Robot Racing Unlikely to Win F1 Fans, Says McLaren

Motorsports such as Formula One and NASCAR thrill onlookers with their mix of speed and danger.

Much of the drama of these contests comes from the human element; fans clap and cheer for their favorite driver and hold their breath when he or she is in a tough spot during a race. Recently, the human factor was entirely stripped out when a pair of self-driving cars competed earlier this year in the UK’s Goodwood Hill Climb. One was Robocar from specialty autonomous racing team Roborace, the other was a modified 1965 Ford Mustang developed by a team lead by giant engineering company Siemens. Both completed the contest.

So, does this mean that autonomy will become part of racing’s future? TU-Automotive put that to Jonathan Neale, COO of F1 giants the McLaren Group, whose crystal-ball gazing drew out an unexpected vision or two. We also asked him about the tendency of innovations in racing to filter down into the mass market for automobiles.

  1. What are the most significant innovations that have moved from track to road?

“Numerous modern automotive innovations have been tested in race cars prior to being used in passenger vehicles. From tires, suspension and braking systems, to modern day safety features that protect drivers and passengers, motorsport has provided a test bed for life-saving and sustainable innovations. Since 2014, Formula 1 has used hybrid power units, an innovation that is being rapidly adopted in passenger vehicles. The insight gained from running these power units at the highest level of motorsport is invaluable for the development of their road-going counterparts. Sustainability will play a key role in the future of both motorsport and passenger vehicles. The development of this technology in the test bed of motorsport brings us closer to achieving more sustainable motor vehicles, both on and off the track.”

  1. Will the same happen with assisted/autonomous technology?

“Potentially, however it depends on what the fans want to see. If autonomous solutions can make the sport more interesting and exciting, it’s likely to play a part in the future. However, if it fails to do that then the use of this technology is likely to be limited.”

  1. What McLaren racing technology has ended up in everyday passenger vehicles?

“Carbon fiber, first pioneered in Formula 1 with the McLaren MP4/1, is increasingly used in high performance passenger vehicles. When introduced in 1981, many teams were skeptical about the material’s application in the sport but those concerns were quickly proved wrong and the use of carbon fiber is now ubiquitous. Carbon fiber offered far greater strength and structural integrity at a fraction of the weight, a vital requirement in modern Formula 1. Every road car produced by McLaren has made use of carbon fiber and the material is increasingly used by other manufacturers. We are proud to have been a pioneer in this area.”

  1. Are you considering autonomous racing in some way?

“While McLaren Racing is completely focused on the current Formula 1 specifications, McLaren Applied Technologies is active in the autonomous racing market, supplying Roborace with components such as [engine control units].”

  1. Will robo-racing have a future in motorsport?

“Again, this largely depends on fan appetite. Autonomous racing is certainly growing at an increasing pace, but in a sport where fan engagement is key, it will have to offer something that gets pulses racing before it can be considered the future. For McLaren, the most exciting development in motorsport has been the breakthrough of e-sports. Unlike most forms of grassroots motorsport, e-sports offers an accessible platform for those looking to forge a career as racing driver. This year, McLaren launched Shadow Project; our search for the brightest and the best racing talent in e-sports. The winner of the McLaren Shadow Project championship will get a seat in our new F1 e-sports team and join our e-sports development [program], to hone their skills and work with the McLaren F1 team. They will also win a truly unique motorsport experience, including attendance to F1 races, exclusive behind the scenes access to McLaren and a host of physical prizes such as gaming and race kit.

“The technology required to create a fully autonomous racing series is not far away. Applying this technology in a closed, controlled, environment like a race circuit eliminates a number of the variables that pose challenges to the application of autonomy in road cars. However, as with any sport, a series is only as strong as its fan base. The biggest hurdle autonomous racing must jump is endearing fans to a series that lacks the protagonists and heroes of traditional motorsport.”

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