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Xtrac Suggests Specialty Steels for F1 Gearboxes Could Support Performance Improvements, Lightweighting and Downsizing in Commercial Transmissions

Xtrac transmission components. Click to enlarge.

The advent of new high performance steels for motorsport gearboxes developed by transmission specialist Xtrac—the latest specification of steel being required to significantly extend the life of a Formula One gearbox—could be broadly applied to a wide range of vehicles to improve their driveline reliability and efficiency according to Xtrac’s chief metallurgist Steve Vanes.

Xtrac, best known for the gearboxes and driveline components it develops for numerous motorsport formulas and high performance road cars, is joining a group of experts from industry and academia this week looking at cutting-edge technologies that could enhance the performance of transmission systems generally.

The seminar (Performance-Enhancing Technologies for Transmissions), which has been organized by the Aerospace Industries Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK, aims to transfer expertise between different transport sectors. The advanced techniques that can be used to improve gearbox performance and the technical knowledge conveyed will help facilitate the development of more efficient, reliable and competitive designs. The seminar is being held on 14 October 2009 at AgustaWestland Helicopters in Yeovil.

From a cultural point of view the world of motorsport has changed considerably, and the costs and relevance of its technology to wider consumer markets has become more important. For example, the trend towards engine downsizing in road vehicles to improve fuel efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions can be complemented by the downsizing of transmissions, requiring the intervention of new technologies and manufacturing processes for stronger and more lightweight components.

—Steve Vanes

Vanes, who specialized in the heat treatment of steels with Lucas Industries and then worked on high tech bearings for Timken Aerospace, will present a technical paper at the seminar on Xtrac’s development of special steels for motorsport transmissions. The paper will cite the recent cost cutting measures in F1, which have lead to the development of a brand new specification of steel; necessary to extend the service life of gears, shafts, bearings, dog rings, hubs, selector forks, final drives and other highly stressed driveline components.

Previously, the typical life of a set of gears for a main shaft was approximately 350,000 cycles. The requirement to further extend the life of an F1 gearbox could equate to a life of more than 2.5 million cycles. Shifting the emphasis in F1 to endurance and reliability has the additional benefit of making the technology more relevant to road cars—as well as further hastening our steel development programme.

—Steve Vanes

Over the years, Xtrac has progressively developed a whole family of special steels to meet various motorsport requirements, the most recent being for the increased longevity and fatigue resistance required in F1 gearboxes. Xtrac steels are tempered at higher temperatures than normal steels (200-350 °C compared with 140-150 °C), expanding the possibilities for surface enhancement processes such as physical vapor deposition (PVD is used in the manufacture of items ranging from semiconductor devices to coated cutting tools for metalworking), which require high temperatures that would affect the underlying hardness of normal steels.

The development of ultra high strength steels (up to 2,000 MPa), which can be tempered at temperatures more compatible with physical vapor deposition, extends considerably the range of low friction coatings and solid lubricants that can now be exploited—which in turn can have a significant impact on transmission efficiency and reliability.

Fundamental to the creation of a new specification of steel is our understanding of the interaction of the material’s innumerable physical and chemical properties with its heat treatment and the possibilities for sophisticated coatings and lubrication, which ultimately influences component performance. You might perceive it as standard practice, but in fact developing all new steels with the specific properties we require for race components is actually a fairly innovative concept even within the context of the motorsport industry. The process has evolved over the past 20 years, so we now have considerable experience in this field from our earliest evaluations, which gives us a clear picture of how alloy type and heat treatment affect mechanical and ultimately component properties. The underlying principles and processes we’ve developed can be applied to the automotive mainstream and other transport sectors including aerospace and would help to improve the efficiency of transmissions generally.

As well as understanding the interaction of the steel with its heat treatment, another fundamental relationship exists between the metallurgist and designer. In motorsport, the development of new materials and the design of components are always at the cutting edge. The feedback from races and analysis of parts is instant, which accelerates the whole development process. If a part doesn’t break then the designer is motivated to push the envelope even further; yet being even marginally over the limit will immediately reveal itself when a part does fail. This rapid pace of development is probably unique to motorsport and not only helps bring forward the development of new materials but also helps optimize the design of individual components.

—Steve Vanes

Xtrac has developed its special motorsport steels in collaboration with Corus. The relationship with Corus Engineering Steels reaches back to the early 1990s with the introduction of the first bespoke steel by Xtrac (XVAR1), a vacuum arc re-melted version of the primary gear steel (En36C) then used in motorsport applications.



