Williams' F1 IT support: man v machine

Engineers at Williams' Grove factory in the UK will be just as crucial to the success of its two drivers as its track-side engineers at the Grand Prix in Melbourne, according to Williams' co-founder and engineering director, Patrick Head.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on

Engineers at Williams' Grove factory in the UK will be just as crucial to the success of its two drivers as its track-side engineers at the Grand Prix in Melbourne, according to Williams' co-founder and engineering director, Patrick Head.


Behind the sceen: William's F1 driver Nico Hulkenbeg
(Credit: Williams/AT&T)

If there is an abnormality in William's engine, brakes, wings or power supply, the problem will hopefully be picked up in the UK before its track-side engineers find it, which might not be until something goes wrong.

Today's F1 car is equipped with over 200 telemetric sensors, which feed data to both the Melbourne and UK teams in order to detect faults as well as record and compare minute differences between the technique employed by its two drivers, Nico Hulkenberg — who made his F1 debut in Bahrain in March — and veteran F1 driver Ruben Barrichello. The team is backed up by an AT&T fibre link that supports its VPN connection back to the UK.

Two weeks prior to each race, AT&T lays fibre to Williams' garage and connects its computing equipment to its temporary 'point of presence' — a node that feeds into its local providers, Telstra and Optus — in preparation for the race.

Over a two-day period, about 15 Gigabytes of data is collected from each car's sensors and sent back to its UK headquarters for analysis. While it has achieved "real-time" communications for some data, its VPN link is not quite fat enough to cater for everything, which means that some raw data is prioritised for real time, while other data is stored locally for analysis later.

If there's a problem, according to Head speaking to media yesterday, its remote engineers will today be likely be able to view that and respond by sending a text or an email.

But all the computing and networking power in the world can't stop some mishaps. Recently one of the power supplies in Barrinchello's car went down during a crucial practice session, but no one noticed the green light which flagged the problem.

"By the time they went to start the car, the battery was flat. And by the time they sorted the battery out, they then found that the on-board electronic control unit had dumped all its programs. So the chaos it caused meant that Rubens got hardly any running during the practice," says Head. Next times, Head says, he hopes the indicator will be a "big flashing orange light".

The team's garage data screens were also knocked out by problems with the power supply, which forced Williams to re-design how it configured its computing equipment.

"We have lots of separate cabinets now — three cabinets with all the servers and telemetry data storage in it. And one of those was in some way overloading the power supply. So the power supply went down, I think, just before qualifying. By the time they got the power supply sorted out, then of course all the programs had been dumped."

It was a simple problem, but it was enough to cause the team to panic. "It looked as if we had major IT problems but in fact it was all involved with power supplies... For some reason the UPS [backup power supply] which is supposed to last 30 minutes went down in three minutes. Whereas [our operation] looks high-tech on the surface, we have these relatively low-tech problems," he said.

In a perfect world, England should have also been remotely monitoring and would have notified them of the power supply failure, but that didn't happen, he said.

Tech has changed the car world

"Thirty years ago we would take more engineers with more car knowledge, but while they were at the track they weren't working on whatever was the new system back in the factory," Head said.

IT and fibre links back to its headquarters may have helped share information better and restructure its labour force, but there are two downsides: every team got the technology advantages at the same time, and today there's less time for golf.

"It's something that is a bit of a pity in that we were blissfully ignorant 30 years ago, and we used to develop the cars in a much lesser way, so it was quite likely that you would be going out with the drivers and going for a game of golf beforehand. Now the engineers are kept back in the factory," says Head.

The upshot is that it may have taken some of the "bullshit" out of engineering. "Maybe there was a lot of people bullshitting, people trying to claim that they knew what they were talking about when they didn't. Back then there was nothing to tell us we didn't."

Man versus machine

The other key use for its communications network is to compare how Hülkenberg and Barrichello handle each corner.

"Everything has been monitored, and they show me overlays of Rubens's lap, my lap and sometimes I'm quicker in this corner, he's quicker in that corner. So you see the line, his braking lights are turning on earlier or later, or on a different line. That's how you improve and ideally push each other," Hülkenberg said.

So does Hülkenberg trust the machine? "Sometimes yes. Sometimes the computer tells you to go a certain direction, but a computer doesn't have the feel that the driver has in the car."

When he disagrees with the computer, he said Barrichello and he would "find a compromise" with the engineers. "Or I go that direction and then we'll find out who was right or not."

The other key technology platform, which Hülkenberg had to use prior to driving the actual car, is Williams' F1 simulator (see video). Former F1 racer Mark Blundell described Williams' simulator as "an unbelievable experience".

But not Hülkenberg. "It's a lot better and more accurate than a PlayStation, but as I say, it's OK to use it for a certain amount, but not too much. You don't feel the forces: the speed, the G-force, the force on your body. It's just a computer that gives you the over-steer or under-steer, which is not right. It's not natural is it?"

And unlike many born in the late 1980s, Hülkenberg said: "I don't have a PlayStation or Xbox. I'm not that kind of guy," he says.

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