Only days before Lewis Hamilton won the F1 Championship race on the Silverstone Circuit in a Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W06 Hybrid race car, averaging more than 200 miles per hour, manufacturing and engineering businesses gathered at the racetrack to discuss what motorsport can offer them for the future.

Motorsport races help prove out new technologies, says Jon Beasley, director for technology and projects at the Advanced Propulsion Centre. For example, Audi’s R18 hybrid electric car zoomed to a first-place finish at Le Mans in 2012, partly thanks to Williams’ Kinetic Energy Recovery System. That technology, today GKN Hybrid Power, is now being installed in 250 Alexander Dennis-built buses and 500 buses run by the Go-Ahead group in 2015-2016, initially in Oxford and London. The system is claimed to be relatively easily retrofittable, lasts the life of the vehicle, provides fuel savings of 25-30% and pays for itself in four to six years, depending on fuel cost.

While an urban bus is a very long way from the buzz and bustle of motorsport, Beasley cautions that this application is actually very interesting: not only does it reduce emissions in congested urban environments where air quality is already poor, but also it is a niche area requiring relatively low volumes, so it scales up production from tens to hundreds, further developing the manufacturing process as it does so.

Some 4,000 companies, averaging about 25 employees, make parts for motorsport (as more than half of their business), according to Chris Aylett, CEO of the Motorsport Industry Association. They contribute to a £10 billion industry, 80% of which by value is exported; for example, the race weekend at Le Mans attracts £50 million in exports, Aylett states.

That motorsport supply chain leads in two directions, he says. First are the subcontractors and OEMs that make products for the race cars – the “lifeblood” of the industry, Aylett states. But a second direction has recently emerged, that of supplying the traditional auto sector. And the big message is one of help in the area of prototyping.

Motorsport is different to many other industries where refining and testing prototype designs to prepare them for widespread use is expensive and risky, without any guarantee of success. Referring to the NASA technology readiness levels of product development, (TRL 1 to 9) in which 1 corresponds to basic research and 9 is series production, Aylett says this means that most companies have to heavily support new products through the awkward development stages corresponding to TRLs 4 to 7. Not so motorsport. In an effort to gain an edge on the competition, motorsport teams develop and refine cutting-edge technologies in tiny volumes, and then experiment with them on the racetrack. After the season ends, they start the whole process again. The expertise gained in using this development process can be transferred to other industries, Aylett argues, adding: “We race prototypes; that’s our end-use product.

“There is so much technological change in automotive, aerospace and marine industries that they need prototype builders. What the motorsport business can offer is not products but capability, and in the so-called TRL valley of death,” he says. Indeed, motorsport companies are now applying that development and prototyping capability to the problems of companies outside motorsport: for the likes of Nissan, Honda, GM and defence supplier General Dynamics.

Motorsport companies are, for example, global leaders in the use of additive manufacturing – and not just for making prototypes but for short runs of actual production parts, in plastic and metal, according to Phill Dickens, professor of manufacturing technology at the University of Nottingham’s Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Research Group. Adds Aylett: “We’ve got air boxes and carbon brake covers; there’s a whole raft of parts.”

Any support that the home-grown motorsport industry can offer UK engineering businesses, particularly the automotive sector, will no doubt be gratefully received. Although the UK automotive industry remains big business, it is unclear how much of this market filters down to the UK supply chain. An April 2015 Automotive Council report estimated that UK automotive export earnings in 2014 approached £35 billion (UK carmakers export 78% by volume of production). Still, the market available to many UK suppliers is less than half of this figure: UK supply chain business was £15.9 billion in 2013, according to the Council.

So only about a third of the parts that go into UK-made cars are actually made in the UK, states Joe Greenwell, CEO of the Automotive Investment Organisation.

Greenwell expects that this proportion is growing: “Clearly there is an appetite amongst OEMs to source locally. JLR, with the XE [sports saloon], is aiming for 55% local content. The value of those components is very high; you’re talking about a premium vehicle; the same with Bentley, the same with Rolls-Royce...[JLR] is increasing its local content, but so are Nissan and Honda and BMW and GKN Powertrain.”

At the same time, Greenwell cautions that revitalising the UK automotive industry cannot happen overnight. “This is a long-term agenda. It took us about 30 years to go from a position of 80%-plus local supply to 30%. We’re not going to get back up to 80% in a few years.

“In the meantime what we can do is advertise our wares, in terms of our OEM production growth. And the automotive business is a bit subdued in Europe at the moment, so there’s genuine interest in overseas suppliers not currently represented in the UK about talking to JLR, Ford and Bentley. They would say, ‘Have you thought about producing locally, because OEMs are interested in sourcing those commodities locally, for supply chain flexibility.’ But it has to be competitive. At the end of the day, it comes down to a landing cost per component that has to be competitive.”

The first season of an exciting spin-off of Formula 1 with electric cars, the FIA Formula E Championship, wound up after 11 races around the world, finishing in London’s Battersea Park in June. The drivers’ championship prize went to Nelson Picquet of Nextev TCR, and the winning team was e.dams-Renault (right). UK technology features here. All teams race a Spark-Renault SRT_01E car fitted with McLaren Electronics powertrain, 200 kW Williams Advanced Engineering battery linked to Hewland five-gear paddle-shift transmission. Drivers and teams will now be stepping up their preparations in order to be ready for the start of the second season, which kicks off in Beijing this autumn.

The largest cluster of UK motorsport suppliers is centred around the Silverstone Race Course (near Towcester, Warwickshire); this is known as ‘motorsport valley’, in which two new regional business parks are being marketed to businesses wanting access to the specialist supply chain and skills pool of the cluster. Silverstone Park includes offices and industrial units and is being developed by MEPC. It counts among its tenants the 2007 startup Flybrid, which developed a flywheel kinetic energy recovery system for cars, buses and trucks out of F1 technology. Another tenant is F1 supplier EDM Precision Technologies: “We’re working for a variety of high performance industries and being at Silverstone only reinforces that,” says managing director Paul Waldron.

Fifty miles north is MIRA Technology Park near Nuneaton and Hinckley, based at an existing automotive and military testing ground. Road network construction began in June. So far, site tenants include Aston Martin and auto suppliers Haldex, Continental, GKN and Goodyear.

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of Machinery magazine.