AUGUST 21, 2008

Ingenuity still brings success in Formula 1

For years engineers have complained that the rules of Formula 1 mean that there is little room left for innovation but Cambridge University's engineering department has just revealed that this is not the case at all.

Professor Malcolm Smith, a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, created an innovative suspension system in the late 1990s and this was patented by the university. The first details were published in 2002 in the obscure Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers's publication called Transactions on Automatic Control. This was spotted by the boffins at McLaren and an exclusive deal was negotiated to allow the team to use the technology in F1. The new system was first used at the Spanish GP in 2005 and Kimi Raikkonen won.

The team used the name "J Damper" to describe the unit - in an effort to confuse the opposition - but it has now been revealed that it is actually called "an inerter". This is very different to traditional suspension systems which use springs and dampers to absorb the shocks and improve comfort and create better handling and better grip.

Tuning the suspension systems was always a question of finding a compromise but Professor Smith realised that things could be better resolved if a third component was added to the system. The inerter looks like a conventional shock absorber with an attachment at either end and a plunger moving backwards and forwards inside the main body of the device, however this then activates a flywheel which rotates in proportion to the relative displacement between the attachment points, storing rotational energy as it spins. This reduces the effects of the oscillations and thus helps the car to retain a better grip on the road.

"It's very pleasing that what began as a theoretical idea is now being used in motor sport," says Professor Smith. "Hopefully it will gradually be incorporated into other types of vehicle as well."

The deal with McLaren has now ended and Cambridge Enterprise, the University's commercialisation office, has signed a licencing agreement with Penske Racing Shocks, which will allow Penske to supply inerters to any team in F1.