McLaren Applied Technologies sets out the ultimate vision for grand prix racing three decades from now. The year is 2050, the Formula 1 World Championship is celebrating its centenary, and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, electrification and mixed reality will have become commonplace in society.
Our pursuit of the possible started with an extensive research process into the needs and wants of the sport’s most important stakeholders – the fans – and called upon our experts in powertrain, aerodynamics, design, materials technology, data science and human performance to create a blueprint for grand prix racing.
Fast, predatory and instinctive
As with most research projects, we needed a model to work with. The car is not an end unto itself – but it does inform everything around it.
Introducing our vision of the future, codenamed MCLExtreme (or MCLE for short)...
So, does it fly?
Staying true to the sport’s mission to be road relevant, we don't expect race cars to fly by 2050. Flying road cars equals more aerial congestion, more noise pollution and probably more accidents. If you think drone sightings at airports cause widescale disruption, well... you know the rest. With the emergence of high-speed underground transportation portals, such as Virgin Hyperloop One, building underground networks that shift large volumes of traffic in less time is more probable.
This is in keeping with the desires of the fans we spoke to, who believe flying race cars are the antithesis of grand prix racing.
Excitement is of greater importance to fans than engineering complexity. Thus, we expect the grand prix car of the future to still have four open wheels, drive to the rear and a human in the cockpit.
But that’s where the similarities end.
A battle of shapeshifting machines
With the exception of the drag reduction system (DRS), today’s technical regulations ban active aerodynamics – but we expect this to change. The demand for greater efficiency will see the car designed to have the capability to alter its shape to maximise its velocity.
Although this has not been on the Formula 1 agenda for several decades, current thinking suggests it will have to make a comeback in the future if the sport is to retain high-performance and the extreme speeds that fans crave, while using less energy.
"Give teams the opportunity to really push the boundaries of active aero as part of their natural car development, and suddenly you have the adoption of a technology that has the possibility to dynamically alter the outcome of a race in an authentic way as drivers battle it out," says Rodi Basso, Motorsport Director at McLaren Applied Technologies.
Taking inspiration from nature, the MCLE features sidepods that expand and contract like the gills of a great white shark. They turn it into a 500 km/h bullet on the straights, but expand as the car enters braking zones and corners to provide stability and control.
There’s also less aerodynamic paraphernalia attached to the upper bodywork of our 2050 concept car, with more downforce generated by an intricately sculpted floor and diffuser, which pulls the car in tight to the ground.
Unlocking the power of artificial intelligence
The race to build powerful AI will intensify. Breakthroughs in the understanding of the human brain could lead to the development of truly intelligent machines. Supercomputers may evolve from completing computational tasks, to successfully performing tasks like a human. Where once computers had greater raw processing power than the human brain, but lacked its emotional intelligence and overall complexity, engineers could teach computers how to think and behave like humans through neurological links.
So, what might this mean for grand prix racing?
Racing could become an incubator for the development of AI, just as it has for simulation, big data and material science. The driver of the future will receive less information from the pitwall, and rely instead on an AI co-pilot. Engineering an evermore powerful and intuitive AI will be a significant performance differentiator in grand prix racing by 2050.
Drivers may be connected to AI via a symbiotic link in the helmet and sensors within the race suit. The AI learns and predicts the driver's preferences and state-of-mind. It provides real-time race strategy and key information via a holographic head-up display – but more than that – it understands the driver’s mood and emotional state, tailoring advice based on the physiological and psychological feedback it receives.
"In the future we could get to the point where human ingenuity is replaced with an AI algorithm," explains Karl Surmacz, Head of Modelling and Decision Science at McLaren Applied Technologies. "Machine learning would see human preferences and decisions, as well as our domain expertise and instinct, captured. Take enough examples of our creative processes and outcomes, and this could be codified into an algorithm which would enable AI to make creative decisions consistent with those of a human counterpart."
Many forecasts of the rise of truly intelligent machines paint a dystopian picture for civilisation – think I, Robot – but we believe humans and AI will co-exist and improve our existence, in the right hands of course...
The big electric elephant
Speaking to our Formula 1 fan research groups, they understood the reality that governments around the world are driving for widespread adoption of zero-emission vehicles. In the UK for example, there are plans to ensure all new cars will be 'effectively zero-emission' by 2040.
Therefore, we believe it's fair to say that by 2050 grand prix racing will be all-electric.
Electric vehicles are currently winning the long-raging battle against hydrogen-powered cars, and we envisage a car with a small electric motor married to a flexible battery, with the potential to be moulded into the aerodynamic form of the bodywork. Charging technology may even become a DRS-replacement: within a defined window, the car may be able to steal energy from the one ahead, keeping fans on the edge of their seats.
