Learning from Motorsports

Does cycling have anything to learn from the engineering and aerodynamics expertise in motorsports?

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Learning from Motorsports

The recent big-budget launch of the McLaren Motorsports-branded Specialized Venge has drawn attention to two subjects that are close to Cervélo's heart: aero road bikes and motor-racing. As more manufacturers are coming out with new aero road bikes it validates what we've been evangelizing for the past 15 years- namely that aero equipment makes you faster, regardless of whether you are a professional or a recreational rider.

Oddly enough, many of us here are also motorsport fans. Motorsports—especially Formula 1—is widely viewed as the pinnacle of engineering and marketing. The cars weigh a quarter of the family car in your garage, have 4x the horsepower and can stick to the ceiling with aerodynamics. The marketing is almost as spectacular with the most expensive sports sponsorships (a small sticker on an F1 car reportedly costs a quarter of a million Euros), a global reach of billions, and a marketing and PR circus that charges close to $10,000 per weekend to sip champagne and eat canapés in the Paddock Club. Fortunately for riders everywhere it's the engineering side that really excites us at Cervélo.

So what can motorsports and F1 teach the bike industry? Formula 1 was one of the first sports to actively adopt carbon composite technology in major structural applications in the early 1980's. Since then, it has become ubiquitous in both motorsports and cycling except at the lowest levels of the sport. The strength, stiffness, weight, and shape advantages of carbon composites as used in motorsport are the same benefits that drive their adoption in cycling.


The last decade has seen profound increases in the performance of frames and components made from composites. For example, when compared to the first R2.5 frame in 2003, the 2005 R3 set a new industry benchmark that was 25% stiffer and 14% lighter. A more recent follow-up to the R2.5, the R5California, has gone even farther by becoming the lightest production frame in the world at just 690 grams- some 150 grams lighter than the R3 while actually increasing in stiffness yet again.

Cervélo-engineered improvements in stiffness, weight and other areas have come not only from experience gained since the day the founders first met in a Composite Materials lab at McGill University, but also from the decision several years ago to invest in the same tools and capabilities utilized by aerospace and Formula 1.

Specialized said they went to McLaren to achieve their desired frame weight and stiffness because they "...didn't have the technology; we don't have the computer software or the analysis stuff to do it." [ref VeloNews 18 March 2011]. At Cervélo, we decided to acquire the same tools and equipment used in F1 and use them ourselves, rather than relying on partnering with outside companies. This shouldn't reflect negatively on some of the other bike companies, the fact of the matter is that Cervélo only makes high-end bikes, so we can make use of these tools year-round. It is therefore worthwhile have the tools in-house and make sure that the knowledge gained stays with us forever, not with an outside party.

That is why we started Project California several years ago and it is how we make the world's lightest frame. To make the R5ca possible, we use Laminate Tools by Anaglyph—the small UK based company that supplies the same software to Americas Cup contenders, wind-turbine manufactures and aerospace companies, as well as several F1 teams--including McLaren. Laminate Tools and FiberSim (by Vistagy, which supplies several other F1 teams) are the leading tools that allow you to perform FEA analysis at the individual ply level. For the R5ca there are over 500 individual plies to be optimized, a complex and difficult task. Having the technology within Cervélo, rather than subcontracting it, allows us to develop the worlds lightest and stiffest bikes, and allows us to continue to expand those benefits throughout the entire product line.

Cervélo is not the only bicycle company to make the investment in "F1 tools" to build the next generation of frames and components. Richard McAinsh of 3T was the head of Composites at Ferrari F1 for many years. He had the foresight to bring the tools—including FiberSIM—that were used at Ferrari to develop their Formula 1 cars. By following a path similar to ours, 3T was able to become the fastest growing high-end component brand of the last few years. Richard discusses the composite development process on their website.


If an F1 car sticks to the ceiling with aerodynamics, can the same technology be used to eliminate the aerodynamic drag on a bicycle? Bike development is starting to be done more in the windtunnel and less in the marketing department, but Formula 1 teams have historically run their wind tunnels 24/7 so there was little chance they would sacrifice the race car's performance for an outside project. However, as the F1 Governing body (the FIA) attempts to reign in F1 Team budgets exceeding 500 million dollars, there may be more opportunities for outside work. A few teams such as Mercedes (nee Reynard, then BAR-Honda, then Brawn F1) have older tunnels that they rent to outside companies, including the bike industry. The similarities and differences in aero development in motorsports and cycling are interesting and warrant another (later) discussion all on its own.

Other lessons

Beyond materials and aerodynamics, there is certainly something to learn from F1 on how to develop and implement rules and regulations for the betterment of the sport. The war between the F1 Teams and the rule makers is not unlike the current squabble that teams and manufacturers are having with the UCI. (With the exception that the 3-year equipment squabble in cycling is heading toward a conclusion, while a similar war between FOCA-FIA simmered for years in the early 80's, with teams disqualified and equipment banned at races on an almost weekly basis. It's a fascinating story and you can read more about it here: http://forix.autosport.com/8w/fiasco-introduction-timeline.html or an abridged version here. )

One look at the history of F1 and you'll probably start to understand how the early recognition of the value of TV rights made the F1 teams and owners (especially Bernie Ecclestone of Brabham) extremely wealthy. That same dynamic is playing out in cycling right now, but most players are still dancing around the issue until the battle lines can be more clearly drawn.

What does this mean for the Cervélo customer?

From Cervélo's perspective, the real upside for the cycling industry comes when we learn how to adopt the extraordinarily expensive F1 technologies and apply them across the product line. Through bringing those technologies in-house (as we did for the 690g R5ca) and then applying them down through the product line (as we have started to do with the R5 and R3), Cervélo is committed to that goal and to providing more people the benefits. Our philosophy is that investing in, and truly learning to utilize, advanced engineering tools used in F1 and elsewhere is the best method for making faster, lighter and more efficient bikes.

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