogether. However, the system proved its worth when Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag at the Hungarian Grand Prix driving his KERS-equipped McLaren. This success was underlined when Hamilton took pole the very next race, with his teammate, Heikki Kovalainen, qualifying second. Now, KERS is integral to the success of an F1 team’s efforts, with up to 160 extra horsepower available to a driver at the touch of a button.
Here’s how KERS works: under braking, friction between the pad and rotor convert kinetic energy (movement) into thermal energy (heat). This conversion slows the car down, but also generates a lot of excess energy that normally must dissipate into the surrounding environment. With KERS, the extra energy is captured and sent to a storage system, usually either in the form of rotational energy in a flywheel, or as chemical energy in a battery. Once captured, the energy can then be fed back into the drivetrain, either boosting power, cutting fuel consumption, or both.
Obviously, more muscle and improved economy are the kind of attributes any automaker would salivate over, and as such, there are a few road cars out there currently using this tech. Most famously is LaFerrari, which feeds energy into a battery system under braking. Output from its planet-crushing V-12 engine is then pumped up even further by an electric motor mounted directly to its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
But since the title of this piece is “Motorsport In Your Commute,” and not “Motorsport On Those Occasions You’d Rather Give Your Chauffeur The Day Off,” I think it bears mentioning that regenerative braking can be found in vehicles like the Toyota Prius, Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Fiat 500e. The system used in these vehicles differs from KERS in that it employs the electric motor(s) that typically power the wheels under acceleration to instead slow the vehicle. As the internal armature of the motor passes between the magnetic poles in the stator, kinetic energy is transformed into electrical current, thus charging the batteries and shedding speed. A traditional brake system is also used for safety, but the overall result is improved efficiency.
While widely used, this technology is still very much under development, with new applications springing up all the time (for example, a flywheel-based KERS system is on the way for the upcoming Volvo S60). As energy standards increase, we are sure to see additional advances in the future.
You hear it all the time – some aspiring performance junkie is dead-set on modifying his or her ride to offer more speed and greater thrills. Naturally, that means more power, right? In goes a new exhaust, intake, and software reflash, and suddenly, that same individual realizes car modification takes a lot of time and money to yield substantial results. Sure, there are now a few extra ponies to play with, but was it really worth all those thousands of dollars?
If only someone had told them that the most significant single mod you could perform on a car is a tire swap. Those four round slabs of rubber are (hopefully) the only connection your ride will make with the road, so it makes sense that a different compound would have a profound effect on the way it drives.
Modern tire technology is actually insanely complex. Believe it or not, there’s an entire peer-reviewed scientific journal dedicated to its study.
The word “tire” actually comes from the time when wheels were shod in iron bands that would run around their perimeter to provide a resilient surface on the road. This metal ring would essentially “tie” the wheel together, and thus the name.
For the Paris–Bordeaux–Paris Trail of 1895 (often called the world’s first motor race), the Michelin brothers equipped their car with pneumatic (or air-filled) tires that could help absorb the bumps and shocks of the harsh surfaces it would encounter. In the 120 years that followed, racing competition spawned an enormous variety of compounds specifically tailored for different applications, from scorching the quarter-mile to churning gravel.
This specialization is based on a variety of factors, but mostly center around compound type and tread design. A tire’s compound is usually measured by how hard or soft it is – the harder the compound, the longer it will last (that is to say, the higher the treadwear rating), while softer compounds offer greater levels of grip. Operating temperatures are another factor. Winter tires, for example, are designed to be used in the cold, with plentiful grip still available at or below freezing. Really grippy high-performance tires are designed to give maximum traction over the course of a very short lifespan, operating at much higher temperature ranges. If you happen to find yourself alongside some discarded soft-compound racing tires, check out all the debris covering their surface. Then, stick your fingernail into it and marvel at just how gummy it is.
Tread design is based around the evacuation of water, air and loose material to help the rubber meet a solid surface and provide traction. That’s why off-road tires use deep, knobby treads, as they’re designed to brush away all the little stones and material to help keep the contact patch clean. The same can be said for all-season tires and water. “Aquaplaning” is when the treads fail to evacuate standing water between the tire and the road surface, causing a loss of traction. This is also why dry racing slicks have no tread – with a (presumably) clean surface that’s free of moisture, every little bit of the tire surface can be utilized.
