Winter Olympics: Bobsledding, F1 on ICE

Winter Olympics: Bobsledding , F1 on ICE


There are lots of reasons why the sport of bobsleigh is sometimes referred to as F1 on Ice, but few as obvious as Italy’s World Cup sleds.

Finished in Ferrari Red, and with a set of team sponsor Pirelli’s P-Zero tires painted on the sides, they are liveried to look like racing cars.

Ferrari (NYSE:RACE), F1’s most iconic and successful team, have worked with the Italian federation, whose sleds run without sponsor branding at the Olympics, since Y 2010 and in the run-up to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Games in SKorea.

Former rival BMW (OTCMKT:BMWYY), title sponsor of the World Cup, has long partnered the US bobsleigh team, while McLaren teamed up with Britain’s bob and skeleton athletes for the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia.

“There’s always the link between the F1 companies, or any motor company, and skeleton and bobsleigh,” says Rachel Blackburn, the engineer who has been involved in Britain’s skeleton program since Y 2006.

“There’s the Ferrari sleds and the BMW sleds … when we were at McLaren it kind of made a good story,” she said.

That somewhat manufactured rivalry has died down in the years since Sochi, with McLaren no longer involved and Ferrari’s presence low key.

But the worlds of Grand Prix motor racing and sliding sports still have lots in common.

Bobsled, luge and skeleton are among the fastest of Olympic sports, with bobsleds reaching speeds over 90 mph. Drivers are subjected to gut-wrenching G-forces, and crashes can be fatal.

And then there is the ongoing debate about cost controls, the direction of future rules, preserving a level playing field and obsessive secrecy, all recurring themes in F1.

Ms. Blackburn said skeleton, where riders hit 80 mph on what has been compared to an oversized tea-tray, sits somewhere between Americas Cup yachts and F1 race cars in terms of speed and aerodynamics.

“Applied engineering is far more interesting than the pure stuff, so when its applied to something that’s fun and exciting it does make it a lot easier to solve problems,” she said.

“There is the Americas Cup, sailing, Formula One and the high speed ice sports as well. It’s the same concept. In the skeleton we’re still looking at chassis dynamics, it’s not dissimilar.”

Ms. Balckburn now chairs the world governing body’s Skeleton Material Committee.

Together Ms. Blackburn and James Roche helped design the “super sled” known as “Mervyn.”

Ms. Blackburn, who now has her own consultancy, compares the design secrecy to that to a F1 team testing pre-season while keeping the latest front wing developments firmly under wraps until the opening race.

Although the sled’s structural innards are seen only by the competing nation and competition inspectors, Ms. Blackburn said there were few real secrets from past Games as coaches and athletes moved around.

Most of the loopholes have also been closed and Ms. Blackburn, an advocate for change, said it remained “an incredibly painful process” to bring the rules into a more modern era and encourage innovation.

A skeleton sled has a carbon fiber pan on the outside, but the chassis is made from steel, a material that is both heavy and expensive as well as distinctly low-tech compared to other options.

“There’s lots of different materials now that could be used that are much easier and cheaper to manufacture,” said Ms. Blackburn.

“With the onset of 3D printing, if somebody wanted to get something custom made they could probably do that now, but not with steel.

“The fact that we still limit things to steel makes it quite a lot trickier for small nations now to get things made, especially to the precision that skeleton sleds require given the speeds and the temperatures they are going through.”

Stay tuned…

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