In the future, complexity will lie in storing the energy, as opposed to turning the energy into motion which is currently the case. This is because when you go electric everything flips around. The motor becomes far more simple and the energy storage is where the complexity resides. Based on our research which comes on the back of McLaren Applied Technologies supplying the powertrain to the entire Formula E grid in the series’ inaugural season and supplying the battery for its Gen2 car in Season 5, we predict a proliferation of energy storage mechanisms as many development paths are explored.
We expect cumbersome plug-in power to be a short-term solution, with the cars of the future charging wirelessly, as we see with MCLE absorbing power from the ground via inductive resonant coupling. Motorsport is the perfect proving ground to prepare this technology for road use.
"Whether it will be possible in 2050 to fully charge the battery of a grand prix car from flat in less time than it takes a current Formula 1 car to complete a flying lap around the streets of Monaco is difficult to say at this stage," posits Stephen Lambert, Head of Automotive Electrification at McLaren Applied Technologies. "But charging about 10 to 50% of the battery in around 10 to 30 seconds is conceivable.
"Charging wirelessly sees electromagnetic induction used to transfer energy through an air gap from one magnetic coil buried under the track to a second magnetic coil fitted to the car," Lambert explains.
"When the car is sufficiently positioned for the coils to be aligned, it will induce a current in the car’s coil which feeds into the battery."
Bodywork, wheels, cockpit
Building upon the access and proximity that fans crave from the teams in present day Formula 1, we're revealing more driver action and emotion through the skin of the MCLE. The cockpit will be transparent, showing the driver gripping the wheel and their frenetic footwork. The driver's emotions will be dynamically projected onto the bodywork and tyres of the car. Tyres may be also made of a self-repairing composite with built-in inductive charging coils.
Circuits will never be the same
A consistent demand from fans is for a return to longer, wider race tracks… with banking. The higher speeds of 2050 will allow that banking to be steeper and far more aggressive than anything seen before – think Monza or Fuji, only taller and more sinuous – but the enhanced aerodynamics of MCLE will also allow much tighter radii, allowing circuits to occupy a smaller footprint.
This presents an opportunity. Street races are growing in popularity, bringing grand prix racing into convenient range of the biggest urban populations – but the cars struggle to show their full potential wherever track designers are forced to build low-speed 90° corners to follow the city street plan. Adding banking to a street circuit can solve that problem – while also ratcheting up the drama as cars hammer around a 90° bend at 400 km/h.
The corollary is that a faster lap makes space for a longer lap. "Smart cities will give us the chance to put the track action on people’s doorsteps," says Basso. "We’re going to see more racing take place where the fans are, as part of a continued effort to bring the show to them – and because the cars will travel at even more ferocious pace than is currently the case, it raises the possibility for race tracks to span far greater distances.
"Why confine the grand prix cars of tomorrow to the tracks of today? The Italian Grand Prix of 2050 would still run through the heart of one of the largest historical parks in Europe, but go on to scythe its way through the streets of Milan city centre, before making its way back to Monza’s leafy park."
Charging on the go
Pit-stops are a thrilling part of Formula 1 – but with self-repairing tyres and no petrochemical fuel to replenish, there's a risk of the pitlane becoming redundant. That’s where the E-pitlane feeds the drama. It provides the inductive charging track, on which the cars use inductive resonant coupling to give them an energy top up – and drivers must gamble on strategy. The slower they drive through the pitlane, the better the connectivity and recharge rate. Is one slow tour better than two fast passes? How precisely can they judge their speed to receive just enough charge to make the flag?
Reinventing the grandstand experience
Fans want to be immersed in the action. That’s why we imagine sections of track will be glass-walled, or even glass-roofed, allowing spectators to stand atop the track, feeling the toughened barrier shudder beneath them as fierce racing machines flash past, flat-out and mere metres away.
Black out zones
Since the days of gentlemen drivers and ride-along mechanics, sporting rules have demanded the driver drive ‘alone and unaided’. In 2050, sometimes ‘alone and unaided’ will mean precisely that.
There will be periods in the race where the driver loses AI support and comms with the team. It’s a feature, not a glitch, when the race can change in an instant and spectators get to see how good their favourites are when they’re stripped of everything but their own innate talent and ingenuity.
Gladiators of the future
Grand prix racing will remain a challenge of skill and dedication – a gladiatorial contest that produces heroes – but the science of human performance will increasingly come to the fore.
