Enhanced Communications Are Turbo Boosting Formula One Teams

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

Follow on: Google +

Formula One teams say reliable connectivity can be the difference between winning and losing

Formula One is the most technologically advanced sport in the world and fosters a competitive environment in which teams spend ridiculous sums of money on anything that might give them just a hundredth of a second edge over their rivals.

Drivers are the most high-profile members of each team, but for every Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button, there are hundreds of engineers, analysts and factory workers back home at the team’s base, working on new car parts and strategies that help guide the team to victory, right up to race day.

Regulations and cost restrict how many team members can attend each race, and with 22 meetings scheduled across the world next season, recent development in communications technology are becoming even more crucial.

Teams now want to be able to analyse the data from their cars almost immediately, allowing them to perfect their race strategies, predict and solve problems, and create more efficient car parts.

Formula One epiphany

2013 Monaco Grand Prix - ThursdayEven F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone has admitted that management has been behind the curve, and said it was time for the sport to “wake up” to the rise of communications technology when Formula One agreed a multi-year technology service and marketing agreement with Tata Communications last February.

Tata is able to offer F1 ten times more connectivity than it had previously, with much of the Formula One Management (FOM) infrastructure hosted in two data centres in the UK. F1 chief technology consultant Eddie Baker says the sport had been looking for a deal like this since the 1990s, and that it was as important a step forward technologically as satellite was for television.

There is a phenomenal amount of data that FOM makes available to teams, such as positioning, times and weather, and Tata’s services allows F1 to handle this remotely, rather than on site.

One of the main challenges associated with F1’s nomadic existence makes it difficult for anyone to provide a high level of service in each location for just two weeks a year. Tata’s network includes the first wholly-owned subsea fibre ring to circle the globe, 500km of subsea cable and 200,000 km of terrestrial fibre, offering speeds of 1Tbps.

However teams do not benefit from F1’s agreement with Tata, and many are looking to establish their own connectivity partnerships.

Mercedes AMG F1

Coincidentally, Tata also provides communications services to the Mercedes AMG Formula One Team, with information such as fuel levels, miles per gallon, acceleration, oil levels, tyre balance and engine performance sent from the car to the pits and then back to the factory in Brackley using 128Gbps connections to transfer the data within 0.244 seconds.

Mercedes F1 Operations Centre 2“Years ago, when we used to gather data on the car, it would be literally hand-carried back to the factory to be studied. These days, we have a fantastic quality of data that is delivered live” says Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn. “There’re more than 150 sensors on the car and hundreds of channels of data this is being communicated in both directions, from the track to the factory and vice versa.

“We’re running at three times faster than we were able to before. Our engineers are the other side of the world, so you can imagine how valuable that is. We’ve become so dependent on the data and the support from our factory that if you cut it off, we’re going to lose a competitive advantage as the car is going to suffer.”

Trackside electronics head Evan Short is in agreement, claiming the change in speed and capacity offered by Tata’s network has completely changed the way Mercedes operates and has created a significant advantage almost overnight. Previously, Mercedes would have to restrict the data that was being sent back to Brackley because they couldn’t rely on the connection.

“The change in our data capacity has been explosive,” he says. “I’m no longer thinking about the time it takes to transfer things back and forth between the factory or to discuss things with the guys back home.”

Short says the connection means the race support team can be as important as the team at the race, offering useful pieces of information and having a real impact on the race. It allows Mercedes to leave some of the testing until the very last minute and run simulations for new parts just before race day.

Red Bull help

Red Bull also makes use of improved connectivity to test parts in practice sessions of a race weekend. Its cars have 7,500 parts with 1,000s of possible configurations and the team uses AT&T’s global network to get expert advice from the factory to the track.

Christian HornerData analysis is also used in the production process, with 3D data models in a virtual wind tunnel exploring  how efficient a car can be without spending money. However Red Bull also uses a physical wind tunnel using a 60 percent size car.

Around 400 sensors test pressure, forces and air flow, and the team is able to analyse where it would be if they had not included one of the 25,000 new or updated parts it creates each season. Red Bull stores this information in its own cloud to allow for easy access, and AT&T’s network allows them to get rich cmputer assisted design (CAD) data to the track from the factory.

