Race Car Technology for the Streets
Race car technology, however advanced it might be, still remains faithful to this old racing cliche: To finish first, first you have to finish. This means it's not enough for a car to have blazing performance and Velcro-like levels of grip, it must also be reliable. These traits haven't always gone hand-in-glove, but engineers work constantly to be faster and more dependable -- whether the venue is a hard-slog endurance race at Sebring or a fleeting quarter-mile on the drag strip.
Weight is the enemy: not just on the track, where lap times can suffer, but also on the street, where fuel costs rise. That's why carmakers adore carbon fiber -- and why they would use more if it weren't so darned expensive to produce. There are no such budgetary restraints on the starting grid. The bodies of NASCAR, Indy and Formula 1 cars consist predominantly of carbon fiber. It's more than three times stronger than steel at just a fraction of the weight. We're now seeing it in the bodies of the 2015 BMW i3 electric car and the 2015 BMW i8 hybrid sports car. As economies of scale make carbon fiber cheaper to make, we'll encounter even more of it in road cars.
Believe it or not, those round, black rubber things on car wheels are very sophisticated. A tremendous amount of research and development has gone into making tires grippy, durable and comfortable. Much of that R&D has taken place at the race track in all sorts of conditions. Modern wet-weather tires can displace 15.8 gallons of water every second at 186 miles per hour. High-performance tires are designed to handle 200 mph. We might argue all day about trickle-down economics, but trickle-down technology is definitely a good thing.
There's a whole art to tuning suspensions that involves spring rates, progressive damping, anti-roll bar widths and a variety of other factors. A well-sorted chassis is a symphony of interacting components, where input from the seats of good drivers' pants is valuable. This is another area where competition leads to innovations such as lightweight aluminum parts, nylon bushings and computer control -- as found in the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Beginning with the 2015 model year, the Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ uses a racing derived magnetic suspension just like the Corvette.
Variable Valve Timing
That little 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine in the 2014 Honda Civic has hardware that comes from Formula 1. To be more exact, it comes from an era of F1 when Honda was winning world championships: the 1980s. It's called VTEC, or Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control, and it was developed to provide accelerative thrust over a greater part of the engine's rev range. In road-going cars, it helps with fuel economy and emissions. This Honda engine is also made of aluminum, which helps in the weight department.
It seems the link between road and circuit is a 2-way street. Fuel/electric hybrid systems, popularized by the Toyota Prius, are catching on in motorsports. In 2012, the famed Le Mans 24-hour race was won by an Audi e-tron, which was actually a diesel/electric model and the first hybrid to score a victory there. This year's Formula 1 cars all have energy recovery systems (ERS) in which kinetic energy is captured under braking, stored in a battery -- as in a street hybrid -- and then used to provide a power boost. Think of the race track as a giant, high-speed, high-pressure laboratory where all sorts of automotive equipment is tried, tested and tortured so civilians can take advantage of it one day.
Volkswagen's Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG) isn't an automatic transmission in the traditional sense. Instead, it automates the process of letting the clutch in and out, what a driver's left foot would do when using a manual transmission. Then gears are selected using paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel, just like in many racing machines. The whole operation takes less time (measured in milliseconds) and is consistently smooth. The principle is the same in Audi's S tronic system, BMW's DCT (double clutch transmission), Ferrari's SMG (sequential manual transmission) and Porsche's PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, if you must know) -- note that these marques all have rich racing heritages.
Drag is such a drag. If a vehicle is shaped like a house, it won't slice through the air quite as sleekly as something with lines that appear to have been sculpted in a wind tunnel. Aerodynamic design invariably results in curvaceous cars. Easy on the eye, but also easy on the wallet because they require less fuel than, say, an SUV, to combat the effects of drag. It's no coincidence that the 2015 Toyota Prius hybrid has an efficient aerodynamic shape. But the wind can also be mastered so it can provide downforce, helping a race car to tackle corners at speeds that would send a grocery shopper flying into the shrubbery. An F1 car can produce around 3,000 pounds of downforce and it weighs about half that. So, in theory, it could be driven upside down.
It's not exactly the sexiest aspect of race car technology, but there used to be a time when cars didn't have rearview mirrors. Presumably the butler would ride shotgun and inform his motoring master if another horseless carriage was approaching. But such a state of affairs was unsuited to the racing circuit, and drivers needed to know if they had to foil a rival's overtaking maneuver. They started fitting mirrors to their machines. One of the earliest instances of the rearview mirror was on The Wasp -- named for its yellow paintwork -- which won the first-ever Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Today, the rearview mirror is one of the most basic bits of safety equipment anyone can think of.