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Cars vs Covid | Update

From the McLaren Technical Centre to Mercedes F1, the national effort to combat covid is taking real shape

By Dafydd Wood / Wednesday, April 22, 2020

'Ventilator Challenge UK' is not a competition anyone wanted to be competing in. Car manufacturers and F1 teams would prefer to be getting on with the business of building cars and winning races. But for anyone with even a passing interest in the automotive industry, it's heartening to see the amount of engineering muscle which has been brought to bear. Not all of it has borne fruit, of course - but the fact that prior loyalties, commitments and conflicts have been set aside with a common goal in mind is testimony to the men and women involved. And while comparisons with the wartime effort to build Spitfires are a little overwrought, there's no question that the 'we can help' attitude is undeniably one of things that will help see us through the current crisis.

Nowhere is this spirit in greater evidence than Mercedes F1's facility at Brixworth, which has now been entirely repurposed to work on the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machines it has helped to design. The ventilator was the first to be approved by the NHS, and is being built with tools previously used for doing pistons and turbos. They've made pretty good Formula 1 engines, after all, so who better to trust with life-saving medical equipment?

Over in Woking, McLaren has been doing its bit, too, as a new video released today explains. It takes us inside the McLaren Technical Centre, which, like Brixworth, has been rearranged to humbly help produce the trolleys for ventilators rather than supercars for the one percent. A joint effort across Racing, Automotive and Applied, McLaren has, it says, "been focused on component manufacturing for a ventilator based on existing technologies and is additionally deploying planning, project management and purchasing teams to procure all parts to help ramp-up production."

Obviously nobody knows where the pandemic will take us next - and it's worth pointing out that Nissan's pilot project to safely return its employees to work at Sunderland is no less worthy of praise, given the requirement to return to work as soon as is possible - but the commitment of sophisticated manufacturing firms is surely going to make a difference - even if sometimes it's just the reassurance that somewhere, very clever people are labouring to solve problems which affect us all. Let's hope they can all get back to their day jobs before too long.

UPDATE, 30/03/2020:

When the government declared an urgent need for ventilators two weeks ago, a whole host of UK-based manufacturing firms answered the call. Now, as time progresses, we're getting a better idea of exactly what form those answers will take.

Rather than working separately, a consortium dubbed 'VentilatorChallengeUK' has come together to better channel the shared ability of its members. Companies including Airbus, BAE Systems, Ford, McLaren and Rolls-Royce are now working flat-out to fulfil a 10,000-machine order within the next couple of weeks, when the virus is predicted to peak.

By reverse-engineering an existing, off-patent device, improving its design and then optimising it for rapid mass production, the group has managed to shorten a process which can take years into one it has accomplished in just a few days.

Not every firm has revealed its specific role in the undertaking, but for its part McLaren has circled the wagons of its Automotive, F1 and Applied Technologies divisions. Combining their expertise has allowed the marque to not only assist in the production and testing of the components, but also to design bespoke trolleys onto which the ventilators can be fixed for use in clinical settings.

Mercedes F1, meanwhile, has been working with engineers from University College London to build CPAP machines. These Continuous Positive Airway Pressure units help patients receive oxygen without the need for a more invasive ventilator, but are in equally short supply. Around 40 trial CPAP devices have already been delivered to London hospitals, with the potential for Mercedes to produce up to 1,000 per day if they function as expected.

Other manufacturers continue to offer help in whatever ways they can, with JLR providing over 100 press and test cars -including dozens of new Defenders - to help the British Red Cross "support those who are isolated or vulnerable." It's a policy the firm is replicating across Europe, with fleets of vehicles being provided in some of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic.


Despite factories around the world ceasing production, plenty of manufacturers - and their employees - have not simply turned off the lights and gone home to wait things out. While the severity, longevity and reach of the damage to the industry remains unclear, in the short term its collective focus remains on the protection of life rather than profits. The fight against Coronavirus and its knock-on effects may be one of the greatest challenges the modern world has ever faced, but it remains important to highlight the positive actions being taken in the face of it. Hearteningly, there are plenty of those to report.

This doesn't necessarily mean converting facilities to produce medical supplies, either. Ferrari vowing to continue paying its employees throughout the shutdown and Bentley offering up its Bentayga press fleet to run a 'Meals on 22-inch Wheels' service are just two examples of the ways in which manufacturers are attempting to support their local communities on a daily basis.

For others, with larger operations and more extensive parts catalogues, more direct contributions to front-line services are possible. Fiat has begun converting one of its Chinese plants to produce up to one million protective masks per month, and Ford has already delivered the first thousand of the 75,000 transparent face shields it expects to be able to make a week.

The Blue Oval has also teamed up with 3M and General Electric to devise a portable ventilator that can be quickly mass produced using existing components. Per the design, the fans intended for the F-150's optional ventilated seats are paired with the battery from a cordless power tool and a medical-grade filter to create the kind of life-saving device which hospitals so desperately need.

Tesla boss Elon Musk, meanwhile, took a more immediate approach, buying over 1,000 ventilators from China and having them brought to his home state of California. Such quick results are unlikely to be seen across the board, however, with the acquisition of the expertise, components and production lines to build the required resources no mean feat in itself. That's a problem being tackled by a host of UK-based firms, including a number of F1 teams, McLaren Automotive and Nissan, who are working with the government to try and help.

Then there's Ineos, the UK chemicals giant which was recently announced as Mercedes' principal F1 sponsor, and has declared its intention to build its own utilitarian Defender substitute, the Grenadier. It plans to construct two new factories in just 10 days, one at its Newton Aycliffe site near Middlesbrough and one in Germany. Once complete, these will produce up to one million bottles of hand sanitizer a month, which will then either be sold to the public or made available to the NHS for free.

It hasn't all been good news; automotive employees have been among those to lose their lives to the virus, several manufacturers have already announced redundancies - an acceleration of a concerning recent trend - and the effectiveness of proposed government bailouts has yet to be ascertained. More can always be done, but for every sad story and disappointing decision, there are people making moves to help alleviate some of the suffering that the situation has caused.

Of course, this covers only a small portion of the action being taken across the sector. If there are any manufacturers, suppliers, dealers or mechanics that you feel we've missed out above, then feel free to call attention to their work in the comments below.

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