Future grand prix racing will be faster. Higher speeds on the straights of course, but of greater significance, increased g-loading under braking and when cornering. This will require drivers to be even fitter than they are now and, as has been the case throughout the sport’s history, would provoke a transformation in build.
"They would need to be trained differently," muses Michael Collier, Head of Human Performance at McLaren Applied Technologies. "Currently there is a lot of focus on speed, agility, and endurance, but not on out-and-out strength. In 2050, a driver’s training programme would be flipped on its head so that they end up getting to know the bench press and dumbbells even better. We would see a new breed of racing driver physique."
The physique of drivers has always changed with the times, but it’s clothes that maketh the man or woman. The race overalls of the future will go from the current fireproof suit to a g-suit construction similar to that worn by aerobatic or fighter pilots, to prevent blood rushing to the extremities. Suit materials will include ortho-fabric, aluminized mylar, neoprene-coated nylon, dacron, urethane-coated nylon, tricot, nylon/spandex, stainless steel, and high strength composite materials.
"When you start talking about speeds of 500 km/h, it means drivers will have to withstand considerably more than the maximum g-force they experience now – which is in the region of 5 g," continues Collier. "This would put them in the same bracket as fighter pilots.
"To combat this, the race suit of 2050 will adopt similar technology to that found in g-suits. It will inflate and compress a driver’s lower limbs to prevent blood from pooling in their feet and legs, ensuring the heart still has enough of the red stuff to pump around the body – especially to the brain to maintain consciousness."
The on-board AI will interface via the helmet. It will require training, and this will depend on both the intelligence and the cognitive skills of the driver – because the AI won’t be able to learn from an erratic performer. Clarity of thought has always been a factor in grand prix racing; more so in the future.
Grand prix racing has a massive global audience and we anticipate this growing across multiple platforms. Our core research has shown an overriding desire from the fans for new technology that allows spectators and viewers to get closer to the action, with a level of interactivity that sounds like science-fiction – but in reality – relies on bio-feedback sensor technology which is on the cusp of release within the automotive market.
Fans have expressed a desire to have greater communication with the driver – going both ways. Sentiment projection is a method of achieving this, without interfering in the historic values of the sport by being too intrusive or distracting.
"We must provide a platform which rewards driver skill, but also showcases their personality and their emotions: a honed athlete hidden behind a corporate fascia just won’t cut it in 2050. We want to see gladiators," argues Basso.
The translucent bodywork on the car will be keyed to the driver’s bio-feedback. When the AI senses the driver is frustrated or angry, the car will glow red. Calmness, joy and other emotions will likewise be displayed with different hues and at various levels of intensity.
"Emotion is the biggest variable that affects driver performance," adds Collier. "In the grand scheme of things, if a driver doesn’t do any training for a week it’s not going to impact their health and fitness significantly – but from one day to the next, their emotions can change markedly and that can have a massive influence on their performance."
Sentiment projection can, however, work both ways if fans in the grandstands are monitored by AI embedded in their HTC digital assistants as well. The hopes and fears of spectators supporting a particular driver will be reflected by the inside of the cockpit glowing a corresponding colour. Anxious that your favourite driver is being caught? Overjoyed that they’ve made a brave overtaking move? They’ll be able to feel it with you.
The esports integration
Our vision of the future imagines a stronger link between the real and the virtual, with esports drivers becoming integral to the performance of a team. The McLaren Shadow Project roster will be fully integrated into the race team. They will work as pathfinders for the race drivers, competing at the circuits ahead of the grand prix, acting as reconnaissance scouts and relaying information back to the race drivers, while feeding their virtual race data into the team’s AI to optimise strategy.
The viewing environment at home will evolve as the experience becomes more immersive. More camera angles and enhanced graphical processing will offer greater choice to the fans, using technology to place the viewer on any corner or directly into the cockpit for a driver’s eye view.
The inside line on our vision for 2050
By bringing this concept to life via our unique approach to insight-led design, the McLaren Applied Technologies Design Group has exemplified our single-minded drive for technological excellence and commitment to a journey of relentless improvement that challenges convention.
It has listened to fans, sought the knowledge of the experts throughout McLaren Applied Technologies and delved into the market forces and trends of today, as well as those likely to be pertinent in the future. Through collaboration with the next generation of mobility designers, and material futures students, it has helped to devise a credible blueprint for one of the most popular sports in the world.
While it is not possible to foresee every development that will shape future innovation between now and 2050, our vision of future grand prix racing harnesses emerging technologies with fan passion at the core of our thinking. The ultimate fusion of human and technology.