From Ford and Chevrolet, to Ferrari and Porsche, almost every automaker has gone racing at one point or another. But why do they do it?
It’s partly just for the exposure. Racing fulfills the need for brands to get out in front of lots of eyeballs and show off their wares. But exposure alone can’t sell cars, or justify the millions of dollars automakers pour into racing.
Besides high-octane marketing, automakers have used racing as a technological testing lab. Modern cars benefit from tech honed over decades of competition. Sometimes it started with race teams looking for an advantage. Other innovations originated outside of racing but proved their effectiveness on track. All these tests and tweaks make cars better. Here are some of our favorite pieces of race technology that migrated into our street cars:
Turbocharging – the use of an exhaust-driven compressor to drive more air into an engine – didn’t start with racing. General Motors slapped turbos on the Oldsmobile F85 and Chevrolet Corvair in 1962, before turbocharging was really on race engineers’ radar.
Turbocharged cars didn’t make much of an impact until they went racing. This began in earnest in the 1970s, when Porsche launched its 917/10 and 917/30 Can-Am cars, and Renault brought turbo power to Formula One. Turbocharging also breathed new life – literally – into the decades-old Offenhauser engine in IndyCar racing. By the 1980s, racing had gone turbo crazy, with turbocharged F1 cars, rally cars, and endurance racers producing insane amounts of power with the use of turbos.
It was that era of racing that paved the way for turbochargers to really go mainstream in road cars. Turbos are still used for performance, but automakers increasingly use them to downsize engines in the name of fuel economy. Turbochargers allow smaller engines to produce more power, which is how, for example, Ford can justify putting a twin-turbo V6 in its F-150 pickup truck instead of a V8.
Road vehicles and a few race cars with four driven wheels existed before it, but the Audi Coupe Quattro was the first with an all-wheel drive system designed for use by regular cars in all road conditions. Based on experience Audi gained developing the Iltis military vehicle, the Quattro was built to dominate the World Rally Championship. Engineers bet the extra traction of all-wheel drive would be advantageous on the many unpaved, and sometimes snow-covered rally stages. The Quattro proved them right, winning the championship in 1983 and 1984, as well as netting three wins at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb over the course of the 1980s.
The Quattro name (Italian for “four”) lives on in Audi’s current all-wheel drive vehicles. Thanks in part to Audi’s success, other automakers have also adopted all-wheel drive, meaning you no longer need a pickup truck or SUV to feel confident driving on slippery roads. Meanwhile, the WRC embraced all-wheel drive and never looked back, paving the way for cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution which, like the original Quattro, would spawn road-going versions for enthusiasts to covet.
In 1979 designer John Barnard, then working for the McLaren Formula One team, was looking for a way to shrink the chassis of a race car in order to make room for more underbody aerodynamic elements. This was the era of “ground effect” in F1, when such elements were the key to performance. But there was a problem: if the slimmed-down chassis were to be made out of the standard aluminum, it wouldn’t be stiff enough.
Barnard had heard about carbon fiber from contacts at British Aerospace, and decided to use the material for an F1 chassis (known as a monocoque in the business). The result was the McLaren MP4/1, which debuted in the 1981 F1 season. A win at the British Grand Prix proved the car’s performance potential, but when driver John Watson walking away from a violent crash at the Italian Grand Prix it proved that carbon fiber could enhance safety as well. Today, every F1 car has a carbon fiber chassis.
Carbon fiber has made it to road cars, but it’s far from mainstream. With the exception of the Alfa Romeo 4C, only exotic supercars (including ones made by McLaren) have carbon fiber chassis. But carbon fiber components are used in some (slightly) less-expensive cars, and BMW has pioneered use of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic in vehicles like the i3 electric car with the goal of making the material easier to mass produce.
The rear wing is a symbol of performance, as evidenced by the number of them attached to ratty old Honda Civics by presumptuous owners. The reputation they are leaning on is well deserved. In the 1960s, wings elevated Formula One cars to a new level of performance. But it didn’t come easy.
Like the wings on airplanes, wings on cars are about directing airflow. But instead of directing faster airflow underneath to create lift, they direct it over the top to create down force, which pushes the car into the track and creates more grip. After a couple of pioneering efforts – including the iconic Chaparral 2E of 1966 – F1 teams began adopting wings in 1968. Ferrari was first, and others soon followed. The wings were massive, but they were also fragile and crudely built. This led to several crashes caused by collapsing wings, which in turn led to stricter regulations.