If Xtrac's processes result in either lower cost, lighter weight gearboxes or both, the technology will be rapidly embraced.

If it is lighter but costlier it might take longer.

Either way, sounds like valuable progress.


...valuable progress...

The world has know how to make better steel for over 5 centuries. Car industries ignore that fact to limit the transmission durability, increase weight and reduce initial cost.

Unless they change the ways, better, lighter transmissions will not be mass produced.

They don't want to build transmissions, A/C, suspensions, and ancillaries etc that would last 500 000+ Km. The after sales industry would not accept it. Too many repair garages would have to close.

However, the current Toyota Prius may be getting close to it. Some have reached 500 000 Km without major mechanical failures. Electric ancillaries could easily be built to last 500 000+ Km. LED lamps/lights would last even longer.


Makes me think of the possibility of coating the cylinder liner and piston ring in tungsten disulfide. Dry lubrication anyone?


Talking about the after sales industry really highlights the biggest issue with greening transportation, and that's the inertia of the system.

When cars were being developed it was a three way battle between oil, steam and electric, all played out nationally. Now we have so many millions of people worldwide locked into a system of oil, refining, selling, servicing and after sales of ICE vehicles, all of whom are going to fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo because their immediate income depends on it.

Just how do you beat that inertia in the timeframe required to mitigate potential global warming effects?

Given the global juggernaut that is the Oil economy, I don't see how to change it without massive government intervention, something that is never popular with the average punter.


That ANY adult would think that world could make better steel for over 5 centuries but that auto makers, or any firm, would intentionally make their own products less durable or heavier is ominous.

To believe that Chrysler could be forced into bankruptcy by “ after sales industry” and “repair garages” is incredibly weird.

To imply that any one auto maker could sell 500 000+ Km transmissions, A/C, suspensions, and ancillaries etc competitively, but intentionally make them wear out sooner, is beyond uneducated.

After sales industry is the biggest issue because of inertia?
Inertia ?
Are you nuts? You think AutoZone and Checker Auto are keeping us from progress? Buying off CARB and our congressmen? Idiotic.

I believe AGW is difficult to understand and prove and is based on complex, poorly understood sciences and so it is understandable that many deny it (AGW) is a real issue.

But to think a punter that can operate a keyboard could have the incredibly poor grasp of competition in the free market as shown in these posts is shocking.

Massive government intervention indeed -
Apparently we need it in our education system.


ToppaTom stole much of what I wanted to say when I read the outlandish statements posted here...

...but I must disagree with one point though. A manufacturer will build what is most cost effective and profitable (which includes long term brand image) but they do build components that are not optimal for "ever-lasting" durability. NOT because of some heinous corporate entity willing them to build inferior components to prop up an aftermarket industry or service shops but simply because the less durable components and specifications are more profitable. They could build an engine with specifications to last twice as long (of course some seals will wear out and need servicing regardless of what you do) but then they would either have to raise prices and lose customers or take less profits - and every penny counts.


The OEM's worst nightmare is "car as appliance"..meaning it lasts longer, needs little maintenance, compared to what we are all used to...plus throw in upgradeability like a PC. If this happens US annual sales would drop by half. The Prius is getting there! OEM's need to give you a reason to trade up or buy new. Their old answer is styling and its running out of gas (no pun intended). Sedan after sedan all look alike to me. Advanced structure, six airbags, are all but standard. The next big thing looks like BEV but I think a well done BEV will be a 4 wheel appliance and should cost half an ICE car. Maybe not initially but give it a couple years.


No. - That a manufacturer would "waste" money on a more expensive part or process when a "cheaper" one would do the job was NOT one of my points.

That is just exactly what engineering IS all about - cost effectiveness.

Otherwise some maker, like Toyota, would put a large more expensive Li-Ion battery pack and plug-in capability in a car, like a Prius, and get 251 mpg, and not raise the sales price.

As far as "The OEM's worst nightmare is a car lasts longer, needs little maintenance,"
- more insanity.


Did anybody noticed that the least affected car manufacturer during the current economic crisis happened to build the best longer lasting units? You know who they are, if not look at the stats.

The cheapest poorly built cars and light trucks suffered the biggest lost in sales. You know who they are, if not look at the stats.

