Computers race at Formula One

Formula One racing is a fascinating world of speeding cars and just as fast computing.

As cars scream around any of the 17 Grand Prix circuits during the racing season from March to October, sensors on the cars designed nearly 100 per cent by computer bring a stream of data from wheel speed to ignition timing back to the teams at the pit.

For example, more than 120 sensors on the West McLaren Mercedes team cars gather by wireless technology two or three gigabytes of data per race. That data is stored on Sun servers while Sun’s Java technology is used to translate the individually meaningless pieces of data into race intelligence. The data flow during the race allows the team to make split second tactical decisions.

The McLaren team has had a 14-year partnership with Sun and has revealed they have signed on for at least another five years. Sun Microsystems’ involvement with McLaren extends from the design room to the factory floor to the test track and to the team’s Web site ( This year, two Sun Technical Compute Farm (Sun TCF) systems using 64-bit computer servers are boosting the team’s computational fluid dynamics (CFD) capabilities to save crucial time at the simulation stage.

Described as the most technologically driven sport in the world, Formula One design teams apply CFD testing as a sophisticated analysis technique that uses computer power to predict the flow of liquids and gases. It is considered an essential tool to help improve the aerodynamic performance of racing car design.

CFD is used in the general automotive and other manufacturing industries as a key element of digital product development. A news release from Compaq Computer Corp. notes that in Formula One racing, CFD involves building a computer-simulated model of a race car and then applying the laws of physics to the virtual prototype to predict what the down force or drag may be on various components of the car or how the car will respond in various wind conditions, changing environmental conditions or on different road surfaces.

Aerodynamicists can use CFD to better visualize and enhance their understanding of how various designs will perform. It also allows them to experiment with more design variables in a shorter amount of time until they arrive at optimal results.

CFD enables engineers to use computer software to divide components of a racecar into specific cells or grids. For each of those cells, supercomputers are then used to calculate mathematical equations that compute the velocity and air pressure of the wind as it rushes over, under and around the specified components of the racecar. Aerodynamicists can use the resulting data to compute the down force, drag and balance the racecar will experience, depending on different environmental and road conditions and different design variables. When the calculations are finished, the aerodynamicists can analyze the results either numerically or graphically.

Compaq claims that when BMW Williams F1 team driver Ralf Schumacher hits a bump, 1000 miles away an engineer says “Ouch!” An exaggeration, no doubt, but the BMW Williams engineers do use Compaq technology to experience as closely as possible what the car and driver are going through during a race, as if they were right there on the track. This allows minute adjustments between races which are won or lost by just fractions of seconds.

The Williams F1 team this year has been using Compaq’s Tru64 UNIX-based AlphaServer SC series computing platform to conduct virtual aerodynamic tests, such as the simulated performance of aerodynamic devices in a matter of hours, instead of the weeks it used to take. Sophisticated computing capabilities give teams more time to experiment with a greater number of possible designs to improve the car’s aerodynamic performance.

Hewlett-Packard is the technology sponsor for both Jaguar Racing and Jordan Grand Prix

Formula One teams. HP involvement includes providing notebook PCs for controlling the car’s start; HP PC workstations at trackside during a practice run to analyze the car’s vital signs — speed, fuel consumption, and tire pressure; and an HP server funneling real-time data over a trackside network during the race. From garages to pit lane to support trucks, HP hardware includes servers, workstations, printers, and notebook computers and software solutions used in end-to-end management, such as 3D design, telemetry, financial control and stock control.

Jaguar Racing uses about 60 HP computers that run at the track, spanning the pit lane, garages and two support trucks that constantly deliver information vital to real-time decision making.

In vehicle development, HP supports graphics and processing-intensive CAD and CAE systems with n-class servers and workstations. At the track, HP mobile computing products such as Omnibook notebook PCS, Jornada handheld PCs and mobile Internet solutions allow engineers and team members to have constant access to performance statistics and driver information. The day-to-day business operations are supported by HP desktop PCs, Netservers and Web-based business solutions.

In order to get the advantage of the latest technology, McLaren and other Formula One teams completely redesign and remanufacture their cars, except for the engine, each year within five months, then during the course of the race period, redesign by as much as 70 per cent again.

Sun technology support to the West McLaren Mercedes this year also expanded from the Sun Ultra workstations and Java programming language to include the new Sun Blade 1000 workstation.

As well as CFD, the team uses the Sun Ultra workstations in the design process to allow a virtual car to be digitally built, reportedly down to the smallest washer, with Catia Solutions’ computer-aided design system. Sun’s Java technology is used to translate otherwise meaningless pieces of data relayed to the pit from sensors on McLaren cars hopefully tearing up the track. That information is vital for split-second tactical decisions during the race. Since Java technology provides the convenience of integrating across platforms from desktops to mainframes, the McLaren team’s PCs on the pitwall can accept the data as well as the computers back at the plant in Woking, England. McLaren also uses Java, Sun Enterprise servers and Sun-powered e-commerce on the team’s Web site, the only official outlet for the team’s merchandise.

Using Catia software and Sun hardware, the McLaren design process has moved over the years from linear to concurrent. Instead of the two-dimensional CAD world where everyone worked in isolation and followed colour and layer codes, all members of the design team work concurrently from a single master digital model and with an awareness of how their work affects other aspects of the design as they strive to make the newest car quicker than others – and still comply with the Formula One regulations.

In order to incorporate shapes such as the driver’s foot into the CAD/CAM design system, for example, the designers reportedly laser an exact replica of the driver’s foot which is then incorporated into the shape of the pedals.

McLaren notes that ten years ago, 50 per cent of the car was designed by hand. Now their cars are designed 100 per cent virtually. The McLaren’s design cycle for their 2001 car was five months. The design cycle for a road car can be seven years. McLaren estimates that 4,500 drawings are produced to create the car’s 10,800 components.

Because this business is measured in hundredths of a second, technology plays an essential role in first building a competitive F1 racecar and then changing components on a race-by-race basis. McLaren’s design engineer Scott Bain predicts that so much race information is being captured digitally and reproduced virtually that cars will someday be delivered to any Grand Prix track in the world optimized for the exact conditions of that circuit.

Faster workstations and three-dimensional graphics will alter how cars are designed, suggests Mark Canepa, Sun’s executive vice president, Network Storage Products Group.

The relationships between the Formula One teams and their computing partners is a leapfrogging between needs and capabilities. Sun’s chief marketing officer John Laiacono sees Formula One as the ultimate proving ground for leading-edge technology in mission-critical environments.

It is certainly an intense world. A Formula One car can accelerate 0-to-60 miles per hour in 2.3 seconds and from 0 – 125 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, and can also go from 150 miles per hour to a standstill in 2.5 seconds and 80 metres. The cars have a top speed of 220 miles per hour. The seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox can change gears within 20 – 40 milliseconds – and has been recorded as doing so 3,000 times during a race. But, as more than 360 million viewers per race have seen, technology can only go so far and then the unpredictable takes over: the physical pounding on the cars and the drivers, the potential for human error in the confining cockpit or at the pit, and the seemingly random hand of fate.