The Formula 1 Grand Prix took place in Miami on May 8. Formula 1 racing is growing in popularity – Netflix and Amazon are currently vying for US 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 delves into the history of motorsport, the engineering that powers Formula 1 cars and how Formula 1 engineering has helped shape modern society.
Racing innovations have influenced modern healthcare, road infrastructure and electric vehicle production. From the aerodynamics of a Formula 1 car used in grocery stores to testing new materials like dandelion latex as an alternative to rubber in tires, Chapman says the advances in technology are wide-ranging.
To listen to the Marketplace interview with Chapmanuse the media player above. Here is an excerpt from his new book.
Romain Grosjean has 27 seconds to live.
It’s Sunday, November 29, 2020. The Bahrain Grand Prix has just begun, the roar and sparks of hybrid engines creating thunder and lightning across the Gulf night. Twenty of the most advanced cars on the planet are jostling for position. At the third corner, Grosjean rushes to the right to avoid a wall of slower opponents in his path. He darts for clear air, trying to get his 150mph car through an increasingly tight gap between Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri.
It is a gap that does not exist.
Grosjean’s right rear tire pinches Kvyat’s left front, sending him skidding in a rain of burnt rubber. He crashes into the crash barrier, cutting through a jagged-edged metal wall that cuts his car in half. Within a thousandth of a second, the high-octane fuel spills out, ignites and explodes in a spectacular fireball. The car disappears from sight, lost in a slick of burning death. Grosjean is trapped in a broken wreck in the heart of hell.
My heart races, seems to stop for a moment, beats again. My breath turns into a gasp of terror. My eyes blink, wondering if what I just saw is real. It shouldn’t have been possible for a car to catch fire like that. Is he okay? Is he alive? The fearsome and terrible orange flame continues to soar higher in the clear desert sky. The racing cars continue, no driver unaware of the carnage, but all knowing that stopping would only lead to further crashes and potential loss of life. In the background, as the camera pans away, the medical car can be seen rushing to Grosjean’s aid. He is on the scene within seconds, with firefighters and extinguishers, to attempt a desperate rescue.
I have nothing to do with the drama that is unfolding. I’m halfway around the world, sneaking into a South Korean hostel with the faint smell of spicy meat rising from the kitchen below. And yet the images on TV suck me into a vortex to relive an indelible and haunting memory. I became a child again, waking up on the morning of May 2, 1994, asking my mother why she was crying while making breakfast. That night she was watching the San Marino Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna – the bright, passionate and aggressive name among names – had swerved and crashed hard against a concrete barrier. He was dead in front of the world.
I was too young and stupid to deal with such a total calamity. Senna was the villain, the man who had so often beaten my hero, Nigel Mansell, the guy who drove a McLaren covered in Marlboro slogans that looked like a huge crushed pack of cigarettes. I couldn’t fathom the prodigious talent that once saw him win a Grand Prix while stuck in sixth gear. I didn’t see how his ride lit up and graced the world with deft, balletic control that left his rivals in awe as he sped past. I had no idea of the gross and senseless waste that led to a man dying for my entertainment. I just nodded and went to school, where the news finally penetrated my soul. It was as if someone had reached out an invisible hand and ripped all color out of the universe, turning it into a faded, muffled monochrome. My life up to that point 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 colors don’t fade and the flames don’t lose their sparkle as they envelop his broken coffin. I hope for life. I expect less. I saw the crash which caused the death of Jules Bianchi, 21 years after that of Senna. I saw the loss of Anthoine Hubert at Spa in 2019. But Grosjean’s fall hits harder because, moments before, I was writing about the technology that could save him. Halos and quick releases, fireproof suits and modifications made by doctors and marshals. I sang heroic science and the science of heroes. And I don’t know if that will be enough.
Expect. Something moves in the glow. Please please please…
YES EEEE EEEE EEEE SSSS SSSS SSSS SSSSSSSS!
A figure emerges from the flames. Wading through the fire, climbing over warped metal with the help of first responders, Romain Grosjean escapes the roaring furnace. His car is a charred carcass. He lost a shoe. He pulls his gloves off to reveal scorched hands licked by Hell on Earth, but he walks, breathes, and talks. The world and I are crying out in relief.
For 27 seconds, Romain Grosjean should have died. The fact that he survived with minor injuries – burnt hands and an injured foot – testifies to the life-saving power of science.
Suddenly, writing this book takes on a new purpose. It is the story of an invention, of a myriad of discoveries, ideas and technologies developed through running and how they have an amazing and 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 much simpler than all that. This is a book about how racing cars will save your life. It’s a look at the hidden benefits of motorsport – the weird and unlikely ways in which striving to squeeze in a little more time on the track has also given us a little more time on Earth.
Motorsport is often seen as a trivial, environmentally hazardous and dangerous spectacle. To critics, it’s a modern chariot race, with horses and whips replaced by gas-guzzling cars spitting sound and fury to the delight of millions. Like their ancient counterparts, runners fight at the limit of human endurance and capacity. They drive custom creations honed by experts for speed and maneuverability. They risk their lives for that extra half second between glory and defeat. They even receive laurel wreaths to signify victory. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of cars going around in circles, isn’t it?
Not even close. It’s so much more. I don’t see floats racing around the Circus Maximus as the crowd cries out for blood. I see the fastest R&D lab in the world. It’s a place where we’re reminded that the word “engineer” doesn’t come from someone who maintains engines; It comes from the Latin ingenium, which means “intelligence”.
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, the 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 1 car is weighed, measured and accounted for; every wing and every curve is a design choice; every groove in the tire is the result of countless experiments and experiments. While Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen might get the applause (and both deserve it all and more), the truth is they’re just the meat in the machine, bound by the limits of the cars that they drive.
These design choices, made for the sole purpose of making a car run a second, a tenth of a second or a 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 spreading through our homes and communities.
Excerpt 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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