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What Chevy’s Colorado pickup learned from F1 racing

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

What do the Formula One race cars at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix and a Chevy Colorado ZR2 pickup have in common? More than you might think.

Ride and handling requirements are “all about the precise control of the suspension,” says Murray White, Multimatic technical director.

The rugged, off-road Colorado hit dealerships this spring sporting the same sophisticated “spool-valve” shock absorbers developed for high-performance racing. Made by Toronto-based auto supplier Multimatic, spool-valve shocks are just the latest evidence of track-to-production-car trickle-down. Or “track-to-trail,” as Multimatic likes to say.

For decades, auto manufacturers have used the race track to raise their public profiles. But racing also has played a significant role in accelerating the development of vehicle technology.

Examples abound: The fuel injection now found on the most common $20,000 family sedan debuted on exotic Mercedes-Benz Formula One greyhounds in the 1950s before migrating to the German brand’s 300SL road car. Dual-clutch transmissions, disc brakes, carbon-fiber construction and sticky tire compounds were first developed for racing.

The ZR2 has earned raves from auto critics for its versatility in handling dirt and asphalt with equal aplomb.

“When you’re racing, the amount of information you can gather very quickly about how something performs is worth weeks and weeks of testing,” says Stephanie Brinley, senior auto analyst with IHS Automotive. “A 24-hour endurance race is a great way to gather information — especially in changing weather and track conditions. Sometimes it’s about finding different solutions that turn out to be a good solutions for street cars as well.”

Even for pickups.

Spool-valve shock technology — the formal term is Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve — took a winding dirt road to get to Chevy trucks. Like the Mercedes-to-family sedan fuel-injection odyssey, Multimatic’s spool valves first found favor with an expensive luxury car: the $2 million Aston Martin One-77.

The Checy Colorado ZR2's Multimatic spool valve shocks in the wild.

Traditional shock absorbers have thin, stacked discs covering ports that control the flow of hydraulic oil to “damp” movement and keep the car from pogo-ing on bumpy roads. In spool-valve shocks, the discs are replaced with nesting cylindrical sleeves held apart by a spring.

The newer shocks are easier to “tune” for their expected use. And when the oil in the DSSV shock gets hot and thin from repeated pounding on a race track or from off-road punishment, they don’t lose their damping ability like traditional shock absorbers.

“The DSSV has been known in racing circles for at least 20 years beginning with IndyCar and then Formula One,” says Murray White, Multimatic technical director of vehicle development. “The first application was in the Aston Martin. Then GM came to us and said (they) would like to do a technology demonstration project with the 2014 Camaro Z28 Camaro. Then they came back to us and said, OK, we have the next application for the spool-valve dampers: a truck. We said, a truck?”

But the application made sense. The same technology that precisely controls hydraulic flow through a shock absorber tube under extreme race conditions could also tune a pickup to be as smooth on-road as it is durable off. The tiny F1 shocks — parts miniaturization drives racing costs sky high — are barely recognizable next to the pickup’s giant struts, but they share a fundamental design.

The Chevy Colorado ZR2’s “spool-valve” shock absorbers derive their technology from racing shocks, like the tiny one in the middle. They were developed by auto supplier Multimatic.

“When you stop and think about ride and handling requirements, it’s all about the precise control of the suspension,” says White. “It doesn’t matter what it is — a tank, a truck, a race car — precision control of the way the suspension moves is what you want.”

The 2017 Colorado ZR2, targeted at buyers with a taste for Baja-style adventure, has won raves from media for its versatility in conquering the outback — and then negotiating asphalt roads with nimble aplomb. The shock has given Chevy a leg up in the off-road pickup wars against formidable adversaries like Toyota’s Tacom TRD Pro and the Ford F-150 Raptor. Multimatic’s success has raised its profile alongside other suppliers like Brembo (brakes) and Michelin (tires), whose extensive work in racing has made them household names in production cars.

“The trickle-down effect from racing can be circuitous — but that’s the magic of it,” says IHS’ Brinley. “It can be really hard to draw a straight line to it — but you are learning so much more about vehicle dynamics in racing.”

Sometimes the process works in reverse. Sometimes production cars influence racing.

“What’s more interesting is when street technology transfers to the track, such as the hybrid drivetrain systems that are now used in many race cars but started out as fuel-efficiency designs for street cars,” says Karl Brauer, auto analyst for Cox Automotive.

Indeed, with fuel consumption regulations in Formula One paralleling government mpg rules for production cars, the hybrid-electric powertrains currently used in F1 cars derive much of their know-how from production engineering.

“For the first time in decades, F1’s goals were aligned with the wider automotive industry,” reports the technology site, “To produce the best engine, teams would have to push for efficiency — exactly what we want from our road cars.”

What might be the next big thing that migrates from track to street?

Multimatic’s White points to carbon-fiber construction that was once exclusive to race car chassis, but is now being applied in production cars. The Ford GT supercar experiments with low-cost carbon fiber. And the Alfa Romeo 4C is the first production sports car under $100,000 to feature a full carbon-fiber chassis.

“Carbon fiber is a very appropriate material to use in some places. People will figure out the most appropriate use of it — there is a lot of emphasis on light-weighting these days and carbon fiber lends itself to those uses,” says Multimatic’s suspension wizard.

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