I’ve recently been researching PLM bellwethers, those groups or individuals whose use of a
technology or process portends its eventual wider adoption. Bellwethers set the stage,
control early research and guide its commercialization. Formula One (F1) racing certainly
captures the imagination of everyone in the automotive industry and its trends and
technologies eventually make it into the road cars we drive.

The design of F1 cars has always been very carefully controlled by the sport’s governing
body. As a result, the cars generally look very much alike, even as they seek to exploit
loopholes to gain every possible fraction of a second. The 2009 racing season stars this
week in Australia with new rules designed to make the races more exciting and the race
vehicle technology more applicable to on-road cars. One change: redesign the F1 cars to
make it easier for one to pass another. This required changing the aerodynamics of the
cars so that the following car can get to within one second (of lap-time) of the lead car and
safely pass (both not possible under old rules). As a result, the 2009 cars will have
driver-adjustable smaller rear wings to reduce turbulence and shift the aerodynamic
balance to the front of the car, making it easier to control.

All of these changes required a reworking of the cars during the offseason – first in CAD
and CAE, then in physical models and finally in real life. Racing teams will continue to
adjust their designs as the season wears on, using advanced CFD and other analytical
tools to ensure that they wring the maximum possible advantage out of the new rules.

Why does this make F1 a bellwether? These teams spend enormous amounts of money
on wind tunnels and compute technology but are not immune to the economic realities
faced by less-glamorous enterprises. Even they must get the maximum benefit from every
dollar spent. Their use of advanced CAE leads to enhanced software capabilities, quicker
turnarounds, faster hardware and interface technologies – after all, the team that can try out
the most design alternatives between races winds up with the better-optimized car and the
greater chance of winning the next race. F1 teams pressure the vendors, the vendors
respond – and all users benefit. Too, increased emphasis on technology aimed at
commercial cars will ultimately lead to trickle-down innovations (like disc brakes in the
1980s). Just one example: 2009 designs include kinetic energy recovery systems, which
store energy generated while braking.

I’ll be writing about more bellwethers – check back.