Putting the IT in pit crew

The global circus of Formula One motor racing zooms through 17 countries every season. This year, the international spectacle began in Australia in March and finishes in Japan in October. Every race day, 350 million people in 146 different countries tune in.

Ever-shrinking time margins separate the winners from the rest of the pack. In the 2001 Austrian Grand Prix, for example, just nine-tenths of a second separated the first 10 cars on the grid. Technological progress at this level of racing is marked by the accumulated result of hundreds of tiny incremental performance increases. As the search for those improvements intensifies, race teams are increasingly turning to IT.

Technicians design approximately 3,500 new parts for each car every year. Typically, nearly 1,500 of these customized parts are redesigned as many as seven times during the racing season. The trick for race engineers is knowing what to tweak and how. That’s where IT comes in.

Each team has a wireless network set up right at trackside with 35 to 40 workstations. Each car has its own wireless network as well, with two IP addresses. As the cars zoom around the track at speeds exceeding 200 mph, telemetry from key components such as the engine, gearbox and suspension is transmitted to the team engineers.

The Jordan Honda team, for example, collects 4MBs of data from each lap. That data is relayed in real-time back to headquarters at an engineering facility at Britain’s Silverstone circuit. There, a car identical to the one being raced–complete with a weighted dummy–is mounted on a hydraulic rig that flexes and twists to replicate the physical and mechanical stresses the car endures while racing. Engineers replay each lap, looking for areas of potential improvement. By the time the team flies home to re-equip for the next race, redesigned components are already heading for the wind tunnel for testing.

The Montreal Grand Prix in June once again brought the Jordan Honda team hard-earned championship points, for the third race in a row. “The team has worked so hard, and this result was earned,” says Eddie Jordan, team founder and chief executive. “It shows we’re going in the right direction.”