Race against the pandemic

Motor sport teams and car makers are usually pitted against each other, but during the COVID-19 pandemic the talents that create success on track are having an impact on the fight against the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest tests to modern society during peacetime. Alongside the severe effects it can have on people it threatens to overwhelm healthcare services, which is why there has been widespread bans on mass gatherings around the world to help prevent the spread of the virus. With the motor sport calendar effectively put on hold for the foreseeable future and production facilities being closed around the world, the dramatic stock market falls have hit the value of virtually every car firm globally. But this hasn’t stopped many teams and their associated car makers from responding to the calls for aid from governments, making use of their engineering expertise usually reserved for fighting each other on track to help beat Coronavirus.


Seven out of the 10 Formula One teams in the UK – Haas, McLaren, Mercedes, Racing Point, Red Bull, Renault and Williams – have joined forces in an F1-backed initiative led by F1 Chief Technical Officer Pat Symonds and supported by the FIA. Known as ‘Project Pitlane’ the initiative has seen the teams coordinating to find ways to manufacture and deliver respiratory devices to support the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). The UK needs some 30,000 new ventilator units to help the NHS cope with the increase in demand, and teams are helping support the scale of producing the existing ventilator designs as part of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium and prototyping new devices for certification and production. Formula One teams are uniquely positioned to take on this challenge given the short lead times involved and the tight deadlines, something they have huge experience of when it comes to improving their cars over the course of a season.

‘F1’s ability to problem-solve and make rapid prototype parts is second to none’

As such it didn’t take long before Project Pitlane saw its first successful product, a Mercedes- produced ventilator in collaboration with University College London (UCL). The breathing aid, which helps keep Coronavirus patients out of intensive care, was approved by the NHS and developed between Mercedes High Performance Powertrains (HPP), the company that produces its world championship-winning engines, and UCL in less than five days. “Given the urgent need, we are thankful that we were able to reduce a process that could take years down to a matter of days,” says Professor Tim Baker, UCL Mechanical Engineering. “From being given the brief, we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analysing an off-patent device. “Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production. We were privileged to be able to call on the capability of Formula One – a collaboration made possible by the close links between UCL Mechanical Engineering and Mercedes HPP.” McLaren is part of a consortium which is looking at designing a simple version of a ventilator that can be produced quickly, using expertise and resources from all three of its business arms to aid with all aspects of production. It is also manufacturing key components such as equipment to test the eiciency of the new ventilators, and trolleys that can be placed in hospitals. Red Bull has also been able to utilise its engineering skills to rapidly prototype parts that can be used in ventilator production, although the specifics of this are being kept under wraps due to it being a government-run project. “Rob Marshall, our chief designer, has done a couple of all-nighters on this coming up with engineering solutions to issues they’ve encountered,” says Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner. “The key thing is getting these systems out there as quickly as possible. F1’s ability to problem-solve is second to none and our ability to make rapid prototype parts is again second to none.” Other racing teams are determined to make their mark too and with Formula E being similarly affected with most of its races postponed, engineers from the Mahindra team and Nio333’s technology partner QEV Technologies are also producing ventilators. Barcelona-based electrical racing research and development company QEV is importing ventilators from China and donating them to Spanish hospitals, as well as assigning 14 engineers to design a new prototype ventilator. They are also utilising their 3D printing machines to produce critical personal protection equipment (PPE) such as face shields, which has seen thousands of them rolled out in Spanish hospitals, and bifurcators for use in ventilators. The latter acts as a junction and enables ventilators to have two air flows, thereby doubling the capacity of those already in use in hospitals. In Australia, Supercars team Triple Eight Race Engineering developed a prototype ventilator during the weeks after the support race for the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled, as the team looked at ways it could repurpose resources. The ventilator can regulate tidal volume and breaths per-minute, and can run for two hours without power to put less stress on hospital resources. “If this needs to be used, it could be a bit of a dire situation where it’s not in a hospital, it’s outside somewhere or in a set-up, sort of a small ICU unit, so power might not be consistent,” says Triple Eight technical director Jeromy Moore. “That means we need a bit of a UPS onboard, so if power drops down it can last for at least two hours until you can get the power back up and running into the machine.”


