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3,2,1, ignite! Spark plug knowledge from the track fires up road use

The glamorous world of motorsports is a magnet for companies looking to boost their brand profile. In the case of ignition and sensor leader NGK SPARK PLUG – whose global technical partners include Formula 1’s Scuderia Ferrari, leading MotoGP teams, Citroën Total and M-Sport Ford in the World Rally Championship – racing means much more: it’s where innovations are born.

Every time a new car or motorcycle combustion engine is launched, the components inside it must meet ever-increasing demands. From improved performance and fuel economy to saving space and cutting emissions, parts manufacturers are continually seeking enhancements that deliver even better driving. Yet evolving and testing these new technologies to their limits before they reach the road is a challenge.

For Original Equipment and Aftermarket parts specialist NGK SPARK PLUG, one proving ground beats them all: the racetrack. The company has been a close technical partner of motorsports for more than 50 years – not only to help teams and drivers to victory, but also to push back the boundaries of innovation. 

The toughest test bench

“Being directly involved in motorsports makes an invaluable contribution to our products and our brand,” says Damien Germès, Regional President EMEA, President & CEO NGK SPARK PLUG EUROPE and Corporate Officer. “Laboratory and road testing alone aren’t enough. To deliver continually enhanced engine parts that excel in the most demanding driving conditions, you have to prove them in an even more extreme environment. And there is no tougher test bench than top level motorsports.”

Reflecting this approach, NGK SPARK PLUG provides super high performance ignition and sensor parts and technical advice to teams and individuals on 4- and 2-wheels, on track and off road, and even on the water. The company builds on its status as an Original Equipment supplier to the world’s vehicle and motorcycle manufacturers through international sponsorships such as Formula 1 (F1), the World Rally Championship (WRC), SuperGT, MotoGP, Motocross World Championship (MXGP), World Superbike Championship (WSBK), Speedway and Trial World Championship – amongst others. Whilst the hard work behind these partnerships remains hidden from public view, the presence of its logo on cars, bikes and helmets has made NGK SPARK PLUG a well-recognised brand on the track.

Racing ahead

Of the countless teams and drivers who have made their mark on motorsports history backed by NGK SPARK PLUG, private teams are usually supplied from the company’s Racing spark plug range.

These highest performance plugs are especially developed to withstand the exceptional stresses of competition, and have earned a reputation for being amongst the best in the world. Engine speeds during a race can frequently exceed 15,000 rpm. Temperature, pressure and vibrations in the combustion chamber are so immense that conventional ground electrodes could break or melt. For these reasons the company’s Racing spark plugs often feature specially designed ground electrodes – or, for especially demanding uses, a ring-shaped ground electrode where the spark jumps between the ground and middle electrode. Indeed, such is the efficiency, reliability and durability of NGK SPARK PLUG’s replacement Racing spark plugs in these harsh conditions, that they can be found in most of the vehicles on any racetrack worldwide.

Sparking 4-wheel innovation

In a few cases however, NGK SPARK PLUG forms close technical partnerships with major engine manufacturers to develop tailor-made racing components. Its long-standing relationship with F1 is just one such example. In 1964 the company teamed up with Honda – also its first Original Equipment customer – to participate in the sport for the first time. The following year the constructor achieved its first Grand Prix victory. NGK SPARK PLUG parts were soon fitted in many other F1 engines; and by 2013, its support had helped to achieve an impressive 300 race wins and more than 30 world driver and constructors’ championships. Today the company is a technical partner of the Scuderia Ferrari team, driven by Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.

The product developer’s ability to design guaranteed, rapid-fire ignition under the most extreme F1 sparking pressures, vibrations and temperature differences has been part of this success. A F1 plug’s thermal characteristics must also be outstanding: its ability to dissipate heat can be as important as ignition itself.

For NGK SPARK PLUG, however, success on the track is only part of the story. Damien Germès confirms: “We may be experts at firing up motorsports teams, but our motivation is much deeper than that. Most importantly we apply that knowledge to our Original Equipment and Aftermarket products, in order to benefit customers and everyday motorists too. Our precious metal and semi-surface spark plug technologies, for example, began in F1 but are now common Original Equipment in passenger cars. They bring a range of driving and environmental advantages that benefit us all.”

Beyond F1, NGK SPARK PLUG parts are also used by production car teams in the equally extreme snowy forests and rocky mountain passes of the World Rally Championship. To date, the company has contributed to 14 manufacturer titles and 17 driver titles in the sport. In the 2019 race season it is providing Racing parts to Citroën Total. It is also a technical partner to M-Sport Ford, whose EcoBoost-powered Fiesta cars, steered by Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen, are equipped with advanced spark plugs and oxygen sensors from the company.

M-Sport Ford’s partnership with NGK SPARK PLUG goes back more than 10 years. The team’s Sponsor Account & Events Manager Rebecca Patterson confirmed: “It’s a relationship that works nicely on both sides. Rallying is very different to other motorsports. Races are held in 14 countries with conditions varying from -20°C Swedish snow to 40°C Mexican heatwaves. You might be on gravel or at altitude. We have to be able to trust on partnerships, and parts, that deliver from event to event.”

Communication is regular and productive. “The engineers from M-Sport, Ford and NGK SPARK PLUG work together closely on a daily basis. More than that, NGK SPARK PLUG also gets fully involved in the season, bringing guests to watch each race. With something as essential as an engine component you can’t afford for anything to go wrong. It’s really important to have reliability from a technical partner – and NGK SPARK PLUG has never let us down.”

2-wheel technologies

Innovation insights have also been gained from NGK SPARK PLUG’s 30-year involvement in the motorcycle racing arena – contributing to its position as the number one provider of Original Equipment spark plugs and oxygen sensors for 2-wheels.

Every class presents a different, high stress environment for ignition: MotoGP uses production bikes; Superbike machines are modified street bikes; in Motocross there are jumps and dust to deal with; whilst in Speedway, bikes exceed 110 km per hour with only one fixed gear.

Recognising this, NGK SPARK PLUG takes every opportunity to participate in different arenas. In the premium racing class, MotoGP, it develops bespoke spark plugs especially for the Monster Energy Yamaha and Repsol Honda teams. Riders benefiting from this backing in 2019 include Honda’s Marc Márquez, the current MotoGP world champion; as well as Yamaha’s multiple champion Valentino Rossi.

The company is an equally committed supporter of other 2-wheel teams and individual riders in a variety of racing categories. In 2019 sponsorships include the Monster Energy Kawasaki Racing Team in MXGP and Repsol Honda’s respected TrialGP team with multiple world champion Toni Bou. Personal sponsorships include British, Swedish, German and Lebanese riders in championships such as Speedway GP, Moto2, the U.A.E. Sportbike Championship and road races such as the Isle of Man TT. These collaborations enable talented riders and teams to benefit from the NGK SPARK PLUG name and technical expertise, as well as providing vital parts performance feedback for the brand.

Ultimately, Germès concludes, the purpose of all these partnerships is learning. “We are extremely proud of our long motorsports involvement – not only at the highest levels but with niche teams and amateur enthusiasts too. As well as helping them to win, we are continually setting new standards in parts technology that improve everyday driving. That’s a strong motivation, and it will stay part of our strategy for years to come.”