Formula One teams unite to fight ventilator shortage

What might be perceived as a lost season for Formula One could yet emerge as one of the sport’s finest hours. Such is the warp speed of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic that world champions Mercedes, one of seven teams working to redress England’s ventilator shortages, have already unveiled a breathing aid to keep coronavirus patients out of intensive care. This type of feat – involving prototyping, regulatory approval and mass production – would usually take years. But, in extraordinary circumstances, it has been accomplished in just seven days.
For Mark Gillan, the coordinator of “Project Pitlane” – as F1’s reaction to the emergency is known – it is an unprecedented display of solidarity. For 14 years, Gillan worked as a senior engineer at McLaren, Red Bull and Williams as the teams contrived devilish ways to outdo one another. But today, as chief technology officer for Innovate UK, he chairs twice-daily video conferences from his offices on London’s Victoria Embankment and sees only a united front to face the challenges of the moment.
“There is nobody better at reverse-engineering or at the rapid designing, developing and testing of complex systems as F1 teams,” Gillan says.
“When you bring this expertise together, it becomes a very significant resource. The work that Mercedes have done is testament to that. They passed regulations with their device very, very quickly. It has been a hugely positive step.”
Mercedes, working closely with clinicians at University College London Hospital, have fashioned a solution faster than anyone imagined possible. In just a week, they have built dozens of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure devices, which deliver oxygen to the lungs without requiring a ventilator.
Such equipment has successfully treated COVID-19 patients in China and Italy, but is in short supply in the UK. Forty devices have been delivered to UCLH and three other London hospitals. If trials prove successful, Mercedes estimate they can soon start producing 1000 per day.
Andy Cowell, the managing director of Mercedes High Performance, says: “We have been proud to put our resources at the service of UCL, delivering this CPAP project to the highest standards and in the fastest possible time frame.”
Project Pitlane is divided into three strands specific to the talents of the F1 industry: design, prototype manufacture and skilled assembly. Work across all three will accelerate over the next fortnight, as F1 strives to ensure that the National Health Service has the technology it needs to deal with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, expected in two to three weeks.
“F1 loves to work with defined metrics, and we have a very clear plan for what needs to be achieved,” Gillan says. “We have update meetings with them throughout the day, and then a review session in the evening with the government, who go through everything that has been learnt.
“It’s a testament to teams’ attitude that in a period when their factories have shut down, they have all bound together.”
Although teams are in the middle of a mandatory 21-day shutdown, an order normally enforced only during the August break, sections of their factories have been turned over exclusively to efforts to combat COVID-19. Nowhere is the strangeness of the times more evident than at McLaren, who have relaxed their usual operating-theatre protocols in technical areas to allow staff to eat lunch at their stations.
Gillan, formerly chief race engineer with Williams, first approached teams to help the national effort on March 15, within 48 hours of the Australian Grand Prix being cancelled. “There was an immediate positive reaction,” he says. “They were already thinking about what they could do.”
Engineers who would once have devoted all their energies to tweaking Lewis Hamilton’s steering wheel found themselves reassigned, almost overnight, to making a crucial contribution to the national effort.
“With clinical advisers embedded in the process, it helps to focus the mind,” Gillan says. “The transition by all the teams has been smooth. But that’s what I expect, because they are world leaders in taking designs, improving them, and moving at pace.”
Reverse-engineering is the area of expertise most specifically tailored to F1. In recent days, Mercedes’ finest minds have worked on dismantling an existing off-patent CPAP device, copying and improving the design, then adapting it for mass production. The effect of their intervention could be profound, with reports from Lombardy, the region of Italy most ravaged by COVID-19, indicating that half the patients given CPAP have avoided any need for invasive mechanical ventilation.
So acute are the time pressures that there are still vast challenges for F1 to overcome, not least in sourcing materials. But with Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Renault, Racing Point, Haas and Williams all committing to the project, Gillan argues that the sport is equal to the challenge. “These teams, while they are extremely competitive, all know each other. There is a lot of flux of people between them, with many people moving teams. While some of the systems will be different, they have the same way of working. As a result, you can integrate them extremely quickly.”
Gillan, conscious of how high the stakes are, is wary of being too lavish in his acclaim just yet. “The next two or three weeks will be critical,” he says. “Only then can we give ourselves any pats on the back.”
For now, suffice to say that it is perhaps the most memorable example of shared endeavour that he, or the sport he long served, has ever known.
The Telegraph, London

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