Given the frantic activity and unpredictable movement of all kinds of hard objects within the pit, it's little surprise that the Holden Racing Team (HRT) recently standardised on Panasonic's rugged Toughbook as its notebook platform of choice. More of a surprise, however, is just how useful the device has proven to be.
Led by high-profile drivers Mark Skaife and Todd Kelly, HRT has been a frequent sight on the V8 Supercars Championship podium, thanks both to the skill of the drivers and the constant attention to car optimisation by the team's crew. As with most racing teams, this tweaking has become even easier in recent years with the introduction of notebook PCs that interface with sophisticated analysis and tuning systems.
For some time, the notebooks were only diagnostic tools and had little relevance to the drivers themselves. Several years ago, however, the introduction of the Pi telemetry system allowed collation and analysis of car performance information that is wirelessly transmitted back to the pits during test and race sessions.
This information is invaluable for drivers hoping to improve their lap times: for example, an overlay of the last lap's data, on top of previous laps' data, might show the driver where he had lost after losing precious hundredths of a second by braking at the wrong time.
Technical limitations, however, meant that this data was analysed on the pit computers -- which were attached to 27-inch displays -- then printed out and handed to the drivers to review while the cars were being serviced in the pits. This was an inefficient and rather ineffective way of distributing critical race-time information.
The team also faced another, more practical issue: constant manhandling of the notebooks had resulted in a relatively high attrition rate, with two or three notebooks destroyed each year from a variety of causes -- including being driven over. -It's quite a harsh environment -- loud, fast and quite stressful," explains Lee Webster, IT manager with HRT.
Rapid availability of performance information had improved the team's racing, but HRT's technology support crew recently realised there had to be a better way to deliver timely race information to the drivers. After assessing various options, they settled on the Toughbook CF-18, a Tablet PC form-factor notebook whose rugged, waterproof and reinforced design promised protection against many in-the-field accidents.
Eight of the notebooks have been used in the team's races since their introduction at the beginning of the year. However, choosing them was about more than just making sure they would survive their next encounter with a heavy object. Using built-in wireless LAN connectivity, the devices have become portable data display terminals that are actually handed into the car so the driver can analyse the last lap's performance using intuitive touch screen controls and handwriting annotation capabilities.
It may seem like a small change compared with the paper solution, but the heightened interactivity of the tablet PC solution has engaged the drivers and helped them analyse their performance data more readily, and with more interactivity, than ever.
-If it's a harsh environment and you're trying to scoot a [conventional] notebook into the car, it's just not going to go," says Webster. -With the screen folded flat on the tablet PC, you can just pass it through and if it does get dropped, it will be OK. The guys have been experimenting with the handwriting recognition, and they are keen to pursue this avenue further."
Their reliability proven in the pits this year, the Toughbooks are gradually taking on a range of other roles within the races. Integrated CDMA-1x antennae provide wireless Internet connectivity via Telstra's EV-DO wireless broadband service even in regional areas, where most of the races are located. The notebooks also provide regular communication with V8 Supercars Championship organisers, who distribute race updates and other relevant information to participating teams via e-mail.
In a race where hundredths of a second advantage can mean the difference between winning and losing, the rugged notebooks have become an integral part of providing that advantage. As the team works towards winning the 2006 title, Webster is upbeat about the technology's possibilities.
"You don't want to have to worry about your laptops when you're worried about winning the race," he says.