Regardless of what the bean counters may say, quality could be one of the most sustainable sales argument.


You're right Harvey, people buy cars from Japan rather than the US mostly because of quality/durability - they last longer.

I find it hard to believe buyers want a car that will require more repairs and wear out sooner.


Better steel and steel alloy have existed for a very long time but are more expensive and more costly to shape and finish.

Japanese sword makers knew how to to it 500 years ago.

That may be why Camry's transmission never or rarely fail?


If they are more costly they will only make a better transmission if the benefits outweigh the cost.

I expect all automakers in the free world are aware of cost tradeoffs.

The best transmissions actually use Damascus steel; particularly benificial in mini cars for cutting through traffic.



Thanks for your brilliant insights into my education level. I now understand that those years of studying economics at Australia's best university were a complete waste, as I completely failed to grasp the concept of a market until I read your cogent argument.

Before you hit the launch button, chief, you might want to ensure you've properly read the post of the intended target.


My pleasure, mate.


You know Toppa, the thing I like most about GCC is the intelligence of the commenters and the mostly positive conversations people have here. I rarely contribute, mainly because I'm not an engineer, but I've sure learned a lot from the site.

Spotting a chance to contribute, I took it, and regard my comment as both reasonable and rational. You've then leapt in to attack, labelling me as 'idiotic' and questioning my education. All rather baffling, although it seems you suffer from a surfeit of hostility. Add to this your inability to apologise (hint: I left the way open in my last post), your alacrity in coming to your own defence complete with smart-aleck response, and it's a rather disturbing profile of you. You weren't really blessed by the personality gods, were you?

Let me go through this again: if you don't believe inertia can build up in an economic system, think again. That coal industry is really embracing carbon trading! If you think markets can only be attacked from the left, think again. From my emotion-neutral assertion that inertia, ie a resistance to change, can build up in a system's components and delay change, you've then run with the idea that somehow I believe the auto parts industry is involved in a shadowy conspiracy to shoot down environmentalism. Do you always anthropomorphise systems? Or do you just feel generally threatened by the world around you?

I was more than happy to debate and defend my assertion, but a little miffed to be told I'm stupid and have my position completely misrepresented. As I said, drop the hostility and make sure you understand what someone is saying before you decide to have a go at them.

I doubt anyone other than you will now read this which is why I'm being so blunt; if I could PM you I would, this board is not the right place for either your attitude or my response, however ... I'm pretty sure you'll have to respond, because someone with your negative character traits will absolutely need to have the last word. So do your worst, champ.


I am sorry your feelings were hurt, but it is tiresome to see fuzzy allegories used so often to help rationalize such ideas as; that the biggest issue with greening transportation is the inertia of the system, and deny that most people simply do not want to buy the EVs and micro cars that are now available.

I am sure the worlds of oil, refining, selling, servicing and the after sales of ICE vehicle parts fervently prefer ICEs but their desire does not translate into their ability to make people buy large gas vehicles.


Thank you Toppa, apology accepted, and please accept my apology if I offended you.

I guess I was a little shocked because I can't recall seeing people get hammered on GCC, it's always been a pleasant place to visit.

I certainly don't see the problem as being the ICE industry actively preventing change, just that the system works well as is (leaving aside GW issues) and people are reluctant to change or do things differently unless prompted to. I would see an example of inertia existing now as the ability for the average car to travel 500kms on one tank of petrol. The consensus for EV and carmakers seems to be that people want their new EV to match this distance on batteries, despite the fact that PHEVs are viable now for daily trips of 150km and that the average commute is under 50km a day. People are just used to one system and don't want to change.

Australia is at the low end of regulation, admittedly, but trying to get greener outcomes in the building industry is very difficult here (I have my own greentech company). People seem to love small change like new mobile phones but avoid large change like a new EV infrastructure.

Politicians are all populists at heart, and the other issue is pushing that change if jobs are at stake. No pollie ever wants to be responsible for putting people out of work. When EV's take off there will be changes to things like servicing, and hopefully we won't let this deter us if we collectively decide that EVs are a valuable tool to mitigate against GW.


EVs ARE desirable but too expensive.

People hated answering machines but they were efficient and so were rapidly accepted.

EVs of all ranges and types will be rapidly accepted when they are cost effective.

People are not ignorent sheep that resist change because of inertia.
They do not embrace new green stuff when it is not cost effective.

Blame common sense - not inertia.

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