If you’re ever in the media room at a race track you’ll hear a refrain so common as to be a cliché at this point: ‘We’re taking all this technology and putting it on our street cars.’ I’d love to see the connection between a Monster Energy Cup Ford Fusion and the Fusion you can buy at your local dealer, or Nissan’s ill-fated FWD Le Mans Prototype and the modern Pathfinder. It isn’t that manufacturers are lying, it’s that the truth is actually far more interesting.
History is full of examples of carmakers developing technology in race cars and eventually translating it to the showroom. The most famous modern example of this is probably the Audi Quattro system, which was an evolution of a limited production vehicle system that was modified for racing and eventually came to underpin most Audi vehicles.
While both Audi research director Ferdinand Piëch and chassis engineer Jörg Bensinger seem to have been intending to build a car that would be built for the street, the motivating force behind the rapid development of the system and its success owe a lot to the bloodthirsty world of the World Rally Championship.
And that’s the key.
Because the stakes are unbelievably high in building a production automobile it discourages making huge leaps or taking outsized risks. While the technology in, say, a Honda Civic has advanced by a large degree from the first Honda CVCC, if you view any generation Civic next to the generation before or after it you’ll see that the differences are relatively minor.
In racing it’s exactly the opposite. The risk in motorsports is not that you alienate potential customers by not advancing your technology quickly enough, it’s that you’ll not push the envelope far enough and will lose so many races that your potential customers view your cars as bad or old. At every level of motorsports, from the development engineers to the drivers and team owners, there’s an impetus to take the biggest risks possible.
A recent example of this is in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship where a number of vehicles at the Rolex 24 at Daytona experienced numerous issues with their Continental Tires. The tires themselves were, according to a spokesperson speaking to AutoWeek, the same as last year. What changed?
"The prototypes continue to get more competitive each year and teams are doing everything they can to seek out every last tenth of a second. Many teams over the last 24 hours looked for every advantage by lowering air pressure and using aggressive camber. When this happens, and teams are not within the parameters we set forth and problems can occur. Especially when double stinting a set of tires.
While tire manufacturers test their products to the extreme, racing teams are the best testbed for pushing the limits of what’s possible. In the case of a few teams at the race, not only were they adjusting the pressure and camber well beyond what was recommended, they were also double-stinting the tires (running them twice as long).
The immediacy of a race means that every week some of the world’s best automotive engineers and some of the most capable drivers are iterating beyond what was thought possible. An automaker, hopefully, wouldn’t do that with the family of four they’re putting into the crossover.
While we want technology to advance quickly there’s also a reasonable expectation that our car isn’t going to experience five tire punctures when we’re on the way to pick up some Apple Pie Cheddar Cheese from Trader Joe’s.
So, yes, it’s true that technology does translate from road car to race car and race car to road car in a never-ending cycle. Just don’t lose sight of the importance of transferring the risk of technological development from cautious automotive engineers to the valiant and clever racing engineers and drivers.