In addition to coming up with engineering solutions there are company-wide initiatives that teams and manufacturers are implementing to either help slow the virus, support key workers or contribute to government funding of healthcare services. In Italy, which has been severely hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler are working with Italy’s biggest ventilator manufacturer, Siare Engineering, to help boost its output. Siare Engineering had been asked to increase its production of ventilators from 160 to 500 units and consulted Ferrari, Fiat and component maker Magnetti Marelli to supply parts and help with machine assembly. The Ferrari-owned Agnelli family has also donated €10 million to Italian health authorities and provided 150 ventilators through the companies it owns, including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the Juventus Football Club. Lamborghini, meanwhile, is converting departments of its sports car production plant in Sant’Agata Bolognese in order to produce surgical masks and protective plexiglass shields. The masks will be donated to the Sant’Orsola- Malpighi Hospital in Bologna to be used in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In Spain, SEAT’s Martorell factory, where the Leon model is normally produced, has been transformed to manufacture automated ventilators for local healthcare authorities to help battle the pandemic. A team of engineers designed a total of 13 different prototypes before the final design was agreed upon. The team is now testing the ventilators in collaboration with the local healthcare authority to get approval for mass production. “Taking an assembly line that manufactures subframes, a car part, and adapting it to make ventilators has been a lengthy, difficult job involving many areas of the company, and we managed to do it in the record time of one week,” says Sergio Arreciado, part of SEAT’s Process Engineering. In the United States, Tesla boss Elon Musk has bought 1,255 ventilators from China and had them shipped to Los Angeles. General Motors and Ford are collaborating with medical company Ventec Life Systems to help increase its output of respiratory care products, including providing logistics, purchasing and manufacturing resources. GM has set up a production line to produce face masks and expects to be able to make 1.5 million a month once at full capacity. Volkswagen has built up production capacity in China for protective masks, and is supporting German authorities with temperature measuring devices, masks, disinfectants and diagnostic equipment. It is also joining Daimler AG in donating more than 300,000 protective masks from existing resources to health organisations. Even motor sport drivers are helping out. Current Formula E championship leader Alexander Sims collected PPE stock from UK- based motor sport teams and delivered them to hospitals, including 300 pairs of gloves, a couple of hundred all-in-one suits, cleansing wipes and hand sanitiser. The idea came from Andrea Ackroyd, Sims’ performance engineer at BMWi Andretti, whose sister works for the NHS. “She was just explaining the dire situation they’re in, in terms of PPE,” says Sims. “She’s the brains behind this – I’m just the one with a bit of time on my hands to try and organise it, send out some emails, contact people and pick it up, wearing my own gloves and trying to be safe in the process and looking at the bigger picture. It made a lot of sense to me to try and get involved and do my bit.” Jaguar Land Rover has gone one step further by beginning production of a reusable protective visor for hospitals in the UK, which should help combat equipment shortages as it is designed to be easily dismantled and cleaned so it can be used again. The company intends to make the open source CAD design files available to other manufacturers so they can print further visors. The Ford Motor Company will match donations from employees of up to «500,000 with the potential to raise $1 million for groups battling the pandemic across the globe. This will be extended to Europe, where funds are being raised to support organisations in Germany, Italy, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the UK. Elsewhere car company Škoda is helping charities and volunteers in the Czech Republic by giving them free access to more than 200 vehicles and 150 electric scooters used by its HoppyGo car sharing platform. The firm is also working with the Czech Technical University in Prague to develop a 3D-printing process to produce ventilators. Toyota and Lexus are providing free roadside assistance to all key workers who drive their cars or vans, with Peugeot, Citroën and DS also joining in to offer their roadside assistance programme to NHS workers. Even though there are no points on offer orchampagne to be sprayed, the motor sport and motoring industries are determined to help in the fight against Coronavirus. And as various countries have shown with their lockdown measures, this is not something that is going to disappear without quick action.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.