Those early wing efforts were shots in the dark, but their performance potential was undeniable. As engineers’ understanding of aerodynamics grew more sophisticated, wings became a fixture in F1 and other race series, as well as on scores of road-going performance cars.
Manual or automatic. It used to be a straightforward choice. But that was before racing teams found a performance advantage in transmissions drivers can shift themselves without a clutch pedal. Eliminating the clutch allows transmissions to shift faster, so it was only a matter of time before the technology became commonplace in both race cars and road-going sports cars. Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch transmission has become a fixture in the German automaker’s sports cars, but the technology was first tested in the 956 race car in 1983. However, a PDK gearbox wouldn’t appear in a volume-produced Porsche road car until 2009.
In between, Ferrari developed a semi-automatic transmission for Formula One, introducing it in 1989 on the 640 after some teething troubles. Always eager to draw connections between its F1 racing program and its road cars, Ferrari added the technology to the Mondial in 1993, and the F355 in 1997. The latter also introduced a signature accessory to semi-automatic transmissions: paddle shifters.
It’s hard to think of a more perfect story of racing innovation changing everyday cars for the better. When the first Indianapolis 500 was held in 1911, most drivers took along a “riding mechanic,” whose job included looking behind to alert the driver of approaching cars. Ray Harroun decided to race a specially prepared Marmon Wasp with streamlined single-seat bodywork – leaving no room for the riding mechanic. Instead, Harroun mounted a piece of glass to the dashboard. He won the inaugural Indy 500, and then promptly retired.
As with most great stories, some exaggeration was involved. Harroun didn’t invent the rearview mirror: he said he got the idea from a rearview mirror he’d seen on a horse-drawn carriage, and mirrors had been listed in car-accessory catalogs prior to 1911. But, as with many automotive innovations, racing popularized the rearview mirror and proved its effectiveness in dramatic fashion.
The most important part of a car is the brakes. If you can’t stop, nothing else matters. Since the car’s invention, the greatest advancement in braking technology has been disc brakes. Because the braking surface is open to airflow, disc brakes offer better cooling than enclosed drum brakes, lessening the chance of overheating and improving performance.
That improved performance caught Jaguar’s attention in the early 1950s. The British automaker teamed up with Dunlop, which had developed a disc-brake system for aircraft. If they could stop a plane on landing, disc brakes should work on a car, so went thought of Dunlop and Jaguar. A Jaguar C-Type with disc brakes went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Other automakers had tried disc brakes on production cars before (the 1949 Crosley Hotshot and certain 1950 Chrysler models had them), but Jaguar’s win proved that the technology was the real deal. Today, disc brakes are standard equipment on the vast majority of new cars.
Like disc brakes, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) were used more commonly in aircraft before cars. Dunlop’s Maxaret system was used in everything from airliners to Britain’s “V-Force” nuclear bombers. In 1961, a variation of the system was fitted to the Ferguson P99 Formula One car. The P99, which also featured an early all-wheel drive system, wasn’t very successful in F1. It only won a single race, and driver Stirling Moss didn’t even use the ABS, preferring to modulate the brakes the old-fashioned way. The Jensen Interceptor FF debuted with ABS shortly after the P99 retired, but the idea didn’t really catch on for decades.
The Ferguson P99 was ahead of its time. Its ABS was mechanical; it would take electronics to make ABS truly practical. Today, it’s illegal to sell a new car without ABS in the U.S. However, ABS is not allowed in Formula One. It’s one of many driver aids banned in the series.
A dual-overhead cam (DOHC) cylinder head is a handy way to increase power without increasing displacement. Overhead cams are inherently more efficient than the alternatives, and having two of them means you can add more valves. That means more fuel and air entering the engine, which means more power.
The first DOHC car was the Peugeot L76. Its dual-cam cylinder head sat atop a massive 7.6-liter inline-four engine, which made 148 horsepower. It promptly went out and won its first race – the 1912 French Grand Prix – then went to the Indianapolis 500 the following year and won that too. Other automakers quickly copied the design, and twin-cam heads became a must-have feature in performance cars.
Today, even the humble Toyota Corolla has a DOHC engine. It’s a testament to the lengths automakers go to extract ever greater power and efficiency from smaller engines, and how once-exotic tricks can become commonplace.