F1 expertise provides life-saving breathing devices in COVID-19 fight as teams united for Project Pitlane

F1 teams united in the face of adversity to provide critical equipment and support to national health services in the fight against coronavirus.

Formula 1’s 70 years have been filled with dramatic racing and illustrious careers, and whilst 2020 has been dominated by stories off the track, the work done by the sport’s community during the global pandemic will go down in history as some of the most heroic we’ve ever seen.

Putting rivalries aside, teams came together and used their individual expertise as a united force to help create critical equipment for those in need suffering from COVID-19. 

On 17 March, two days after the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, Formula 1 took up the challenge of the UK Government’s call to industry, in tackling the pandemic, by leveraging the teams elite research capabilities, innovative nous and rapid prototyping skills.

Following further discussion with the Government, Project Pitlane was formed, as teams pooled resource to focus on three specific workstreams. These workstreams varied in scope from reverse engineering existing medical devices, support the scaling of production of existing ventilator designs as part of the #VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, to the rapid design and prototype manufacture of a new device for certification and subsequent production.

In each area, Project Pitlane used the capabilities of the participating teams to greatest effect, focusing on the core skills of the F1 industry: rapid design, prototype manufacture, test and skilled assembly. F1’s unique ability to rapidly respond to engineering and technological challenges allowed the group to add value to the wider engineering industry’s overall response as the pandemic reach a critical stage.

Within five days, a meeting of F1 Teams, Olympus Medical, the Association of Anaesthetists and NHS England was convened at the Red Bull Technology offices in Milton Keynes. The challenge was to create a new medical device, turning the simple CPAP device into something similar to the complex ventilators used in intensive care.

Within a short time, a device was identified to form the basis of new ventilator design, however it had barely passed Technology Readiness Level 3 (proof of concept) and would normally take two years to reach TRL9 (fully qualified & deployed in an operational environment).

Understanding the urgency of the project, engineers from Red Bull, Renault, McLaren, Mercedes, Racing Point, Williams and Haas worked 15 hours a day, for 7 days a week, to deliver the same outcome in just four weeks. This success was an enormous achievement in innovation and included fundamental design, mechatronics, prototype endurance testing, electronic & printed circuit board design, software programming, failure mode analysis, testing and certification.

At the same time, engineers from Mercedes HPP Team partnered with UCL to rapidly design and produce 10,000 CPAP devices, with its open-source design being issued to 105 countries; and a team from Williams reverse engineered designs and built 3D CAD models to accelerate production of Smiths ventilators.

The newly developed CPAP device. Photographer: James Tye / UCL

Further afield from the UK, Ferrari assisted health services in the team’s native Italy including a €10 million donation to the authorities dealing with the crisis, sourcing 150 ventilators, and providing vehicles to the Italian Red Cross to transport food and medicine to those in need.

At the team’s Maranello factory, facilities were opened up to allow for the construction of respiratory equipment, whilst engineers created their own ‘FI5’ pulmonary ventilator, which was ultimately made open-source, allowing institutions around the world to use the Ferrari designs for free to build their own ventilators. Elsewhere in Italy, Pirelli tyre chief Mario Isola volunteered for the health services on the frontline in Milan, transporting patients to and from hospital.

The nature of sporting competition pits teams against each other day after day, year after year, but when faced with the biggest global crisis in living memory, the F1 community rose above rivalries to offer life-saving support in a time of need. The teams’ efforts providing speed and the highest level of engineering on the track are regularly lauded, but we may begin to see wider appreciation for their work off it as they continue to help the world in which they race.