Feature

IT hots up grand prix racing

Formula One racing teams rely on IT everywhere, from car design to track-side support. Nadia Damon reports

While motor racing purists continue to argue against technological developments in Formula One, there's little doubt that the sport is becoming more reliant on information technology to drive it forward.

The reintroduction of electronic driver aids such as traction control - outlawed at the end of the 1993 season - have been made necessary because of the large amount of IT involved in grand prix racing. The motor sport's governing body, FIA, announced in 2000 that it was finding it difficult to police teams involved in the sport because of the increasingly complex software being used.

Technology is key to modern Formula One teams, from component design to onboard data systems.

Head of IT at grand prix team British American Racing Roberto Volo, says, "There's no real aspect of the car that doesn't use IT. Programming the car, getting data from the car and pitstops all involve information technology."

Volo heads a 14-strong support team at BAR's headquarters in Brackley, Northamptonshire, 10 minutes' drive from British Grand Prix circuit Silverstone. His department is split into different areas providing back-end, front-end and track-side support.

Technology is used in every stage of the production of a Formula One racing car. Cad/Cam is used to design the parts that are then manufactured at BAR's Brackley factory. Technology controls the autoclaves - the giant ovens used in the production of carbon fibre components - and testing equipment, such as the wind tunnel. The tunnel is essential for gaining information on the aerodynamic efficiency of the parts, such as the front and rear wings.

Full race distances or chosen scenarios can be re-enacted on a seven-poster rig, a device which processes data fed through the network, simulating the car on the track. This simulation is essential for development work; allowing BAR to test components with forces common to each circuit.

BAR's test team consists of about 40 people and is set up at a track in the same way as the race team. The race team has around 80 to 90 members all of who need their IT equipment around the clock.

The teams are connected to BAR's headquarters via a 100Mbit local area network that is installed from afresh at each circuit - except at Silverstone where BAR has an assigned garage. Formula One squads are restricted to 90 days on the track, so continuous uptime of equipment is crucial.

The network is connected from the pit garage across to the pitwall via a laser beam, which allows data to be transferred back and forth while a car is on the race track. The Lan is connected to BAR's headquarters via a router and ISDN lines.

BAR uses over three kilometres of Cat 5 cabling a year which it leaves behind for other teams to use. The test squad carries with it around 25 laptops, 10 desktops, numerous printers and uninterruptible power supplies.

The race squad takes even more equipment, which must be transported via road or air if the race is abroad.

Supporting this type of environment is a challenge for the IT department.

"We make sure that the systems we build have a lower failure rate than you would normally expect," says Volo. "Although we tend to buy off-the-shelf systems, we work on them to make sure they can withstand harsh conditions."

High temperatures are a constant problem. Equipment sits on the pitwall, which can reach 70°C during the day, before plummeting at night. Condensation, especially at humid circuits like Sepang in Malaysia, is also a problem, as is protecting equipment from the carbon dust produced by the brakes.

This harsh environment makes the IT support role in motor racing demanding. Lee Francis is a member of the IT support team and knows the pressures involved. If he makes a mistake, it could mean a car not leaving the grid.

He is responsible for getting the communications up and running as soon as the team arrives at a circuit.

"The first couple of days of a race weekend are manic," Francis says. "You're getting everything working and the network run out. I get the communications up first because that's critical. Next, the network between the pitwall and the garage, before slowly moving down the chain of people.

"The rest of the time I'm maintaining, monitoring and checking everything, making sure everyone's happy. My aim is that the IT guy knows about a problem before anyone else does," says Francis.

A major problem in the past has been with the laser heads that provide the network connection between the pitwall and the garage.

"If there's the slightest difference when you line it up - say 1mm out left, right, up, down - then you lose the connection," he explains.

Francis has worked in IT for nine years. It is his job to ensure that BAR is connected to the Formula One management's network so that the team can access official monitoring software and the network of its works engine supplier, Honda.

"You're basically a travelling IT department - except you're the only one in it," he explains.

"At every race I have to run out a network that's neater than one that would be installed in a building - and designed to last for years - in three days."

Data received from the car's hundreds of onboard sensors is transferred to BAR's headquarters via the Wan, so it is essential that the team can access the network at any time during a race weekend.

"There are computer systems at Brackley that allow us to simulate situations using the data from the car," says Volo. "This helps to set up the car."

Simulation software is being developed by BAR's track-side IT manager, Charles Askew. He has written a program that uses a light to signal the pit crew in the garage which of its cars is coming into the pits.

"This allows us to notify the engineers when a car is coming in without letting anybody from another team know," he explains.

While the arguments for a reduction in the amount of technology in Formula One motor racing will continue to rumble on, there is no doubt that grand prix motor racing wouldn't be the spectacle it is without it.


See the Computer Weekly Fantasy Formula One league table at www.mitech.co.uk

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This was first published in May 2001

 

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