Caterham’s New F1 Engine Partner

General Electric is one of the world's mightiest industrial conglomerates, and thanks to its sponsorship of the Caterham team, a Formula One minnow can now call on this awesome technical powerbase. The relationship won't be entirely one way, however…

In Formula One circles there's a certain skepticism about the term 'technical partnership'. Deals between partner and team where each truly benefits from the other's technical skill-set are rare, yet the notion of technology transfer between a race team and a larger manufacturing group is seductive for both parties.

Motor sport is well used to explaining how its hightech achievements seep into the automotive mainstream (a classic recent example is VW-Audi's road car adoption of FSI technology after trailing it in racing). But it tends to struggle to explain the reverse flow – how automotive mainstream technology helps to advance the science of F1. And if race cars and road cars can't have a mutually beneficial technical partnership, then who can?

Well, how about a fledgling F1 team with high ambitions and a technology giant with 300,000 employees and revenues somewhere north of $150bn?

Caterham F1, née Team Lotus, announced its tie-up with GE in the summer of 2011 as F1 went to Montreal – relatively just a stone's throw from GE's headquarters in New England. The deal is multi-layered, encompassing sponsorship and a potential media base through GE's ownership of broadcaster NBC among other broadcasting assets. What really caught the eye, though, was the announcement that the F1 team would enjoy access to GE's leading-edge technological, R&D and manufacturing resources.

The hawk-eyed were quick to note that a month earlier Caterham team principal and airline entrepreneur Tony Fernandes signed a deal worth $600 million for GE to supply his Air Asia X airline with engines (a deal later dwarfed by an engine and maintenance agreement for Air Asia's shorthaul fleet). Fernandes insists that the two events are not linked – although he does so with a knowing smile. Whatever the truth, the potential for the F1 team to advance its ambitions is immense.

"They're a fantastic company to work with," says Caterham's chief technical officer, Mike Gascoyne. "Speaking as an engineer, their technology and innovation centers are very inspiring places to be and they're very strong in areas that are highly relevant to us, like high-temperature composites and advanced aerodynamics – and they're pushing really hard to get involved. It's often the case that these partnerships don't work because it's just a sponsorship in which people are told to do things they don't want to do. This isn't one of those. There's lots of exciting stuff to get stuck into."

If that sounds a little too on-message to be true, consider that Gascoyne is a notoriously prickly character, not given to tugging his forelock. (As the tech chief of Toyota's F1 operation, he used to keep a remote-control tank beneath his desk, to ward off "unwelcome suits".)

Consider the facts: GE's assets are valued at three-quarters of a trillion US dollars across a sprawling industrial portfolio that covers most high-tech business sectors, but especially aviation, energy, medical equipment and power systems. Thirty-six thousand people work in its research and development operation, based in four – soon to be five – global research centers that don't work for any single industrial division, but instead organize their laboratories according to technology areas. The centre closest to Caterham's UK base is on the campus of Munich's technical university: GE's Global Research Centre Europe. It houses labs studying power electronics, renewable energy, aerodynamics and thermodynamics, advanced composite materials, turbine technology and imaging systems. When asked which lab will dovetail with Caterham's F1 needs, Dr Carlos Hartel, the centre's managing director, paused for a moment to consider the question before answering with a shrug: "Quite possibly all of them."

"Initially," he says, "I can see three areas where we will work together: aerodynamics, composites and power systems. Aerodynamics is an obvious one because it's so very important to both of us – though we look at it in very different ways. For us aerodynamics often involves looking at a piece of rotating machinery hanging on a wing in the upper atmosphere. It needs to perform in a very predictable fashion because it isn't an area where we can tolerate surprises. We have to understand the physics of those flows and so our modeling capability in this area is very strong."

In terms of fluid dynamics simulation, jet engine building is a very demanding industry – but they also have a very limited customer base. So much so, that there isn't a great deal of value for commercial software houses in developing packages that meet their needs. Consequently GE and their competitors create their own programs, developing simulations that are considerably more accurate than those used by, for example, the chemicals industry – or a Formula One team.

Another jet turbine staple is the development of exotic materials. F1 has an uneasy relationship with exotics, drawn to the promise of super strength and low weight but put off by the enormous price tags of, for example, beryllium, iridium and rhenium. Where aerospace and Formula One do cross over, however, is in the field of carbon composites.

"The big thing with composites, what drives us, is manufacturing them to a high level of accuracy and repeatability," says Hartel, "but in an operation that is cost-effective – all of which speaks to having an automated process. On top of that are the diagnostics: how can you control the process while the machine is working the component? How do you ensure it hasn't been damaged and that there is no hidden, inner delamination? F1 may not require the automation for mass production, but the accuracy and our research into non-destructive testing solutions may prove useful."

