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Formula One engineering paves the way for sustainable innovation

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Car tires in Japan in 2006.

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The Formula One Grand Prix was held in Miami on May 8. Formula One racing is growing in popularity — Netflix and Amazon are currently competing for U.S. broadcast rights. With popularity comes money and with money comes investment in, among other things, sustainable technology.

Science journalist Dr. Kit Chapman is the author of a new book, “Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save The World.” In it, Chapman dives into the history of motor sports, the engineering that makes Formula One cars function and how Formula One engineering has helped shape modern society.

Racing innovations have influenced modern health care, road infrastructure and the production of electric vehicles. From the aerodynamics of a Formula One car being used in grocery stores to testing new materials like dandelion latex as an alternative to rubber in tires, Chapman says the technological advancements range far and wide. 

To listen to Marketplace’s interview with Chapman, use the media player above. The following is an excerpt from his new book.

Romain Grosjean has 27 seconds to live.

It’s Sunday, 29 November 2020. The Bahrain Grand Prix has just started, the roar and sparks of the hybrid engines creating thunder and lightning in the Gulf night. Twenty of the most advanced cars on the planet jostle for position. Through turn three, Grosjean darts to the right to avoid a wall of slower opponents in his path. He arrows for clear air, attempting to thread his car at 150mph through an ever-narrowing gap between Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen and the AlphaTauri of Daniil Kvyat.

It’s a gap that doesn’t exist.

Grosjean’s rear right tyre clips Kvyat’s front left, sending him skidding off track in a shower of burnt rubber. He smashes into the safety barrier, cutting through a metal wall with jagged edges that slice his car in half. In a thousandth of a second, high-octane fuel spills, ignites and explodes in a spectacular fireball. The car vanishes from sight, lost in a sheet of burning death. Grosjean is trapped in a broken wreck at the heart of the inferno.

My heart thuds, seems to catch for a moment, pulses again. My breath judders out a gasp of terror. My eyes blink, wondering if what I’ve just seen is real. It shouldn’t have been possible for a car to ignite like that. Is he alright? Is he alive? The fearsome, terrible orange flame continues to soar higher into the clear desert skies. The cars in the race continue, no driver oblivious to the carnage, but all knowing that to stop would only lead to further accidents and potential loss of life. In the background, as the camera pans away, the medical car can be seen rushing to Grosjean’s aid. It’s at the scene in seconds, along with fire marshals and extinguishers, to attempt a desperate rescue.

I have nothing to do with the drama unfolding. I’m half a world away, skulking in a South Korean hostel with the faint smell of spiced meats drifting up from the kitchen below. And yet the images on the TV suck me into a vortex to relive an indelible, haunting memory. I’m a child again, waking up on the morning of 2 May 1994, asking my mum why she’s crying as she makes breakfast. That night, she had been watching the San Marino Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna – the brilliant, passionate, aggressive name among names – had swerved off track and crashed hard into a concrete barrier. He had died with the world watching.

I was too young and stupid to process such utter calamity. Senna was the baddie, the man who had so often beaten my hero, Nigel Mansell, the guy who drove a McLaren slathered with Marlboro slogans that looked like a giant, crushed pack of cigarettes. I couldn’t comprehend the prodigious talent that had once seen him win a Grand Prix despite being stuck in sixth gear. I didn’t see how his driving lit up and graced the world with a deft, balletic control that left his rivals awestruck as he slipped past. I had no notion of the raw, senseless waste that had led to a man dying for my entertainment. I just nodded and went to school, where the news finally sank into my soul. It was as if someone had reached out with an invisible hand and snatched all colour from the universe, transforming it into faded and muffled monochrome. My life until then had been blessed with little tragedy; Senna’s death was the day I grew up.

I feel the same muted palette seeping into my vision as I watch Grosjean die. But the colours won’t fade and the flames lose none of their lustre as they shroud his broken coffin. I hope for life. I expect less. I saw the crash that caused the death of Jules Bianchi, 21 years after Senna’s. I saw the loss of Anthoine Hubert at Spa in 2019. But Grosjean’s crash hits harder because, moments before, I was writing about the technology that could save him. Of halos and quick releases, of flame-retardant suits and the changes made by medics and marshals. I sang of heroic science and the science of heroes. And I now don’t know if it will be enough.

Wait. Something’s moving within the glow. Please, please, please…


A figure emerges from the flames. Wading through fire, scrambling across warped metal with the help of first responders, Romain Grosjean escapes the roaring furnace. His car is a charred husk. He has lost a shoe. He pulls his gloves away to reveal burnt hands licked by Hell on Earth, but he is walking and breathing and talking. The world and I scream in relief.

For 27 seconds, Romain Grosjean should have died. That he survived with minor wounds — burnt hands and an injured foot — is a testament to the life-saving power of science.

Suddenly, writing this book takes on a new purpose. This is a story of invention, of myriad discoveries, ideas and technologies developed through racing and how they have an astonishing, hidden impact on our lives. It covers bold thinking, creative solutions and green advances that will help curb the impending doom of climate catastrophe.

But it’s also about something far simpler than any of that. This is a book is about how racing cars will save your life. It is a glimpse into the hidden boons of motorsport — the weird, unlikely ways that efforts to gain a sliver more time on the track have also given us a sliver more time on Earth.

Motorsport is often dismissed as a trivial, environmentally harmful, perilous spectacle. For critics, it’s a modern chariot race, horses and whips replaced by petrol-guzzling cars that spew out noise and fury for the joy of millions. As with their ancient counterparts, the racers battle at the edge of human endurance and capability. They drive custom creations honed by experts for speed and handling. They gamble their lives for that extra half-second between glory and defeat. They even get laurel wreaths to signify victory. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of cars going around in circles, right?

Not even close. It’s so much more. I don’t see chariots racing around the Circus Maximus as the mob bays for blood. I see the world’s fastest R&D lab. It’s a place where we are reminded that the word “engineer” doesn’t come from someone who maintains engines; it’s from the Latin ingenium, meaning “cleverness.”

Elite sport is always an arms race, a constant battle in pursuit of excellence that requires a team of hundreds to stay competitive. Usually, however, science is there to support the talent of its competitors. In the world of motor racing, it’s the other way around. Every ounce of a Formula One car is weighed, measured and accounted for; every wing and curve is a design choice; every groove on the tyre the result of countless experiments and experiences. While Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen might get the plaudits (and both deserve all they receive and more), the truth is they are just the meat in the machine, bound by the limits of the cars they drive.

These design choices, made with the sole aim of making a car go a second, tenth of a second or hundredth of a second faster than a competitor, are small miracles. If they work — and sometimes even if they don’t — they invariably end up rippling through our homes and communities.

From “Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save the World” by Kit Chapman. Prepared for Marketplace by Robin Wane, Bloomsbury Sigma.

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