When the call came, the carmakers responded as one. TG salutes you

Perhaps Friday 13 March was the turning point. The Australian GP, cancelled at just two days’ notice after a McLaren mechanic tested positive for coronavirus. How many teams, then in full spool up for the new season, would have envisaged that within two weeks, they’d all be working together?

Things move fast in F1. Trouble is, as we know all too well, so does Covid-19. The disease affects the respiratory system, so those that are hospitalised can need help breathing. This is done by a mechanical ventilator. But there were only 8,000 of these in the UK, and the NHS believed it would need around 30,000 to cope with demand. So government put out the call to industry to help. All seven UK-based Formula One teams came together to form Project Pitlane, lending assistance in rapid prototyping, reverse engineering and dozens of other areas.

They weren’t alone. Ventilator Challenge UK was set up, and included firms such as Ford, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, Dyson, Airbus, plus healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. Their task wasn’t primarily to design a new ventilator, but to work out how to increase production of existing designs. So F1 teams and car manufacturers are together lending their engineers and facilities to help medical firms increase production to the levels required.

As TopGear goes to press, the most immediate result of this collaboration has been between Mercedes-AMG F1’s High Performance Powertrains (HPP) division and University College London (UCL). They’ve worked together to enhance the design of an existing continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. This is simpler than a full ventilator, but is also currently in short supply in UK hospitals, and reports from Italy suggest that around 50 per cent of patients given CPAP have avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation.

A timescale usually measured in years has been hugely compressed. The first meeting at UCL’s MechSpace engineering hub was on 18 March. Working around the clock, the first device was produced under 100 hours later. This design, 70 per cent more efficient than the old one, has now been approved and Mercedes has opened the patent for others to produce it. The plan is to manufacture 1,000 CPAP kits a day.

1 Land Rover has supplied cars to the Red Cross

Meanwhile, only a day after Mercedes was called in by UCL, Williams was tasked with helping to re-engineer the Smiths ParaPAC300 ventilator, a project that has so far involved over 50 staff. It’s the same across the board. At McLaren, the racing team’s machine shop is currently manufacturing ventilator components, while the automotive division is designing bespoke trolleys for the ventilators to sit on. It’s also working in conjunction with McLaren’s Applied division to design and build test equipment to make sure the ventilators meet all function and safety requirements.

And this is just the people working on medical hardware to combat Covid-19. Elsewhere, car firms are helping out in other ways. Jaguar Land Rover has not only sent 160 cars to help the Red Cross and NHS, but is also manufacturing 3D-printed reusable medical visors. In Italy, Lamborghini’s upholstery department has been redirected to make 1,000 surgical masks a day, while in America General Motors has tasked 1,000 employees with assisting in the production of an existing ventilator, while also producing almost 50,000 level one face masks per day. Ford and Peugeot-Citroen are also involved in ventilator production, Skoda is printing 3D parts and, in Germany, VW has released staff with medical training on full pay to help the health service.

2 Mercedes F1 helped develop this CPAP breathing aid

We haven’t got room here to mention everyone, and many are working entirely behind the scenes, but to all those involved in helping battle the coronavirus outbreak, TopGear salutes you. Thank you.

3 Lamborghini’s trim dept stitching masks, not leather hides at the moment