Our Stories 04 Development of Spark Plugs for Racing Cars

Story 04At the Leading Edge of Development of Spark Plugs for Racing Cars, NGK SPARK PLUG CO., LTD. Supports Leading Edge Engine and Is Racing to Keep Improving It.

The engines roar like thunder and the machines fly past in the blink of an eye. The vibrations in the air envelop the spectators, and their cheering voices ring out. These are familiar scenes in F1, the top motor race in the world. Engines are the hearts of speeding race cars. And the things which ignite engines - literally - are spark plugs. The spark plugs for racing cars made by NGK SPARK PLUG CO., LTD., - the top brand in the field of spark plugs - have a strong presence in the world of motor sport, especially F1.
The ultimate plug is to meet the demands of racing teams across the world. The designer in charge of development is an engineer with a single-minded passion for the development of plugs.

Kamata:He has concentrated single-mindedly on the development of spark plugs since he entered NGK SPARK PLUG CO., LTD. At a young age, he assumed responsibility for the development of leading-edge plugs for racing cars.

Supporting Extraordinary Engine Performance

The incredible demands of the racing world ー.

There are various kinds of races in the world of motor sport. However, there is no question that they are all severe. Furthermore, tuned engines - and the plugs for racing cars that maximize the strength of the engines - play an important role.

In fact, the way of igniting of plugs for racing cars and ones for private passenger vehicles is the same, and the shapes are similar. But, it's better to think that the two kinds of these plugs are quite different.

In the case of spark plugs for private passenger vehicles, it is sufficient to change the plugs after the cars have exceeded 100,000 km, if the plugs are of the long-life type. In contrast, if plugs for racing cars demonstrate their full potential, it is not a problem even if they only last for one race. In this way the latter ones are special.

"The engines of racing cars are completely different from those of private passenger vehicles. Therefore, every season, we develop new plugs to conform to the specifications of engines, such as ignition timing of plugs, compression ratio, heat rating and shapes of ground electrode, to maximize engine performance." stated Kamata, the young engineer who designs plugs for racing cars.

The plugs for racing cars of NGK SPARK PLUG CO., LTD. are used by various racing teams in such races as F1, World Rally Championship, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the MotoGP World Championship, which is the top motorcycle race, Super GT, SUPER FORMULA, and others.

The Challenge for Our Plugs : Improve the Performance of Racing Cars

Plugs ignite a high-pressure air-fuel mixture sprayed into engine cylinder. The size of the plug is dependent on the car models, but is generally about 5 to 7 cm in length. Voltage of 20,000 to 30,000 volts is applied to the electrodes on the edge of plugs and it makes the plugs cause ignition. In turn, they burn the mixture instantaneously.

Even in private passenger vehicles, an explosion-like combustion exposes the plugs to high pressure and high heat. Too much heat prevents the plugs from operating normally, so they need materials and structures that release heat.

However, plugs for racing cars are exposed to a higher combustion temperature and higher pressure in racing cars, the area of the engine which rotates is much larger than that of private passenger vehicles. Therefore, racing cars need special plugs.

"In the world of racing, even though we work on simulations at the design stage to do a wide range of analysis, these data by themselves are not enough to go on. When we design a plug, make a prototype, pass it to the engine development team, get their feedback, and analyze it again when we get it back. If we find something wrong, we start to work on it straight away. We repeat this process again and again throughout the season."

In order to manufacture special plugs for special engines, engineers need to know the details of the special engines, but naturally enough these are top secret. Plug engineers can only get data relating to the engine performance of a racing car. They have to guess at what kinds of engines are being manufactured and what kinds of performance are being worked on, then they start working on the design of the plug.

"These situations are so tough, but we tackle them based on the knowledge we have gained as a leading manufacturer of spark plugs."

The Solution Is Like Untying a Knot.

Designing high performance plugs for racing cars, means improving characteristics which are often involved in a kind of performance trade-off. Kamata's task is like solving a complex simultaneous equations.

For example, consider a case where a problem is caused by high temperature brought about by burning a part of a plug. We need to solve this by decreasing the temperature around the part in question. And to do so, we will change the design of the shape of the plug component to prevent it from being exposed to too much heat. However, this change may cause the temperature of another part to be raised, leading to other problems that may not have occurred if the change had not been made.

"We want to decrease a the temperature to prevent problems with the plugs, but that can lead to other problems. When we design plugs, we get one difficult problem after another" said Kamata, with an ironic grin.

Reviewing materials and changing the making fundamental changes to the structure of the plugs, Kamata and his colleagues have overcome such dilemmas many times.

It could be said that this is a continual challenge towards innovation, rather than trial and error.

The Pleasure of Contributing to Racing Teams through the Design of One Plug.

Kamata is engaged in designing spark plugs for racing cars almost all the year round.

Competitions in the world of motor sport is very fierce. Our "normal" effort is simply not enough to win in F1.
Each team manufactures and improves engines on each race in order to improve by a tenth, or even a hundredth of a second, over a the previous car. Needless to say, the same idea applies to spark plugs.

"In 2016, 21 races will be held in various regions of the world. Plugs must be able to adjust to the environment of a circuit, such as temperature or atmospheric pressure. It is not uncommon to suddenly get such requests as 'We want you to adjust this plug by the start of the next race', though this is actually not a simple operation. Throughout the season, we are continually making adjustments to the plugs"

Kamata himself doesn't go to motor racing circuit or work on the plugs there. Before the preparations for each race begin, he and his colleagues must grasp their customers' needs, design plugs based on these needs, and manufacture suitable plugs for the customers. It is a constant race against the clock.

"It's a hard task, but when I see a racing car fly past me, and I know that I helped the team behind that car, it is incredibly satisfying."

Kamata is one of those who are fascinated by motor sport.

Continuing to Challenge in Order to Increase NGK's Brand Strength

"What plug is necessary when we want to develop this kind of an engine?"
"Something is wrong with one of the plugs. What can we do?"

Engineers of racing teams contact Kamata regularly. Many of them have longer careers than him.

"When it comes to plugs, we see ourselves as professionals." He has pride in plugs as an engineer playing an important part in such a top brand. Taking the accumulated experience of NGK Spark Plugs, he builds on this experience to create new technology.

"I will never forget the moment when a race car, using plugs which I was involved with creating, took the checkered flag. When I get appreciative comments like 'The year-round support of NGK SPARK PLUG CO., LTD. gives us more confidence', my fatigue vanishes."

Starting with F1, Kamata hopes to keep working on plugs for racing cars which can be used under inconceivably difficult conditions, and to increase trust and credibility in NGK Spark Plugs.