The exit of Sebastian Vettel from Scuderia Ferrari has been the biggest Formula One news story during the pandemic. What slipped through almost unnoticed was that at the same time as Vettel’s exit, Ferrari unveiled a new pulmonary ventilator for Covid-19 patients—conceived, designed and built in five weeks. With more than 32,000 deaths so far, Italy is one of the worst affected countries in the world, and the region of Emilia-Romagna—where Ferrari’s headquarters Maranello is located—remains one of the hardest hit.
To help the Italian authorities in their nation-wide battle, Ferrari’s engineers joined hands with the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) to develop the ventilator FI5—F for Ferrari, I for IIT and 5 for the five-week target.
“This is exactly the skills we need: engineers that know fluid dynamics that can help with the design of a respirator,” Giorgio Metta, IIT’s scientific director said during the virtual unveiling last week. Despite the lockdown in the country, Ferrari was granted permission to work on the project, which now has been made an ‘open source’, allowing institutions around the world to study the model for free and build their own.
“Some Italian, Mexican and United States companies have already contacted Ferrari and IIT to move on to certifying and distributing the product. IIT, through connections to all European research centres, will put the project on the DIH-HERO network, used for robotic technologies in health care,” a Ferrari statement added. This is in addition to Ferrari also producing respirator valves and fittings for protective masks at their Maranello plant. The Agnelli family, which controls Ferrari and also the Italian football club Juventus, had earlier donated €10 million and 150 ventilators to Italy’s civil protection office and provided a fleet of vehicles for use by the Italian Red Cross.
With the start of the season delayed from March to July, F1 is in trouble itself, with revenue losses, furloughs and job cuts for the team staff and pay cuts for the drivers. And that’s just for the sustainable teams; the smaller ones are currently unsure of how they will bounce back after the crisis ends.
Less than 200km northwest of Ferrari’s Maranello is Milan, the capital city of the region of Lombardy—which is the worst affected region in the country as it has accounted for approximately half of the Covid-19 deaths in Italy. Milan is also the headquarters of Pirelli, F1’s sole tyre suppliers. Pirelli joined in the fight by donating medical equipment—ventilators for intensive care units (ICUs) and protective suits for healthcare workers.
Pirelli F1 chief Mario Isola went a step further—he’s a frontline worker in the fight.
Ever since he completed his two-week quarantine period after returning from the season-opening Grand Prix in Melbourne (which was cancelled on the weekend) back in March, Isola has been working as a volunteer paramedic and ambulance driver. Part of Croce Viola Milano—a volunteer medical service in Milan—for the last 30 years, Isola could earlier only afford to offer his services during F1’s off season. Now, he is all in. Since April 5, Isola has completed several shifts (at least once a week), with each shift lasting 10-12 hours, attending to nine calls a shift on an average.
“It’s tough. Sometimes we know we are visiting a Covid-19 patient. We also spend at least 30 minutes between every mission cleaning the ambulance to sanitise it,” Isola was quoted as saying by F1.com. “Shifts have been tough because of the hot weather. It can be difficult to breathe with the mask and physically challenging when you have to carry patients down several flights of stairs because they cannot walk.”
Isola says the job is not just physically demanding, but also a strain emotionally. “A couple of shifts ago, our first mission was with an elderly lady. She was 80 plus with high fever and breathing difficulties, so it was 90% sure a COVID-19 case. To take this grandmother from the family, you don’t know what to say. You try to support them but you don’t want to lie. So it’s very difficult,” Isola said.
In England, Silverstone – the venue for the British Grand Prix, and where the first F1 race took place 70 years ago – has made its ambulances, medical cars and numerous medical bays available to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). Following the United Kingdom government’s call for assistance for manufacturing devices to aid Covid-19 patients, the technology wings of seven UK-based teams are collaborating to produce respiratory devices. The initiative by the collaboration is called ‘Project Pitlane’.
As a part of this project and at their facility in Brixworth, reigning champions Mercedes have been producing CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) breathing aids—which Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is using for patients with severe lung infections. The NHS took to using these machines, after reports from Italy indicated that roughly 50% of patients on CPAP avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation. 10,000 units of CPAP have been rolled out of the Mercedes factory, built using machines that would normally produce F1 pistons and turbochargers. Renault and Red Bull Racing joined forces to manufacture portables ventilator recently invented by a NHS doctor.
Charles Leclerc – Ferrari’s rising star – has been volunteering with Monaco Red Cross to deliver food to the elderly who are unable to leave their homes. Leclerc also distributed food among Red Cross volunteers, transported equipment to hospitals and has been racing online, along with McLaren’s Lando Norris, to raise funds for World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Response Fund.