JEDDAH: When the second-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix powers off from the start line under Jeddah’s skies on Sunday night, a select group of local students will have their eyes fixed firmly on the orange McLaren cars of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.
The duo may not have had the best of starts in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix last week, but as they look to get back to the form that saw them finish fourth in the Constructors’ Championship last year, they will be able to count on the support of students from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah.
Since 2018, KAUST and McLaren Racing have partnered to develop research and development projects with a long-term focus to improve on track performance, and importantly, develop and promote the team’s sustainability and diversity through STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“It’s a partnership focused on science and technology, because that’s what KAUST is all about,” said the university’s vice president for research, Prof. Donal Bradley. “It’s about an opportunity from the KAUST side, to work in an extreme environment.”
“Formula One racing pushes things to the extreme, it pushes engineering challenges to the extreme,” he said. “And so, as a research-focused university, having access to extreme environments is something that’s exciting, and provides great opportunity to do new things to really challenge yourself as to whether you’re capable of providing useful information and understanding.
“We work on other extreme environments, so (there are) extreme environments in the Red Sea, for instance. So you know, the heat and the salinity and the depths of the ocean produces some very interesting problems to look at, in the context of the Red Sea.”
While the professor modestly plays down the role he and his research team have played in McLaren’s successes on the track, their work has certainly improved every aspect of the racing car.
“The McLaren partnership provides very interesting challenges for us to look at, from the perspective of engines, propulsion systems, aerodynamics, understanding what limits the performance of a car,” Bradley, who joined KAUST in April 2019, said. “We have a number of areas where we collaborate and the initial collaboration was focused on fuel formulations.”
Currently Formula 1 regulations predetermine the fuel that the teams can use in their cars, although Bradley says that different “formulations” are possible in the future.
“If you want to optimize fuel performance, you have to be able to measure things within a Formula One engine, you have to be able to measure what is happening in that environment — and what are the key components, the key parameters that make that engine operate efficiently,” he said.
“And so one of the things we have (at) KAUST is what we call our Clean Combustion Research Center, (which is) focused on many different aspects of combustion engines, fuels, flames, and the like. And so working with McLaren, it provides an environment and opportunity to look at some very different parameter spaces to really test our knowledge of fuels, engines and how they all operate.”
Apart from fuel performance, KAUST’s collaboration with McLaren focuses on two other main areas, one of which is aerodynamics.
“To look at computational fluid dynamics simulations of the whole car, but also the different elements in the car. And so we have very strong facilities for doing those studies,” said Bradley. “We have a supercomputer, we also have excellent faculty working in that area.”
Bradley points out that Formula 1 rule changes this year have seen a lot of innovation going into the aerodynamics of the car, particularly around wing mirrors and lateral pods that support those wing mirror systems.
“And then the third area, there are extreme forces exerted on the car when it’s hurtling around a Formula 1 track,” he added. “Being able to sense and measure those forces, without adding a lot of weight or complexity to the car is another important component of designing and verifying the design of a car. So we also have worked with McLaren, on some of the sensing technologies, sensor elements, in particular parts of the car that can help you to understand how it’s performing.”
McLaren Racing engineer and spokesperson, Emel Cankaya, says that research on Computational Fluid Dynamics — the analysis of fluid flows using numerical solution methods — and other parameters and conditions, can develop capabilities to measure and simulate the extreme conditions in Formula 1.
“Even in the formative stages of our relationship, researchers in KAUST’s Clean Combustion Research Center were developing fundamental experimental and numerical capabilities that can be readily applied to Formula 1 cars.”
The results can be applied in other fields and industries as well.
“This kind of work inspires innovation that can be used in many other applications important to Saudi Arabia, and internationally as well,” said Cankaya. “The Clean Combustion Research Center creates sustainable mobility solutions for the future. And this is aligned with our values in creating a more sustainable society.”
“Sustainability is a big topic now, not just at McLaren, but Formula 1 in general,” she added. “The partnership also opens doors to talent development for post-graduate students in research, internships, engineering, forums, and other opportunities to expand knowledge through collaborating with our team.”
As part of the partnership, McLaren has hosted KAUST students at Formula 1 circuits, the trips designed to inspire them to forge their own career paths.
“We are also connected to KAUST via our Extreme E entry,” Cankaya said, referencing the all-electric SUV rally series that has twice taken place in Saudi Arabia. “Extreme E has expanded its scientific committee with the appointment of KAUST’s distinguished Professor Carlos Duarte, one of the world’s leading minds on marine ecosystems. So that’s really important to us. And Extreme E raises awareness for the climate issues we were facing.”
Ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, KAUST students and professors were invited to meet Ricciardo, with the McLaren Racing driver keen to learn about the background of the partnership, asking about their ongoing research and development projects, one of which focuses on biofuel development. Meanwhile, the KAUST visitors were given a tour of the garage and paddock.
Cankaya also highlights the importance of the diversity and inclusivity that have been a part of the partnership with KAUST from the outset.
“I think it’s important to know that we are really working on diversity,” she said. “We have a program called McLaren Engage, which focuses on getting people, not just white males, for example, because it’s a male-dominated (industry) as you know, interested in the sport, and trying to hire as diverse a certified workforce. That’s what we already do, and we are doing this also with KAUST. We are really happy we can do this because I think, personally, it’s really important to have different people from different backgrounds, because that only enriches the company.”
Bradley also believes it’s vital to forge ties in the communities to raise interest in STEM — and Formula 1 — and KAUST has set up programs that involve students in local communities.
“In terms of broadening the appeal of Formula 1 in the world, these kinds of opportunities, for people to see it first hand, are very important,” he said. “I guess all elite sport, because it’s elite, sometimes means that many people never get (a) chance to have that interaction.”
“You know, not everybody goes to the racetrack, not everybody is going to be glued to their TV set on a Sunday to watch the Formula One,” said Bradley. “But if you happen to be nearby when McLaren come to visit, and your school takes you to an event and you see people and you can talk to them, and you can ask them questions, I’m sure it helps to broaden the appeal and to bring different new people into an appreciation of that as an exciting sport.”
As the sport strives to be more sustainable, Bradley says Formula 1’s searching for solutions, through partnerships such as McLaren’s with KAUST, provides “a good message” for the future.
“The whole area of sustainability, the whole need that we have collectively to change the way we do things to ensure that the planet is still a friendly place to live for future generations, permeates through all of the things that we really are trying to do,” he said. “And you know, that’s a very clear message from McLaren that they also are looking for green ways of continuing the sport. Obviously, you want it still to be exciting, you want it to be challenging, you want it to be something that people get excited by and want to be involved with.”
“And I think, you know, there are many ways in which that agenda can be taken forward,” he said. “It’s very good for us as an institution to be faced with some of those challenges. We’re working on a lot of different aspects of climate change, the circular carbon economy, sustainability issues, generally speaking. The Formula 1 challenge also pushes us to come up with new ideas.”