Running along the side of the cockpits of the MCL36, and obvious from the onboard cameras, are innovative dynamic digital panels that change to display a range of different sponsor logos.
The possibilities opened up by this new technology in the commercial savvy world of F1 are endless, and it’s almost certainly something the sport will embrace as teams looks to give sponsors ever better value for money.
No longer will teams be restricted to just selling space on their car once. They can now have multiple sponsors getting their slice of the action. They could even host auctions for interested parties that want to jump in at the last second.
There could be different sponsors on the left and right of the car; a sponsor that only gets shown after a victory, or a partner only getting displayed on specific laps.
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The future may be fascinating in how F1’s current teams could use this technology, but the original idea for it actually came about as a means of trying to help one of its minnows survive.
Rewind a few years and the Manor team, as one of F1’s trio of new entrants in 2010 that included Lotus and HRT, had been through its fair share of highs and lows through its various guises as Virgin and Marussia.
It lasted the longest of the new teams but its last roll of the dice came in 2016, as it bid to try to secure funding needed to ensure its long-term survival.
One of the companies that Manor worked with was Silverstone Paint Technology (SPT), which supplies the majority of the F1 grid with their coatings.
Manor’s inability to be able to commit space on the car livery to sponsors – because of the unpredictable nature of deals and the fact it did not want to undersell prime real estate too cheaply – got SPT’s co-founder and CEO Mark Turner thinking.
He wondered if there was a way for sponsors to be swiftly rotated without the complications being caused by endlessly putting stickers on and pulling them off.
This is where the idea came for it to be done digitally, which led Turner to create the off-shoot Seamless Digital company that has teamed up with McLaren from this weekend.
“Manor would design liveries that had these large voids for title partners that never really materialised,” Turner explained in an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com.
“It got us thinking about: how do you go about potentially monetising the sport in a different way so you’re not relying on one large single partner? And what kind of technology is out there that could assist in that?
“So we looked at ways to change brands quickly. Can we change brands on a car in a race? Can we change it sector by sector? Can we have a different brand on the left-hand side and the right-hand side of the car?
“It needed to be maximum impact, minimum penalty from a mass perspective. And that was where this thought came from.”
While Manor ultimately did not make it, as financial problems at the end of 2016 led to its collapse, Turner’s group continued working on the idea.
And, after running early concepts of its design past FOM, and speaking to teams, the technology has finally reached the point now that it is ready to run on the McLaren.
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While the dynamic digital panels are pioneering technology, it would be wrong to suggest that they are simply a gimmick.
There is one aspect that is crystal clear when chatting to Turner: the panels could only justify their place on an F1 car if they did not hamper ultimate performance.
For this, they had to be created in a way that there was no aero-step – where the panel would jut out from the smooth surface of the car. They are therefore designed to be integrated seamlessly into the car’s bodywork.
Beyond that, their weight had to fall in line with other non-performance elements – like paint and liveries – where some compromises are accepted for the greater good of the team.
“We already work with 70% of the grid, providing performance coatings and aesthetic coatings, so we’re always looking to reduce mass or improve surface finish,” continues Turner.
“Whilst we’re doing that, we have a good finger on the pulse of what’s an acceptable mass target. So ranging from the heaviest paint jobs in 2021, which were three plus kilos, we are now down to around 1000 grammes. That’s kind of given us the benchmark as our metric for what does success looks like for this system.
“So the [dynamic] system on the McLaren, we’re at around 200 grammes. But we are continuing to iterate the design.”
Seamless Digital is also looking at running the system on crash helmets too in the future – where the panels can be much smaller.
“On the helmets they are 16 grammes total system mass,” says Turner. “That’s only a tiny percentage of what the helmet takes in paint – and that’s including the cabling and the control electronics that we all produce in-house.
“It also consumes 11 milliamps at idle, and about 60 milliamps when transitioning images. It’s really low power consumption requirements. There is also no aero step: so it’s smooth and seamless. That’s kind of what we wanted to achieve.”
The panels have also had to be powered in a way that they did not unduly consume anything from the car either.
That is why they make use of similar low-power technology that is used on E-paper readers – so they are effectively just dual colour for now.
The technology isn’t quite ready for full-colour spectrum panels, but that is something that could come further down the road.
Bigger and bolder
For now, the dynamic panels are just running in small areas alongside the McLaren cockpit in practice sessions only, but there is obviously scope for them to become bigger and bolder in the future.
Turner says that in theory there would be nothing to stop large areas of the cars being covered with them, but he reckons that ultimately the performance factor will dictate things.
“They can grow quite big,” he said. “But the main thing that will restrict that growth in size is that we, as an organisation, don’t have a desire to do anything that deviates from the performance narrative that is at our core.
“You could run a display that was 90cm by 50cm, but we don’t fundamentally think that’s an efficient way of doing things. So we don’t envisage having large areas of an engine cover filled with them any time soon.
“But what you want to be doing is looking at how you integrate this seamlessly into your livery and have it as part of your livery, and where is it then best applied from a performance perspective?”
While McLaren has exclusive rights on running the panels this year, Turner thinks that, from 2023, other squads could follow suit for what could be a fascinating development path.
It is a world away from how things were originally aimed at helping Manor, but, without that initial seed of an idea, it may never have happened at all.
As Turner states: “It was really sad to see Manor shut the door, but it kept us inspired and fired up to do this.”
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