With new regulations demanding a fresh approach to F1 engines for 2014, GE's work on alternative energy and power management is a resource Caterham may well exploit as it develops its own energy recovery technology. But its search possibly won't best be served by a rummage through GE's transportation research portfolio. Better, Hartel says, to look at GE's work on electrical mini-grids.

"I think there's a lot of conceptual similarity between KERS and what we're looking at with minigrids," he says. "High-voltage power lines are becoming unpopular – it's difficult to get them built, so in the future more communities are likely to attempt energy independence, maybe with bio-gas plants, photovoltaics on the roof, wind turbines and basically their own little grid. It isn't easy to get the power quality the strong backbone of a national grid gives you, so you need to be smart in managing loads, developing storage solutions such as supercapacitors, which, while they can't be charged a lot, can play a role in stabilizing grids. Interestingly they're also now starting to be used as very high-performance electric components in fast race cars [Toyota will race with supercaps at Le Mans this year] so, yes, I think there is a great deal of crossover."

Gascoyne sums it up: "Having been to several of their labs now and seen the breadth of their research capability, for me it's like being a kid in a candy store."

Hartel says he could go on for hours on the subject of how GE's research base might make an F1 car go faster, but what's in it for him? There has been talk of GE benefiting from the exposure their advanced technologies will get from being showcased to F1's global audience – but last year Interbrand ranked GE the fifth best global brand name, so such exposure is hardly crucial. What Hartel wants from Caterham is what F1 does best: speed.

"F1 teams are really good at being fast and totally focused on a specific deliverable," he says. "And they get instant feedback because when they do something successfully, it's confirmed the next Sunday. They have to be rigorous in what they do and what they don't do and have to come to their desired end state in the fastest possible time, at a certain level of quality. So they have a certain appetite for risk taking – which is very different from the way a classic industrial business like ours works.

"But in the modern marketplace it's something we need to be better at. We can develop a competitive advantage in moving fast: potentially breaking things, but learning from that and re-implementing with a goal of getting a product ready for market well ahead of the competition. It's a different world from what we are used to – but one we need to learn from."

Gascoyne agrees although, he points out, it's a two-way street: "On the technical front they're perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, but big companies simply don't work to our timescales. On the other hand F1 teams are incredibly bad at long-term research because we're all surviving on a two-week cycle."

Of particular interest, he adds, is GE's strength in long-term 'fundamental' research that F1 teams find difficult. He cites as examples GE's involvement in – and expenditure on – high-temperature composites, energy recovery, batteries and electric motors.

"They're all very useful to motor sport," he adds, "but they're areas we simply wouldn't invest a lot of time researching because there's no short-term gain."

The key to making the partnership work, says Gascoyne, is in not trying to integrate aspects of GE's research into the day-to-day operation of the F1 team. Instead, he wants to give them homework: "These sorts of collaborations fall down if you ask your partner to design something to fit into the F1 time frame. Instead you give them projects that suit their own time frame."

One such is to look at energy recovery and storage systems for 2014 – a task Gascoyne reckons is ideal for GE to explore. Another is the use of high-temperature materials along with, perhaps, shorter-lead-time projects.

Working in their usual comfort zone isn't necessarily what GE wants to take from the partnership, but, Gascoyne says, there are many more opportunities to make intuitive leaps and have a different culture of risk when the end goal is to make a one-off race car, rather than a jet engine or a mass-produced home appliance.

"And we'll also be keen to swap personnel – maybe give our people the chance to work in a more research-oriented environment, but also bring their people into the time-pressure surroundings of F1 which will require skills that perhaps they're not accustomed to using."

The super-tech swap shop, then, looks like this: Caterham will profit from hard science while GE receive the more nebulous advantages of exposure to new and glamorous philosophies. This last marks a considerable culture shift for the mighty GE: since opening its first research centre in 1900 it has only conducted directed research. So, despite having won two Nobel Prizes, GE labs have never been allowed to indulge in a blue skies approach – everything has focused on commercial viability. Which prompts the thought: if GE is putting its research capacity at the disposal of an F1 team, it must see something in F1 from which it could profit.

"Interesting, isn't it?" says Hartel. "For them, embroiled in the heat of battle it must be hard to look up and see what's on the horizon. Conversely we're very good at seeing over the horizon. Long-term research and technology intelligence is what we're really good at. What they bring is urgency, speed of execution and a radical focus on the essentials. That could be an interesting mix. It might even be a winning one."

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