SOUTHFIELD, MICH. — Lear Corp. executives found Formula One Grand Prix racing to be the most primitive of sports.
Never mind the complicated road wars, the drivers scuffling on the streets of Sydney or Barcelona at breakneck speeds.
That was not what amazed Lear — one of the world's leading suppliers of interior automotive systems — when the company decided to take a spin for the first time with Formula One racing last fall. Instead, the Lear engineering team found out a grim fact about the world of seat design, race-car style: It is as crude as a can of motor oil.
In a sport ``with high-speed accidents and a driver in one position for hours, you'd expect the seats to be designed for safety and comfort,'' said James Masters, Lear vice president for advanced technology. ``Instead, we found the opposite was true. The seats were basically made from a plastic bag with duct tape covering a bit of foam.''
The company wants to up the ante in a sport where seats have been overlooked too long, Masters said in an interview at Lear's Southfield headquarters. Lear signed a three-year agreement in December with London-based Stewart Grand Prix, led by famed former driver Jackie Stewart, to design technologically advanced seating and occupant protection systems.
Using sophisticated computer modeling and laser scanning techniques, the company is building plastic seats for Stewart team drivers Rubens Barrichello and Jan Magnussen. The seats, made of carbon fiber and Kevlar materials, were launched in early March during the Australian Grand Prix.
The work, mainly conducted at Lear's Southfield testing and prototyping area, is focused on providing the right design for impact protection and comfort. Each seat is modeled on the singular dimensions of each driver's body, buttressed by results of head-impact testing.
The work is light-years ahead of designs for most Grand Prix seats, said John Slaven, Lear's manager for motor sports materials. Slaven, who has traveled with the Grand Prix drivers on various European circuit stops, said most seats do not take into account human factors.
``We take an environmental material solution where the seat is in tune with the driver's shape,'' Slaven said. ``It's taken a lot of work just to get the [racing] industry to the same point we are with cars.''
Lear believes it can translate its race design breakthroughs to its car and truck seats, where the megasupplier holds a commanding position. Before it can do that, the company would like to use laser devices to scan a race driver's body. Those anthropometric, or body, details would be stored in a computer-aided software package.
From there, an actual seat could be made without the need for a clay-and-epoxy model, which is used now as the first step to race-car seat design.
For its bread-and-butter business of vehicle seating, the auto supplier plans to use the same laser scanning techniques. But instead of scanning in the dimensions of a race driver, it would use the body shape of the typical driver likely to be behind the wheel of a certain vehicle, Masters said.
So, if the average driver for a minivan is a soccer mom with certain body dimensions, those dimensions would be used to design a seat, Masters said. A burlier body would be scanned for a pickup truck, while a college-age person with a slighter build could be scanned for an entry-level car.
``It's a trickier business to generalize the population by certain vehicles,'' Masters said. ``But certain body characteristics can be defined according to market niche. It could even allow the creation of a certain vehicle with different seat shapes depending on the driver.''
For instance, a midsize sedan could be built with several seating choices, depending on the build of the person buying the car, he said.
That technology is not far off. Lear is working with Montreal-based Genicom Consultants on software that can record data from body scans. Genicom, under its Safework Co. subsidiary, plans to release new commercial software that does just that.
The software, called Virtual Man, can conjure a person's body, including a face, on a computer screen from a laser scan, said Genicom Vice President Richard Carrier.
``It has a lot of possibilities,'' Carrier said. ``For racing, a seat can be made that allows a driver to exert the maximum force on brake pads or see far outside the window for a perfect view. That type of human-factors analysis also opens many doors for the medical products market, the fashion design market and others.''
Currently, the software used by Lear stores data from a scanned-in prototype model. The models were form-fitted to each race driver's body, Slaven said. Lear then fills in gaps with the ideal energy-absorbing material surrounding the model for utmost protection, he said.
That operation, borrowing from scientific impact and ergonomic data, differs from the traditional approach to Grand Prix racing, Slaven said. In that scenario, a driver sits on a plastic bag for a few minutes while black duct tape is wrapped over the surface to solidify the fit. Foam generally is placed at random in open areas, he said.
Suppliers like Lear's Technology Division want to change that as a test bed to study how vehicles can be improved.
``We're not in this because we thought it would be fun to get involved with racing,'' Masters said. ``It has an impact on our core business.''
The strongest testimony has been from the drivers themselves. Slaven, who will witness the seat's first Grand Prix race in March, said the product was tested on oval tracks this winter in Europe.
When driver Barrichello emerged from the vehicle after several hours of work, his first words to the Lear team were: ``I can breathe.''
``He couldn't even do that well with the old seat setup,'' Slaven said. ``That's the best evidence we have that what we're doing is working.''