Bright sparks

This Sunday sees the start of the new Formula One season, at Melbourne, Australia. Motorsport has long been trumpeted as a technological proving ground and the use of electronics is no exception. Indeed, it was way back in 1984 that the then TAG Mclaren Porsche team was the first team to win an F1 race using an ECU. At a time when most popular road cars still relied on a mechanical carburettor to mix the air and the fuel, this was advanced stuff and helped spur on the development of smaller, lighter, faster reacting systems that have become the norm on even today's city cars.

Since then, electronics has penetrated pretty much every aspect of the sport, and that trickle down effect has if anything, accelerated. For example, where there was once a hand gear lever and a clutch pedal, there is now a sophisticated paddle shift semi-automatic transmission system – again available on many road cars.

Likewise, where there was once only driver feedback from which to help set up the car, there is now widespread use of telemetry through data logging, sensing the movement of everything from wheel speed to suspension movement, to steering yaw and driver input. And while data logging may seem a little unnecessary for the average road machine, wheel speed sensors, tyre pressure monitors and steering sensors are playing a vital role in delivering the electronic stability and traction control systems demanded by today's safety conscious consumers.

Arguably, 2009 sees the most significant development in the trickle down between Grand Prix racing and mainstream road car technology, because F1 is allowing the use of hybrid propulsion units for the first time. The idea is a simple one – to capture the kinetic energy generated by the forward motion of the car, then store it and release it when an additional burst of performance is required. In essence, this is what KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) does: providing a boost of up to 80bhp (equivalent to an extra 10% of engine power) for up to seven seconds a lap.

The challenges in engineering KERS have been considerable. Capturing the energy that's normally wasted, transferring it to a converter / generator, then storing it in battery, from which it can power an electric motor to assist an F1 car's main petrol engine, requires complex electronic solutions. The demand for accurate sensing and control systems acting in a closed loop format is a must for KERS, and has cost tens of millions of dollars to develop – why the big car manufacturers that race in F1 are keen to promote its virtues.

At the time of writing, BMW and Renault look likely to race the system at the weekend. The former reckons that it's likely to see a KERS style system on its road cars within the next year, which will require a different set of real world electronics solutions to cope with performing over the 100,000 mile life cycle of modern car. Extra performance, lower emissions and a real world application – whatever manufacturer is the first to win an F1 race with the KERS system, it could be the start of something very big

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