Any car you can drive on the road has probably been put through its paces on a race circuit. Motorsport may not be automotive Genesis, as some would argue, but it's a crucial technological and promotional proving ground.
The cars have changed, but the ultimate goal remains the same
Motor racing is one of the most popular spectator sports in the world. Yet what differentiates it from soccer, tennis or basketball is that it's about more than individual skill or teamwork.
Some would say the importance of machinery in motorsport spoils the competitive element - in an uncompetitive car, even the world's best drivers will find it impossible to succeed. Yet it's this need to balance the skill of the people on a race team with the performance and reliability of their car that has turned motorsport into a valuable developmental and promotional arm of the automotive industry.
"I'd argue motorsport functions as a test laboratory, even for big car manufacturers, because you have to react so quickly when racing. You have to make sure you always have the technological upper hand against your competitors," Olaf Manthey, a successful German race driver turned businessman, told Deutsche Welle.
After taking near-retirement from motorsport - he is still tempted back into the cockpit from time to time, despite having officially hung up his helmet - the former German Touring Car (DTM) star set up the successful Manthey Racing team, which has since branched out into work with road-going cars as well.
A greener sport than one might think
Looks like an ordinary Porsche, but is in fact a special hybrid
The idea of high performance cars racing round in circles, sometimes for hours on end, is often lambasted as an environmental aberration. It's true that racing cars tend to use a lot of fuel, and that they usually finish an event in exactly the same place they started, but endurance racers like Manthey maintain that efficiency - or rather, relative efficiency - is hugely important in motorsport.
"If your engine uses less fuel, then you can make fewer re-fuelling pit-stops than the competition during an endurance race. That will prove a massive advantage," Manthey said. "If you look at the fuel consumption of a 34 horsepower VW Beetle in the '60s or '70s, it was comparable with some modern-day cars with 500 horsepower. Where fuel consumption is concerned, the industry has made incredible progress."
In conjunction with Porsche and the Williams Formula One team, Manthey recently became one of the first teams to race a new type of hybrid car that might be a greener alternative than existing technologies. Instead of batteries, a mechanical flywheel gathers, stores and dispenses the car's electrical energy. This flywheel hardly ever needs replacing, or plugging into a socket at home, and contains none of the pollutant chemicals that blight the green credentials of most battery-powered hybrids. The technology wasn't invented for racing, but it is now being put through its paces on the track, and that's usually the way motorsport helps the car industry progress.
The idea that motoring innovations are largely invented on a race track is something of an urban myth. In reality, the vast R+D departments of major car manufacturers, along with sister industries like the aeronautical sector, have dreamt up most of the ideas that have moved motoring forward.
Having come up with an idea, however, the race track has proven itself the ideal place for carmakers to test, refine and market it.
Speed and safety
Audi showed the world that 4WD could be high-performance too
Consider the four-wheel drive system on the dominant Audi Quattro rally car that debuted in 1980, the semi-automatic transmission developed and used to great effect on Ferrari Formula 1 cars around 1990, and even the disc brakes employed on the Jaguar C-Type racers of the 1950s. All of these concepts were decades old when they first appeared in motorsport, but their success in competition made manufacturers - and perhaps more crucially, consumers - realize that these ideas were not only feasible, but superior to the alternatives.
Such technologies are routinely installed on road-going cars nowadays, not just to increase performance.
"A lot of small road cars were still equipped with drum brakes at the rear up until the early 1990s," Manthey Racing spokesman Jan Erren recalled. "The disc brake - which is now standard on almost any new car - is the high-performance, more effective means of decelerating a car. If speed is important - which is certainly the case in racing - then stopping a car is important too!"
That mantra is no less true for a motorist forced to brake heavily on a slippery highway. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, power-assisted steering, airbags, improved suspension, fire-proofed fuel tanks, not to mention improved crash helmets or more protective leathers for motorcyclists: the list of safety features with some kind of motorsports pedigree is virtually endless.
Jaguar's experiments with disc brakes helped bring stopping distances down for road users
Germany is home to one world-famous race track whose treacherous nature tragically proved the need for improved safety time and again over the years. The traditional Nürburgring Nordschleife, some 24 kilometers (14 miles) of narrow, twisty roads undulating through the forests of the Eifel mountains in western Germany, eventually proved itself too dangerous for the fastest modern race cars.
'The Green Hell'
"Nothing gave me more satisfaction than to win at the Nürburgring and yet, I was always afraid," three-time Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart, who thought up the Nürburgring Nordschleife's popular nickname "The Green Hell," once said. "When I left home for the German Grand Prix I always used to pause at the end of the driveway and take a long look back. I was never sure I'd come home again."
Shortly after Stewart's retirement from the sport, F1 cars stopped racing at the Nordschleife in the wake of a series of horrific accidents, and later the fastest endurance racecars followed suit. A shorter, more modern track, the so-called "GP-Circuit," was built to better suit the safety requirements of these vehicles.
The Nordschleife is not just a motorsport mecca, it's also a testing ground for road cars
Sports cars, however, race on the old Nordschleife to this day, and it's Manthey Racing's home circuit. The firm is based in an industrial park in the village of Meuspath, a stone's throw from the iconic 1.8 kilometer Döttinger Höhe straight towards the end of the lap.
"Setting up our HQ here by the Nordschleife was not just ideal for us, it was de rigeur," Olaf Manthey said. "That's not just because we can test our race cars - and race them - here, it's also the most challenging environment in which to test the work we do on road-going Porsches, like chassis or performance improvements and aerodynamic modifications."
The Nürburgring is not just a playground for specialists like Manthey, who won the prestigious 24-hour race around the Nordschleife a record four times between 2006 and 2009. Somewhere in the promotional material for almost any modern production car you will find a Nürburgring lap time. The track has become a benchmark for the auto industry, and most major car manufacturers have also set up offices around the circuit to run tests of their own.
"It's not just the most beautiful track in the world, but it's also extremely demanding. There are sharp inclines and declines, many different combinations of corners, and even different road surfaces. Even if, like me, you have driven thousands of laps on this circuit over several decades, you will simply never manage a truly perfect lap. But you will try every single time around."
It's exactly that spirit of perfectionism and competition that explains why motorsport has played such an integral role in the evolution of the automobile over the past 125 years. Competitors want to win, and customers want winners.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Nancy Isenson