Could driverless tech save F1?

Formula One is supposed to represent the future of automotive technology, with racing circuits used as laboratories. Love it or hate it - and most petrol-heads hate it - driverless technology is currently looking like the future of automotive. But it could also be the saving of the sport.

Those who love the thrill of driving are never going to be happy with a world full of driverless cars. I am wary about over-reliance on computerised systems which can always go wrong or get hacked. But the current level of mainstream enthusiasm for cars which can almost drive themselves (see the recent excitement surrounding Tesla's latest offerings) plus the benefits to be had from what is effectively an automated private transit system mean that further research into self-driving vehicles is inevitable.

While there may not appear to be a natural link between self-driving cars and cars raced by the fastest men in the world, there is an awful lot of sponsorship money to be found in those companies currently producing the technology that driverless cars rely on: radar, cameras, and advanced mapping technology, car-to-car communications systems, software developers…

Traditional car manufacturers appear to have lost interest in F1, with only Ferrari and Mercedes real automotive household names. Renault has been reduced to engine supply, Lotus and Caterham are for enthusiasts, and all of the other big names can be found in the World Endurance Championship or the World Rally Championship.

Even the introduction of the 2014 hybrid power unit attracted only Honda, a disappointing result when viewed in context of the flood of manufacturers who had been expected to enter the fray when F1 went 'green'.

Instead, teams should be looking to the suppliers of those manufacturers, and coming up with sponsorship deals that will also allow for some technology-sharing. Makers of stereo cameras such as Bosch and Continental could test their devices on-board a Formula One car, harvesting and processing data at speeds a road car will never produce.

The sport is already reliant on mapping and communications systems between car and pit wall, and to create the tracking data used by teams, the FIA, and FOM alike. Freescale Semiconductor already work with McLaren Electronic Systems, and more such relationships should be sought out.

As the back-room suppliers to a growing industry, there is every chance that companies competing with the likes of Google, TomTom, Bosch, and Continental will want to improve their exposure on a global scale. And how better to do that than to align oneself with a sport associated with pushing the technological envelope, and which is beamed into people's living rooms as it travels the world from market to market?

The World Health Organisation is closing in on a number of sport's traditional sponsors, with alcohol, junk food, and fast food chains all in the same firing line as sweets and soft drinks. When the Olympics and World Cup lose their sponsorship from the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, there will be two more international sporting rivals fishing in the same shallow sponsorship pool of banks and airlines.

F1 teams are already finding it hard enough to secure enough sponsorship to cover their costs. The likes of Caterham and Marussia simply can't compete with FIFA and the IOC. Unless F1 gets clever now and ties up with new tech-based sponsorship markets, it will find external revenue sources increasingly hard to come by.