F1 innovations that made their way into road cars

A Mercedes-AMG F1 racecar on the track with the Project One hypercar.

Craig Duff

Posted April 05, 2022

From hybrid drivetrains, adaptive suspension, and even the buttons on your steering wheel, Formula One technology has revolutionised how we drive.

The World Drivers' Championship officially kicked off with the British Grand Prix in 1950.

Factory racing teams and grands prix-titled events had, however, existed since the late 19th century and that era marked the start of a series of genius mechanical and technological advances that continue to this day.

Some were so far ahead of their time they were banned almost overnight and never evolved as a production technology.

The 1978 Brabham “fan car” is a case in point. It was a radical interpretation to generate “ground effects” where the car is sucked to the road at high speeds to improve downforce and therefore tyre grip.

The FIA regulations stated that moveable devices providing an aerodynamic advantage were not permitted.

Designer Gordon Murray got around the problem by mounting a fan on the rear of the engine. Ostensibly it was used to cool the engine, but it had a “fortuitous side effect” of generating downforce because the area around the cockpit and engine were effectively sealed areas, making the fan the only avenue for the air to flow.

Niki Lauda won the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix using the device, but the other teams complained so much that Brabham abandoned the innovation despite it being deemed legal.

It was a similar story with Mercedes-AMG’s brilliant dual-axis steering system seen in the 2020 season.

It allowed the driver to push and pull on the steering wheel to change the alignment, or toe, of the front wheels. If the steering wheel was pushed forward, the front wheels adopted a toe-out attitude which improved cornering stability.

As the driver accelerated, G-forces naturally saw him pull the wheel back, which returned the front tyres to a more aerodynamic neutral profile. The FIA modified the regulations in 2021 to state the wheels could only be turned left and right, not adjusted for toe.

Many other innovations did make the track-to-road transfer. 


Carbon-fibre chassis

McLaren pioneered the use of carbon fibre chassis for the track and road.

DOHC engines

Renault debuted the double overhead camshaft in 1912 at the French Grand Prix.  

Simply put, the camshaft is responsible for operating the intake and exhaust valves that bring in fresh air and expel exhaust gases respectively.

A double camshaft lets car makers add multiple valves to each cylinder and to optimally configure their placement around the cylinder to improve efficiency.

The vast majority of road cars now use this technology, though F1 teams are experimenting with operating the valves by electromagnetic and electrohydraulic actuators.

This system can already be found in the Koenigsegg Gemera’s “Freevalve” engine.

Carbon fibre

McLaren was the first to introduce a carbon fibre chassis in F1 with its MP4/1 chassis in 1981.

Carbon fibre has previously been used in small components where its light weight and strength were valued, but McLaren expanded on the concept.

That innovation then translated to the world’s first series production road car to use a carbon fibre chassis in the shape of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.

Carbon fibre is now used in many high-end road cars, including Porsche, BMW and Aston Martin.


A silver Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren was one of the first road cars to feature a carbon fibre chassis.

Paddle shifters

Paddle shifters were invented around the start of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1989 F1 season that Ferrari felt confident enough in a semi-automatic gearbox to launch the John Barnard-designed version. An electro-hydraulic system used two paddles mounted behind the steering wheel to shift gears up and down.

The rationale was that shifts were faster and caused less wear on the components than a conventional manual gear change. Unlike a full automatic, the drivers still had control over when and where to change gears.

It took just eight years for paddle shifters to appear in Ferrari’s road-going F355.

Today, small SUVs and people-movers are fitted with paddle shifters, as much a style statement as having any real benefit.

Steering-wheel buttons

Those buttons to change the volume and radio station, the driver’s display and even set the cruise control are all derived from F1 machines.

The trend started in the 1970s but took off in the ’80s and ’90s as the cars adopted more technology. Drivers travelling at 300km/h didn’t want to be looking for a button, so they were located on the steering wheel.

Modern machines have up to 25 switches and dials operating everything from the brake bias to the opening the DRS system and the all-important overtaking button to extract maximum power from the engine and motors 


F1 steering wheels from the 1950s and the modern era.

F1 steering wheels have evolved from the classic wooden rim to a high-tech handle boasting its own display and more than 20 buttons.

Diamond-like cylinder coatings

All F1 teams run some form of diamond-like coating on their cylinder walls to reduce friction.

Essentially, it involves vapour deposition of ultra-hard carbon-based material. Depending on the configuration, the resultant film displays characteristics that combine the hardness of diamond with the lubrication of graphite (both forms of carbon).

The technology has transferred into the more expensive production cars in recent years, with the Ferrari 458 that launched in 2010 one of the first examples.

Adaptive suspension

Any car with suspension that can be altered by pressing a switch owes a debt to Formula One.

The technology debuted in the mid-1980s and early examples involved keeping the ride height at a set level to maximise the downforce.

It wasn’t until 1992 that Williams developed the FW14B with effective active suspension, which helped eliminate pitch and roll for optimal aero performance. Mansell won nine of the 16 races and the tech was banned the following year.


The blue Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar on the road.

The Aston Martin Valkyrie is a hypercar based on F1 technology.

Hybrid powertrains

F1 teams have experimented with hybrid drivetrains since 2007, when they trialled kinetic energy recovery systems, basically by capturing energy from brake regeneration. It’s a similar process to that found in Mercedes-Benz EQ-Boost mild hybrids.

With the launch of the 2014 season all cars on the F1 grid were required to have hybrid drivetrains.

The technology had evolved to now include two separate forms of energy recovery.

The official parlance is MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit - Kinetic) and MGU-H (Motor Generator Unit - Heat).

The first recovers braking energy, while the latter recovers heat from the turbocharger. That power is directed to an energy store, which is typically a lithium-ion battery. The regulations say the ERS can provide 120kW of power from around 33 seconds a lap.


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