If you asked folks to pick one automaker as the world’s most adventurous brand, Land Rover would be the top choice for many. After all, Land Rover was the force behind the legendary Camel Trophy races of the 1980s and ’90s, taking teams to the most extreme locations on Earth and pitting them in a race where an entire day’s progress might measure less than five miles.
The Camel Trophy moved all over the world for 20 years, visiting places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Zaire, Brazil, Madagascar, Siberia, Chile, and Mongolia. Wherever there’s a race that requires real “go-anywhere” capability, you’ll find Land Rovers driving and leading the pack.
But once you’ve crawled, scrambled, and winched yourself across every continent and island on Earth, what’s left? For Land Rover, it was time to get into the water, and into the toughest sailboat race ever devised: The America’s Cup.
Land Rover on Water
At first glance, it sounds crazy (and maybe it is) for Land Rover to think it could get into sailing and win. A modern competition sailboat seems to have nothing in common with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so what is Land Rover bringing to the table? And what can they possibly expect to get back out of the sport except its name on the side of the boat? Plenty, as it turns out.
Once you’ve crawled, scrambled, and winched yourself across every continent and island on Earth, what’s left?
First, Land Rover hired Martin Whitmarsh to be the CEO of the team. Whitmarsh comes to Land Rover from a nearly 20-year career at McLaren, including stints as Head of Operations and CEO of its racing division, so he knows a few things about racing and winning.
“It seems slightly odd to have the name Land Rover on the water, but in terms of customer participation it’s a core sport,” Whitmarsh told Digital Trends.”So getting to those customers where they have passion, it’s a high value relationship builder.”
But there’s more to Whitmarsh’s thinking than just good marketing. The foundation of the partnership is technology and innovation in pursuit of victory.
“A winning team has to have the quickest boat, and Land Rover brings that technological differentiation,” Whitmarsh says. “It’s not just about being a brand partner, it’s about being an innovation partner.”
The team is officially known as Land Rover BAR, for Ben Ainslie Racing. Sir Ben Ainslie is the skipper of “Rita” the new spec America’s Cup yacht, and his sailboat racing career is second to none. He started competing in the America’s Cup in 2002, and won the cup for Team Oracle USA on the last running in 2013. He has also claimed eleven world sailing championships and 4 gold medals at the Olympics.
“The America’s Cup is one thing we’ve never won in British history,” Ainslie says, “and with our long maritime history, that’s a sore spot for British sailors.”
The Land Rover BAR partnership focuses on three areas where Land Rover’s skills can cross over to the sailing world.
“Primarily, it’s a technical partnership,” Whitmarsh tells Digital Trends. “And it’s really about three core areas. Aerodynamics being one, then the control systems that we use to power the boat around the course, and the efficiency systems.”
The flying boat
To work on aerodynamics, engineers from Jaguar Land Rover are working with the team to understand the way the boat moves through the water, and how to make it fly.
Here’s the thing: water is really dense. Up to 1,000 times more compact than air. So the fastest way for a boat to move through water is to get it out of the water and into the air. That’s why the wing-sail on an America’s Cup yacht is bigger than the wing of a Boeing 737; to provide enough energy to drive the boat forward and pick it up out of the water.
The real technical advancement is a thing called a daggerboard, which was originally a stabilizing device similar to a rudder. But in America’s Cup sailing, they made the daggerboards bend to create an underwater wing that will lift the boat’s hull entirely free of the water, so that it rides on four small hydrofoils.
What Land Rover is bringing to the party is its extensive experience with wind tunnel modeling and structural engineering, to help make the design of the daggerboards more efficient. With Land Rover’s resources, the turnaround time on new designs is greatly reduced, and the structural strength of the daggerboards can be enhanced.
Controlling the boat
Another area where Land Rover is bringing technical chops is in control systems. The days of America’s Cup sailors hauling on ropes to trim the sails are gone. To win the race, the Land Rover boat has to be able to make minute changes far more quickly than traditional sailing gear will allow. Land Rover’s expertise in automated feedback and control systems helps the team make split-second decisions and execute adjustments to keep the boat in optimum trim.
“It’s how we fly the boat,” Ainslie says. “Without getting too technical, it’s very difficult for a human mind to keep the boat foiling above water all the time. So, what areas are there for machines to help us with that?”
Finally, Land Rover is bringing the ability to perform deep analysis of big data to the sailboat racing game. A Land Rover SUV logs over 5.8 million data points every day, pulled from over 3,000 data sources. The Land Rover BAR yacht has just 350 data sources, but the logging system monitors each of those points 500 times per second for 189 million data points collected on every test run.
“The human-machine interface is really kind of clever and futuristic. It’s asking how we can be smarter about how we sail these boats.”
“The human-machine interface is really kind of clever and futuristic,” Whitmarsh says. “It’s asking how we can be smarter about how we sail these boats.”
By analyzing the data and relating it back to design changes in the aero and control systems, the boat can gain about a half-knot to whole knot of straight-line speed. That may not sound like much, but in a racing series as closely matched as the America’s Cup, it’s enough to make a crucial difference. America’s Cup races are routinely won or lost by just a few seconds.
The data analysis facilitated by Land Rover allows the team to understand how to go fast in a straight line, and also when and how much to change the boat’s orientation to the wind. By combining fast data analysis with the experience of the skipper and the weather eye of the tactician, the team can optimize their performance and win the race.
Bringing it back to your next Land Rover
It’s very fun to talk about the fastest and most advanced sailboats in the world, and the similarity to auto racing is undeniable, but how does all this get back to the next Land Rover you’re going to drive?
Honestly, the connection is a little tenuous, but it’s there. We spent time with Ian Anderton, Thermal and Aerodynamics Manager for Jaguar Land Rover, and asked how any of this could possibly feed back into a car design.
“We’re working with new materials and different engineering problems on the boat,” he explained. “We’re learning more about making things lightweight and incredibly strong at the same time. We take all that back with us and bring it to our regular work.”
The machine learning aspect of the America’s Cup effort also feeds back to the car business. More experience integrating and analyzing vehicle data will allow future vehicles to understand and work with the driver’s personal preferences, just as the boat learns to tailor itself to the skipper.
So while you might not be able to point to a wing or a daggerboard on a new Range Rover, you might read about an increase in chassis stiffness, or a new structural part made of carbon fiber that saves weight. And when your next Land Rover adapts itself to your driving style to maintain efficiency of performance and economy, there will be a little of the America’s Cup going on there. If nothing else, working on the America’s Cup racing yacht gives Land Rover engineers a chance to step out of their routine and think about new problems and new solutions. Plus, the whole thing is just unbelievably cool.