SAE Taking Motorsports to the Streets

Automakers using race technology to breed better cars

"Our objective is to use our race cars to showcase the cars we put on the road," said Richard Brekus, BMW's product planning chief. Brekus was part of a panel at this year's SAE World Congress exploring the link between motorsports and production cars. Racing plays a critical role in developing brand identity and marketing, the panelists agreed. But it also offers manufacturers an opportunity to test new technology under harsh conditions before offering it on the retail market.

The panelists offered up a variety of examples, such as the ultra-light carbon-fiber roof on BMW's new M6 sports coupe, and the 7.0-liter engine in the new Corvette Z06, which was an offshoot of the powertrain in the last-generation C5R racecar. Porsche's Dr. Frank Stefan-Walliser noted that the latest, normally aspirated 911 is making as much as 540 horsepower, about 30 more than the last-generation sports car. "That was gained with (knowledge) developed in the GT (racing) category," he explained. Meanwhile, the harsh demands of racing can provide a quick way of "proving out" technology shared with a manufacturer's production vehicles, said Robert Davis, vice president of product development for Mazda North America. Problems on the track revealed potential issues with a shifter fork on the latest MX-5, as well as a suspension component on the RX-8, Davis noted.

The transfer of technology is a two-way street, suggested BMW's Brekus. When the organizing body for the Formula One series approved the use of traction control several years ago, "Our production engineers were called in an told we needed traction control in our race cars - and they had a week to do it."

Don't be surprised to see the auto industry use racing to test and develop alternative fuel technology, suggested David Wilson, a group vice president for motorsports, with Toyota. Might that mean hybrids on the track? "We're just talking about it right now," he said. Indeed, Audi scored a recent coupe at the 12-hour endurance race at Sebring, winning the first time out with its new R10 turbo-diesel racecar. Unlike most racecars, the R10 even featured an advance particulate emissions trap.

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