F1 racers pick up speed with telemetry

MONTREAL – Formula One racing has a colourful tradition in its flags (yellow for caution on the track, red for race stop) and those white boards with black lettering that teams hold up for the driver to peruse as he zips by. But thanks to new racing rules and advanced wireless technology, these F1 icons could be relegated to the history books.

By way of a new king of telemetry – the art of sending and receiving data without wires – race teams can get crucial car and track information to the person behind the wheel in a manner less intrusive than ever, proving how network technology affects not only run-of-the mill business, but also business at the extreme.

In the normal course of racing, F1 teams use telemetry to retrieve information from the 200-odd sensors attached to the car. Electronic monitors cover parameters such as the engine’s revolutions-per-minute (RPM), the amount of hydraulic pressure in the transmission and other elements essential to the vehicle’s performance.

But until this year, the teams could not send information to the car, only retrieve data from it. Two-way telemetry was against the rules so any changes that could affect the way the car performs had to be made by the driver via a tiny screen set inside the steering wheel.

For example, the pit crew might decide that the car’s engine control unit (ECU) is not set properly for the track. Perhaps the engine should be pumping a bit more torque and a hint less horsepower. To facilitate the change, the crew would radio the driver and tell him to amend the ECU program. The driver would use a series of buttons on the steering wheel to find the right settings in the view screen and enter the program himself.

While driving at speeds three times the limit on the Trans-Canada Highway, menu-scrolling is no small task. (Imagine operating your workstation and at the same time a car travelling 300 km/h.) So this year, the F1 racing body changed the rules to allow two-way wireless transmissions. Now, if the pit crew wants to change the ECU program, they can do so themselves without bothering the driver during high-velocity manoeuvres.

And the drivers need not be distracted by the white information boards as they fly by pit row. In fact, “you might think it’s rather archaic – of course, it is in some way – that the pit crews still hang out a board for the driver to look at when he flashes past,” said Rick Parfitt, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s sponsorship program manager. HP provides IT and network technology to certain F1 teams such as Jaguar Racing.

Indeed, the board is unnecessary in this age of two-way telemetry. The info could pop up on the drivers’ steering wheel screens, said John Saville, Jaguar Racing’s CIO. Pit crews would forego the boards altogether. And race officials would leave their cautionary flags behind, the traditional colours turned into icons on the driver’s wheel.

“Rather than having the driver scrolling through menus at 300 km/h, if [the teams] can do that from base, so much the better,” Saville said.

Two-way telemetry could have an effect even beyond the world of F1. Parfitt said HP wants to bring this technology closer to home. He imagines automotive manufacturers using telemetry to gather information about passenger car performance and passing that info on to the owner, who should be warned of impending problems under the hood.

Saville had his own opinion of the future of two-way telemetry, however. Whereas Parfitt’s vision puts the burden on the channel coming into the manufacturer from the car, “the outboard channel will be the busy one,” Saville said. Manufacturers would send more information than receive, downloading entertainment options and electronic maps to the car as the driver requests.

It’s too soon to say just how two-way telemetry will play out on Canada’s highways, or other places for that matter. It’s even too soon to say how two-way telemetry will affect F1 racing. This is the first year for it and each team has its own modus operandi.

Behind Jaguar’s racing paddock, Kaz Ukai, the team’s electronics operations manager, tells all about the system this crew uses: a tower, receiver and technology developed by Pi Research Ltd., a company that builds automotive data acquisition and control systems. The Jaguar system runs at 5GHz and, depending on how close the car is to pit row, the transmitter sends data at 38Kbps to 115Kbps (the closer the car is to the pit, the higher the bit rate).

When the car is near the pits, Pi’s infrastructure sends and receives bursts of data to take advantage of the quickest bit rates available during the race. When the car is further away, the system monitors the bare essentials, such as engine RPM.

Winston Douglas, the IT track-side engineer with Jaguar Racing, said the team analyzes info from the car with 14 HP Netservers.

Asked about wireless technology challenges, Saville said Jaguar would have little trouble with two-way telemetry. After all, the one-way system is tried and true, so the bi-directional offshoot should be problem-free. But the team still has trouble with an otherwise stalwart part of F1 racing: voice communication between the driver and the pit crew. With a massive engine right behind the driver’s head, voice signals pick up “some funny harmonics,” Saville said. These strange noises make it difficult for team and driver to understand each other.

HP, Jaguar’s IT provider, helps with another type of understanding: making sure the team back at race headquarters gets the full gist of what’s happening at the track. HP hooks up stations in the crew’s makeshift office behind the paddock so as many as 30 laptop users can see what’s going on inside the car. HP also secures the long-haul communication lines to get that info back to Jaguar’s lair in Tilbrook, Milton Keynes, UK.

Although Parfitt said two-way telemetry would make F1 racing more safe, Saville said it probably wouldn’t affect this sport’s colourful tradition. Yes, race flags could become mere icons on the driver’s wheel, but the future is not likely to shake out like that. After all, “there are certain things we’d still like to see,” he said. Race fans want to see those flags flying.

Take it from one racing legend: two-way telemetry would not change everything about F1. Jackie Stewart, three-time F1 world champion, said he’s not so much worried about tradition as he is about practical limits.

“I think it would be good to get into a situation where we put a yellow flag right in front of the driver,” he said. But the steering wheel screen is tiny and frankly, “there is a limited amount of space.”