Modern road tires are quite robust, and depending on factors like temperature, storage conditions, and driving characteristics, you could get tens of thousands of miles of life from a fresh set. They’re usually constructed with steel-belted radial plies and quite heavy.
For comparison’s sake, the modern F1 tire is designed to last only 75 miles and is extremely lightweight. Instead of steel, the innards are composed of a nylon and polyester weave. It’s also able to withstand a literal ton of downforce and five Gs of load. The extremely soft nature of this rubber is most evident off-line during a race, where bits of the sloughed-off compound collect as slippery debris.
Or consider the tires of the WRC, which come in a large variety of compounds and treads to suit a given surface. These include separate rubber for tarmac, gravel, and snow, not to mention variable weather versions. Each has its own unique traits. Tarmac tires have a large outside shoulder for increased contact surface through the bends. Gravel tires are immensely strong to help prevent a puncture to the sidewall during slides across sharp stones. Snow tires are studded, which means they sport a swath of metal spikes approximately 1.5 mm in height to dig into the frozen ground.
Drag racing tires are equally specialized, featuring something called a “wrinklewall” to create max acceleration. As the ungodly levels of torque from an open-wheel dragster hit the ground during a launch, the rubber will actually contract, twisting up and contorting the outside of the tire, acting a bit like a compressed spring. Once the dragster gets underway, the extra energy stored in the structure of the tire unloads, creating even more forward momentum.
Not to detract from those who focus on handling prowess, but throwing gobs of power into a motor is simply intoxicating. The transition from extra horses to increased speed is as straightforward as a stab of the right foot, with very few auxiliary inputs required. The foundation of this philosophy is equally simple – more air and more fuel equal more power. And while you could stuff a bigger engine under the hood, a much more clever route is to use boost.
Hence, the utilization of superchargers and turbochargers. Willie Haupt is credited with putting the first supercharged racer to use in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup, while Mercedes was the first to use the device in a production car with its “Kompressor” models in the early 1920s. Nowadays, you can find forced induction in pretty much every form of motorsport in the world, including F1, WRC, NHRA, GT, and several others.
Instead of using atmospheric pressure to fill a cylinder like with a naturally aspirated engine, superchargers and turbochargers compress the air, essentially creating higher displacement from a smaller package. Think of it this way – let’s say you have a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine, with 14.7 psi of atmospheric pressure thrown into it. If you strap on a turbo that spins out an additional 14.7 psi of boost, you’re effectively doubling displacement. Now, instead of a 2.0-liter engine, you have yourself a 4.0-liter engine, and all the pleasant associations that kind of figure brings with it.
The difference between superchargers and turbochargers is the way in which the device compresses the intake. Most commonly, superchargers use mechanical drive belts (such as on a roots-type supercharger), thus creating some parasitic lag on the driveline, but instant throttle response. Turbochargers utilize exhaust gasses to spin a turbine, which makes for “free” power with no driveline loss, but can take time to reach optimum boost pressure (this is called “turbo lag”).
Forced induction technology enables vastly superior efficiency, making it perfect for a Jekyll and Hyde road car. Perhaps you want to make a sporty commuter that gets huge mpg, but still has the guts to take on a track day during the weekends. Throw in a small engine for the daily grind, but add a big turbo for fun. Stay out of the boost, and you’ll be skipping those exits for a refuel. Spool up the turbo, and say goodbye to the competition.
As emission standards tighten, carmakers are turning to forced induction to eke out every ounce of power from their engines, all the while staying within the limits of regulation. Properly executed, you really can have your cake and eat it too.
There’s a reason carmakers go racing. Never mind the sponsorship or marketing or even the bragging rights of being the fastest. When it comes to the development of a technology, there’s no better laboratory then a track. While neck-splintering velocity and gut-wrenching grip are obvious areas of study, this holiest of all sports can even bolster facets of the relatively mundane, like fuel mileage and tire wear. It all trickles down to folks like you and I, so next time you’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, try to remember the long history of what went into that chariot of yours. It might not feel like it, but there’s racing-pedigree instilled in your ride.