Cleaner lines, faster times

Current E Moscow 2015 Dan Bathie Formula E Washing the safety car

In the often obsessive world of top level motorsport, the quest for better performance is never ending. Sometimes improvements come through landmark innovations that forever change the sport; more commonly it is the cumulative effect of much smaller, progressive changes that make a difference on track.

One area of technology that may remain overlooked in its contribution to overall performance is car care. Often, the products used to clean racing cars are selected simply on grounds of habit or brand name. However, there are three significant reasons to take a closer look at the chemicals that race teams apply to their gleaming speed machines.

Protecting the base material

“Commonly, cleaning products used at the professional end of the industry tend to be alkaline or solvent based,” explains Greg Spink, director at ValetPRO, a British manufacturer of car care technologies designed for professional use. “Alkaline-based products are usually used for cleaners, whereas solvents tend to be used for finishing products, such as tar and rubber removers and waxes. In both cases, their job is to find every nook and cranny in a surface and pry out the dirt and grime. There are some very good products on the market but they must be used with care.”

Strong formulations may introduce corrosion, decay or discolouration to materials such as aluminium, magnesium and the plastic decals used for sponsor branding. They can turn Perspex opaque and attack base metals when degreasing engines. On painted carbon fibre, concentrated solutions may react with the resins, lifting the colour away and leaving a white powder residue. They may also dry out the gel coats typically applied to bare carbon fibre, making the surface prone to chipping. “Some of these chemistries can be quite intrusive,” says Spink. “They don’t tend to differentiate between the surface and dirt, so you might have to work very quickly to avoid any damage.”

Selecting the right formula for the job is important to prolong the life of a surface, contributing to a more cost effective and robust component. “Preparation is key to ensuring that these products don’t attack what you don’t want them to,” Spink explains. “That’s why we focus on pH neutral formulations at ValetPRO, which are much kinder to surfaces and offer a much wider time window to work within. Whichever products you choose, with close attention and experience, a good cleaning regimen will help keep expensive parts working as intended for longer.”

Manipulating surface properties at chemical level

“There are products on the market that will alter surface tension,” Spink goes on. “For example, you can create formulations that will cause water to either bead or sheet on contact with a surface. Applying these different products to different parts of a car could alter how the car performs in rain or spray, or even in the different atmospheric conditions experienced by series that travel around the world.”

The chemicals applied to car surfaces can also affect how easily foreign matter, such as rubber debris from tyres or bugs, stick. “Any material sticking to an aerodynamic surfaces will have an effect on its performance, however small,” says Spink. “Keeping these surfaces as close to their designed profile as possible is in the best interests of the driver. It makes sense to use a product that will help repel matter while the car is on track.”

Protecting sponsor property

Sponsors are the lifeblood of most racing teams. While there’s much a team can do away from the track and via social media to maximise exposure, sponsors are keen to see their logos stand out bright and clear on the racing cars themselves. Plastic decals are often used to apply logos to liveries and their colours must be kept vibrant and visible.

“Selecting cleaning products that won’t discolour the decals or paint, that will help the logos stand out even in the rain and that will help the surface resist clinging rubber and other materials will ensure that sponsors get the most bang for their buck on track,” says Spink. “And when all that is required to achieve this is careful selection and application of cleaning products, this must surely be a no brainer.”

The discussion: your view

Selecting cleaning products should be just as rigorous a process as everything else in a top flight racing team, Spink contends – and engineering the right products is just as important.

“The points above might yield the tiniest gains in performance or longevity,” Spink admits. “Yet, in a highly competitive environment, anything that might influence performance – positively or negatively – ought to be scientifically considered. Just think how strange tyre warmers, wings or special fuel chemistries once seemed.”

How cleaning products might affect different aspects of performance cars is something that Spink is keen to explore. “Racing teams can be, by their nature, quite secretive but I wonder if they or their suppliers put much research into this area,” he says. “We’re a little bit obsessive about getting our formulations exactly right and we put a lot of effort into research and development. We’ve produced bespoke formulae to meet specific needs and new market trends: recently we created a product particularly suited to matt paint finishes. I wonder to what extent bespoke cleaning chemistries are used throughout the racing world and I’d love to hear from those in the industry on this topic.”

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