FEATURE | Time to Race: Swiss companies emulate UK's Motorsport Valley

Ben Sampson

Swiss engineering firms have sprung up around the Sauber F1 team (Credit: Mark Sutton)
Swiss engineering firms have sprung up around the Sauber F1 team (Credit: Mark Sutton)

On 10 June 2018, a piece of motorsport history was made when the Swiss city of Zurich hosted the Formula E championship.

The Swiss government banned motor racing around circuits in 1955, after the sport’s worst accident at Le Mans, in France, when 83 spectators were killed, but the ban was lifted in 2015 for fully electric vehicles. The Formula E Championship was the first race to be held in Switzerland for more than 60 years, demonstrating a shift in perception of motorsport in the country. 

Although no doubt justifiable at the time, the ban now seems an odd legislative quirk in a country that has remained involved in motorsport and is well known for the precision engineering it often requires. Geneva is home to the administrative headquarters of motorsport’s governing body and the F1 team Sauber, one of only a few teams based outside of the UK.

Motorsport valleys

The fact that most F1 teams are based in the UK has not escaped international attention. The motorsport sector is a resounding success for British engineering. The cluster of 4,300 companies based around the Midlands and Oxfordshire, known as Motorsport Valley, employs 45,000 people, including 25,000 engineers. It had estimated sales of around £10 billion in 2017, some 87% of which was exports. 

Other countries, including Switzerland, are keen to partner with and emulate Motorsport Valley. Alexandre Fasel, Swiss ambassador to the UK, says: “The vector of motorsport can be used to develop business opportunities. It happens in the Motorsport Valley in the UK, and it happens in Switzerland, except it does not see itself as a ‘valley’ yet. 

“We want to team up with UK companies, to penetrate markets and commercialise IP in areas such as lightweight structures, electrification, autonomous and connected vehicles, and the use of data.”

Aerodynamics expertise

If Switzerland’s motorsport companies can be considered a cluster, then Sauber’s facility in Hinwil is its centre. The F1 team, which this season is running a car under the Alfa Romeo brand, employs around 400 people and has a supply chain that sources as much as possible from the local region. 

Hidden in countryside and surrounded by mountains, the Sauber site is split into two L-shaped buildings. One is dedicated to aerodynamics development and the other is for building and maintaining the cars. In common with other F1 teams, Sauber’s engineers have three main tools at their disposal for testing and development: CFD simulation, rapid prototyping and wind tunnel testing. The aerodynamics building’s centrepiece is a CHF40 million wind tunnel, which was commissioned in 2006.

Aerodynamics remains one of the primary design concerns for F1 engineers, but the power and flexibility of CFD simulations means its use has become prevalent throughout the car. Axel Kruse, chief operating officer of the Sauber Group, says, “Aero isn’t just for the outside of a car, it is also a consideration for the inside, looking at how the air gets into and out of the car. We even carry out CFD simulations to assess how the fuel moves inside the tank – how that affects driving, as well as to work out how we can keep air away from the fuel in the tank.”

Kruse believes that each of the three aerodynamic tools have different pros and cons. CFD and wind tunnels are used mostly during the winter, but one of the significant restrictions of wind tunnel testing is that the air hits the front and wheel at the same time and sticks to the car in the same way, unlike when a car changes direction on a track. Algorithms and simulations based on real-world track data are used to compensate.

“The other main accuracy issue with the wind tunnel is tyre deformation,” says Kruse. “Tyres change shape during use and have different pressures under different weather conditions. We work closely with the tyre manufacturers to try and account for this.” 

Data from the wind tunnel is validated against real-world track data whenever possible. Turbulence that might be experienced on the track is also simulated in CFD using real track data. Although the Sauber tunnel can accommodate a full-sized car, the team uses 60% models for testing because of the possible turbulence that could be created by interactions between the walls and the car. The tunnel is in constant use, as much as is possible within FIA rules to develop Sauber’s own car and the rest of the time by third parties.

