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The fast and the ferrous

01 December 2017

The glamorous and rarefied world of Formula 1 racing can seem a long way away from the everyday challenges faced by design engineers in other industries. In fact, says Jeroen Wensing, Racing Innovation Manager, Automotive & Aerospace at SKF, transfer between high performance motorsport and other sectors is a real, ongoing and two-way process.

Bearings with ceramic balls and rollers

Motorsport was once a principal proving ground for automotive technologies. If car makers could demonstrate that their products had the speed, power and reliability to prevail on the track, customers would have the confidence to use their products on the road.

Today, the link between the upper echelons of car racing and everyday life is less clear. Despite the efforts of the industry to introduce more “relevant” technologies, such as hybrid powertrains, today’s fastest race cars don’t look or work much like anything you see elsewhere. Beneath the surface, however, there are numerous examples where technologies developed for Formula 1 are finding suitable applications in other sectors.

At SKF, the focus is on improving the performance of rotating equipment. Its been a major supplier to all levels of motorsport for many decades. Its technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari stretches back to 1947, for example. Today, you can find SKF components in many areas of an F1 car. It provides ball, roller and plain bearings for wheel hubs, gearbox, clutch, engine, turbo, MGU and suspension components, to name but a few.

These components are not off-the-shelf items, but are specifically engineered to meet the specifications of the team in question. Those specifications often include the ability to withstand extreme loads, speeds and operating temperatures, while keeping size and weight to an absolute minimum. Meeting the exacting demands of Formula 1 customers has encouraged SKF to incorporate a wide range of specialist materials in the components supplied, and those innovations are now appearing in more applications outside motorsport.

Take ceramic bearings for example. Ball and roller bearings with silicon nitride rolling elements are used almost universally in high end motorsport, thanks to their lightweight (the ceramic material is only 40 percent the density of steel), low friction properties and resistance to high temperatures and vibration. The requirements of motorsport customers drove significant research into the design and manufacture of ceramic bearing components. And learning more about the advantages of ceramic technologies encouraged SKF to invest in larger scale production facilities. For example, today, SKF sites at Steyr, Austria and Colebrook, US both have dedicated manufacturing channels for ceramic components.

Hybrid ceramic bearings, which combine silicon nitride rolling elements with conventional steel bearing rings, are now widely used in a range of sectors, including transport applications, industrial machinery and the power industry. Some of those customers value the same attributes of ceramics that make them so popular in F1, but others specify them for entirely different reasons. Silicon nitride is an electrical insulator, for example, which prevents bearing damage caused by stray currents in electric motors and generators. Ceramics also run cooler, which prolongs the life of the lubricant inside the bearing, and performs well with limited lubrication. That helps to extend maintenance intervals where uptime is critical and servicing is difficult. For this reason, wind turbines are become an increasingly important application.

The cages that hold the rolling elements in place within a motorsport bearing are not usually made of steel, but from a high-performance composite material. The most widely used is glass-reinforced polyetheretherketone (PEEK). This material offers a host of desirable properties, including high temperature resistance, lightweight, low friction and excellent emergency running properties. The manufacturing process used to create polymer components also allows exception control over both part geometry and material composition, giving engineers more freedom to adopt innovative, performance-enhancing solutions. Those advantages haven’t gone unnoticed by colleagues working in other sectors. PEEK cages are now used in a wide range of other demanding applications, while polymer cage designs using less costly materials are becoming an increasingly mainstream option.

Materials innovation in motorsport isn’t just about ceramics or advanced polymers. The demands of racing have also encouraged SKF to apply its expertise in metallurgy. F1 engine and gearbox applications require materials capable of resisting extremely high temperatures, and the quest for performance improvement in this area led to the development of VC4444, a specially heat treated and super-tough stainless steel. That material is now used in other extremely demanding applications, not just in hot conditions but also where bearings may have to operate in extremely low temperatures, such as the cryogenic pumps used in the processing of industrial gases.

Significantly, the transfer of technologies between motorsport and other industrial sectors is a two-way process. Many innovations that end up on the track start life as products or ideas elsewhere in SKF’s portfolio. When engineers at Scuderia Ferrari were looking for a high speed data acquisition system for their engine test cells, for example, SKF were able to modify the SKF Multilog On-line System IMx for industrial condition monitoring applications to handle the large number of channels and exceptionally fast transfer rates the Formula 1 team required.

And there’s one final capability that working in the motorsport sector has helped SKF to develop. Formula 1 technology evolves at a frenetic pace, with major product redesigns every year and numerous incremental changes through the season. To give motorsport customers the service they need, SKF developed special product development and production processes to support the sport. The skills and tools built, are giving SKF the agility and responsiveness to meet the increasingly time-critical demands of customers in numerous other industries around the world. 

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