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The racing car on your driveway

Nissan Innovation logoNissan Innovation 05/12/2014 Nick Gibbs

Much of the technology on your car was honed on the race track. And there’s plenty still to come...

Electric battery technology from the Nissan ZEOD RC electric racing car will find its way into the Nissan LEAF © Nissan Electric battery technology from the Nissan ZEOD RC electric racing car will find its way into the Nissan LEAF Motor racing has an unprecedented influence on the technology found in everyday cars, with new handling, aerodynamic or even fuel-efficiency improvements regularly passed on to vehicles suitable for our roads.

Take a look at today’s engines. Most likely it’ll be turbocharged and that’s a legacy from the famed days of 1.5-litre turbo engines in Formula One from 1977 to the late 80s. It wasn’t just F1 either – the British Touring Car Championship from 1985 embraced turbocharging with gusto. The teams didn’t invent it, but they proved once and for all its effectiveness in powering up small displacement engines.

Motorsport even inspired the basic construction of today’s petrol and diesel motors. It was a forward-thinking fire pump engine manufacturer in the Midlands called Coventry Climax that proved how much better it was to sling the valves and the camshaft that operates them on top of the pistons rather than the side.

The resulting lightweight and tuneable overhead camshaft engine was jumped on by sports car makers, and made its debut at France’s Le Mans 24-hour race in 1954, before being developed into a race and championship-winning F1 machine and becoming the blueprint for nearly all road engines today.

Fuel-injection was another technology perfected by the racing boys – making the jump to racing cars from planes in 1955.

Race-car drivers rush to their cars after the start signal to the 24-hour race at Le Mans, France, on 12 June, 1954 © Press Association Race-car drivers rush to their cars after the start signal to the 24-hour race at Le Mans, France, on 12 June, 1954 More reliable, economical and emission-friendly than carburettors, fuel injection became the preferred way to push petrol into the cylinder chamber for road cars too. Fuel efficiency you’d rank as more a road-going concern, and although its true hybrids and electric cars have only recently started heading out onto the track, racing cars play a surprisingly big role in road-car economy.

Slippery aerodynamics are an obsession with aeronautically trained race-car builders and are key to reducing petrol consumption. But among the latest eco tech to pass down from motorsport garages to our driveways  is a special low-friction coating for moving engine parts called Diamond-Like Carbon (DLC). This helps improve fuel economy and was used to coat the tappets in the Nissan Juke 1.5-litre dCi diesel, where it helped bring the CO2 emissions down to an impressive 109g/km.

Nissan is also responsible for one of the most dramatic changes to the way race cars look and drive thanks to the new Nissan ZEOD RC – a revolutionary narrow-nosed machine that ran both an electric engine and an internal combustion motor at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hour. The driver was able to switch between the power sources with the flick of a switch. The ZEOD was the first racing car to complete a lap of the Le Mans on nothing but electric power.

The ZEOD RC and has already inspired a road-going variant, too. The electric Nissan BladeGlider concept uses the same narrow-track nose as the ZEOD RC and also features impressive performance thanks to low weight and carefully designed weight distribution

At least 70% of the weight is at the back, meaning you can slim the front right down and get away with two incredibly thin tyres that grip just as tenaciously as the widest conventional rubber but don’t create wind drag doing it.

“Electric battery technology developed from the Nissan ZEOD RC will also find its way into Nissan’s electric vehicle market leading LEAF as well as the new BladeGlider,” Nissan’s Global Motorsport Director, Darren Cox said.

“We’re working hard on taking lessons learned on track back to the road. The new Nissan GT-R Nismo recently unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show features new advances originally developed on the championship-winning GT3 spec GT-R racing. The GT-R Nismo recently recorded the fastest ever lap around the famed Nordschleife for a four-seater volume production car – a stunning lap of 7 minutes, 8.68 seconds.”

The seat belt is an innovation inspired from the race track © Getty Images The seat belt is an innovation inspired from the race track We’ve got brave (sometimes foolhardy) racers to thank for safety advances too. It was drivers on the track who first strapped themselves in, with The Sports Car Club of America making seatbelts mandatory in 1954, three years before the three-point harness was fitted to road cars.

Disc brakes were another race track innovation with the now-familiar caliper and disc set-up used in the famous Italian Mille Miglia road race in 1954, ahead of Le Mans a year later. Such was the improvement in stopping power that the first road cars to be fitted came with a warning badge on the back to alert following drivers.

The other big obsession of race-team owners is lightness, which has benefited road cars as well. Carbon fibre is beloved because it is featherweight yet strong, proven dramatically in 1981 at Monza, when F1 driver John Watson emerged unscathed from a terrible crash in his carbon-fibre car built by pioneers McLaren. Slowly the material is taking the road route – one of the propshafts in the high-tech Nissan GT-R is carbon fibre, for example.

We might think of innovative road cars of today as the source of new technology, but actually when it comes to today’s imperatives to lighten and improve performance while cutting fuel consumption, the racing car also provides a rich source material.

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