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The technology behind an F1 race

While Formula One cars are feats of engineering in themselves, the technology involved in the race and preparation leading up to it is equally impressive.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

When the streets of Singapore come alive with F1 action this weekend, it may be easy to forget how much technology is involved to enable the cars to whiz through the track at breakneck speeds.

Perhaps the most noticeable equipment will be the lights lining the track. Designed by Italian lighting contractor, Valerio Maioli, the Philips-made system will involve some 1,500 lighting projectors around the track, lighting it to the level of 3,000 lux--nearly four times brighter than a typical sports stadium.

Provision has been made for wet weather in the tropical city: the projectors will beam light on the track at different angles, rather than vertically, to minimize glare off the road surface should it rain.

The power requirements of these lights are correspondingly stringent. While many of the teams will plug their backend IT systems into the country's power grid, Valerio Maioli has fitted 12 twin-power generators to power the lights. These 24 generators are also fail-resistant--the second generator will pick up the load should the first one fail, to keep the light-levels consistent.

But green supporters should rest easy, a Philips spokesperson told ZDNet Asia. The lighting system is 16 percent more energy efficient compared to competitors' products, said the spokesperson.

Another noticeable addition to the track from Valerio Maioli will be digital flags--electronic light displays which will replace the traditional colored flags used in day races, for better visibility at night. These 35 panels will communicate vital information to drivers.

Supercomputing in Formula One
Behind the scenes is where you will find the heavy-duty computing power. Alex Burns, chief operating officer of the Williams F1 team described to ZDNet Asia in an interview the magnitude of the systems involved, both leading up to the event and during the actual race itself.

Burns said the team takes 35 Lenovo Thinkpad laptops to the circuit, to be used by race engineers. In the garage by the pit stop, there are another eight racks of servers: two for the data coming off each of the two cars, and another two for each car's engines, he said.

All of this is necessary to store and process the terabytes of telemetry data that is taken from over 100 sensors on each car, so that engineers can fine-tune performance.

Drivers use this data to compare and learn from each other while on the track, too, according to Williams team driver, Nico Rosberg.

Speaking at a media briefing, Rosberg said: "I can compare [driving] data with teammates, and immediately adapt my driving style to the portions of the track where they were faster around the corners."

The Williams team also relies on a custom-built supercomputer, which crunches out simulation data for drivers. Rosberg has tried out Singapore's track on a simulator already, according to Burns.

The computing power required is directly related to the quality of the simulation, because tracks are reproduced to within a 2-milimeter accuracy off their surfaces, said Burns. "We laser scan every bump, and simulate light conditions too."

Speedy connectivity wins the race

All of this data is monitored at the track, and also by engineers located at the U.K.-based Williams headquarters at the same time.

The Williams team uses two AT&T network nodes in each race to relay information back to headquarters.

The time taken to move the gigabytes of telemetry data has in recent years been cut down by advances in communications technology, Burns said. What took an hour to transmit two years ago took 20 minutes last year, and is now down to seven to eight minutes.

Martin Silman, executive director of AT&T's global concept marketing arm, told ZDNet Asia that speedy connections make crucial differences to the team's preparation time.

"Once testing finishes on Saturday evening in Singapore, the teams have exactly two hours to get data back to their factories in the United Kingdom," he said. The data will be used to update race strategies and churn out new settings for the cars before the final race on Sunday.

Another team, BMW Sauber, relies on an IP-based connection provided by T-Systems. Both parties told ZDNet Asia in a joint e-mail interview high speed data transmissions keep teams lean so no additional personnel is required onsite for the Singapore race. "During the race weekend the team is focused on the race challenge, and our R&D projects are temporarily paused," said the teams. Data is exchanged from the race location with the BMW Sauber's home bases in Munich and Hinwil.

Sorting through the terabytes
Besides impressive hardware, F1 teams rely on software products to organize the data collected, and automate heavy processes like analyses.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team uses two off-the-shelf products from SAP and Microsoft, rather than customized software. This has saved the team money on customization costs, according to SAP.

The team uses SAP's software to coordinate work on engine design and development between 400 personnel. The data also monitors the life cycle of 3,000 engine components.

According to Microsoft, SQL Server 2008 is used to manage data generated by the engine control unit (ECU). This data is pushed out to Microsoft Excel for analysis and visualization, as well.

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