Additive manufacturing

While this development work is happening, technicians and engineers within the second building on the site build and maintain the team’s cars. At the heart of this building is the ‘atrium’, which consists of several bays and a practice pit lane area. The atrium is surrounded by several workshops and assembly areas, including a hand working and welding room, milling and CNC machining rooms, autoclaves, and quality and inspection areas. These areas “feed” components and assemblies to the atrium, says Kruse.

“Even within F1, where there are machines for almost everything, you still find that the best people will do some tasks better than any machine could,” he says. “With an F1 car there is no redundancy. If it fails, it stops. So, we have to have the best people working on the car.”

Sauber’s facility would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited a major motor racing team, with the exception of its additive manufacturing (AM) areas. 3D printing’s impact on F1 cars within the past decade is apparent within several of the workshops, where dusty-looking black parts made by selective laser sintering (SLS) and stereolithography (SLA) machines lie in neat rows on benches and worktops. In one workshop a car is stripped back and is almost entirely black, exposing the large number of 3D-printed, carbon-fibre components in the Sauber Alfa Romeo car.

AM is being increasingly used by the motorsport industry because of the low-volume, high-value and highly customised nature of the cars and the parts they use. Kruse says: “The use of AM is getting more important. There is a huge demand for SLS and SLA parts to fuel the wind tunnel and increasingly for parts to be used on the car.

“We started printing metal parts last year for use in the tunnel and we are using them now wherever possible to replace car parts that were previously produced by milling.”

Professor Willem Toet, former head of aerodynamics at Sauber, says, “The central strut of the roll hoop on this year’s car has to take a 12-tonne load. It’s now being printed in aircraft-quality aluminium and it is stronger than the carbon. It’s amazing what you can do with metal printing.”

The use of AM has also been instrumental in reducing the weight of cars, which have to weigh a minimum of 733kg to meet FIA rules. Sauber engineers have been so successful at lightweighting that the car is underweight. “We lightweight even when we are already underweight so we can play with the ballast to have the best weight and centre of gravity,” says Toet.

University support

The UK motorsport sector owes a certain amount of its success to the research of graduate engineers supplied by academic institutions. The research is directly applied or developed by spin-out companies, so teams can gain a competitive advantage. In many cases, motorsport provides a shortcut for automotive development, accelerating developments before mainstream commercial applications.

Similarly, located near to Sauber, the University ETH Zurich is part of the Swiss motorsport ecosystem. ETH Zurich’s Laboratory of Composite Materials and Adaptive Structures (CMASLab) runs projects aimed at improving production processes for composite parts. 

The CMASLab is working with industry partners in the motorsport, automotive and aerospace sectors to develop composites that can be made into deformable structures and be used in active damping systems. This includes multifunctional ‘electro-active’ materials that consist of layers of laminate, which are held together by a voltage. When the voltage is varied, the stiffness of the material changes. 

A recent CMASLab project developed carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) rims for motorcycle wheels using a design technique originally developed by a Swiss company called ‘evolutionary algorithms’. The semi-automated design process uses finite element analysis (FEA) simulation to optimise parts. In the case of the rims it successfully reduced their mass and increased their stiffness with a design made from CFRP. After being run through the evolutionary algorithm process, the optimised, hollow, CFRP rims weighed just 2.4kg, 0.6kg lighter than the original magnesium ones.

Gerald Kress, head of the CMASLab, says: “Humans set the parameters for the optimisation process, and the FEA evolutionary algorithms derive designs that are selected and dismissed automatically, according to them. Evolutionary algorithms are most useful if the parameters for the design improvement includes numbers, such as fibre-orientation steps.”

A Swiss cluster

When considering a combination of such active research programmes as the CMASLab, the strength of Swiss engineering firms and a lifting of the ban on circuit racing, the creation of a Swiss version of the UK’s Motorsport Valley doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

Furthermore, with Brexit in some form somewhere around the corner for the UK, the time may also be right for companies in Motorsport Valley to increase international collaboration. 

Fasel says: “We’ve already replicated the EU’s framework into our bilateral relationship with the UK. We have agreed treaties on trade, citizens’ rights, aviation, land transport and insurance. As far as Switzerland is concerned, whatever happens with Brexit, we are fine to do business.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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