“Increased network performance and stability ensures greater volumes of data can be gathered from the car and transferred back to the factory for analysis. In some cases we can make use of specialist knowledge, for instance, by consulting the designer of the parts under test,” adds Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “It offers greater opportunity to perform more detailed analysis and part-to-part comparisons which ultimately results in a more optimum car setup and configuration during the race.”

Operations room

Red Bull has an IT operations room at the races known as the Tree House, but much of the race is coordinated from the operations room back in Milton Keynes, where teams review data, television picturesand audio feeds from international broadcasters to gain valuable information from their own cars as well as their competitors.

While FOM provides some information, such as timing and GPS information, teams do not have access to raw television footage or race radio, meaning they employ a number of analysts who speak different languages, who try to spot or hear for anything interesting.

“The operations room wouldn’t work without the AT&T connection,” says Al Peasland, head of technical partnerships at Red Bull Racing, who explains the team’s data is shared over a secure network and stored in a VPN.

The ability to review and analyse video footage has not only ensured Red Bull hold the world record for the fastest pit stop at 2:05 seconds, but it can also directly affect the race result. In 2009, Red Bull driver Mark Webber was illegally overtaken by Jenson Button. Red Bull reviewed the evidence and submitted a complaint to the race stewards and Button was ordered to give the place back. However it took four to five laps to send the evidence, meaning it was too late for Webber to catch the leading pack. Red Bull says with its current connectivity, this would have taken less than 60 seconds.

Damage analysis

Around 100GB of data is collected by the team during a race weekend, and real time analysis allows them to optimise race strategiesIRBR Exterior depending on when another team pits, or if there is rain, as well as detect damage and make the driver safer.

Peasland uses the example of the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, in which Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel’s back wheel was crashed into by Bruno Senna as an example. Vettel was keen to come in, but the team kept him out while they monitored the engine and exhaust temperature to see if the damage was affecting the car’s performance.

The slow motion TV footage was analysed to check for any problems and the conclusion was it was only the downforce that was suffering. The team changed Vettel’s front wing during a scheduled pit stop to improve the car’s performance, saving time that would have been lost had the drive pitted immediately when no-one knew what the problem was.

Vettel eventually finished with enough points to secure his third world championship – a result that Peasland thinks would not have happened without the superior connection.

Caterham Wi-Fi

This drive towards better connectivity is not just extending to the race track, but also to the teams’ bases as well. Caterham F1 moved into its current home, the Leafield Technical Centre in Oxfordshire, last August, following a complete renovation to convert it into a Formula One facility.

This included the rollout of an improved Wi-Fi network at the site using Motorola Solutions equipment that allows for easy access to applications, such as automated stock control, support for Caterham’s BYOD policy and enhanced security. The network also prioritises network traffic and can heal itself.

Information within Formula One is extremely sensitive, and given that the industry is fairly incestuous – especially within the Midlands’ Motorsport Valley – security is of prime importance. Caterham’s network protects against cyber-attacks with a wireless intrusion protection system and a robust firewall.

“Motorola’s wireless network enables us to work seamlessly throughout the factory. Our development teams work in different areas, so the secure closed network means that wherever they go, they can take their laptop with them, access apps and collaborate with colleagues,” explains Caterham commercial manager Richard St Clair Quentin. “It’s already proving a very useful business tool, and when we adopt automated stock control it will be an essential part of our manufacturing operation.”

Connected cars

F1 TataThe advantages of improved connectivity in Formula One are fairly obvious, but the technology used by these multi-million pound supercars could be applied in road legal vehicles. The concept of connected cars is gaining traction and many of the same functions, such as traffic information and data analysis, could soon become more widespread.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in the automotive sector as to how they pull back the data that is captured during the use of the car,” says Alan Priestley of Intel’s Datacentre and Connected Systems Group. “Formula One is a specialist use; of more interest to us is what the likes of Audi, BMW or Ford do with the data that’s captured in their cars.”

Most cars already have sensors that collect information, but this is only retrieved when the car goes in for maintenance and nothing is done with the data. Real-time collection of this data could be used to predict future reliability problems or even call in a vehicle in for a service when the system detects an issue.

Opposite of F1

Sensors and accelerometers could detect potholes, traffic light failures and even how a driver is using their car and the impact this might have on tyre use.

SIM cards are becoming increasingly common in cars and BMW alone has produced one million vehicles connected to 3G networks, offering a range of subscriber services, like real time traffic information, but also sending data back to manufacturers.

Formula One teams use a variety of transmission technologies, with Mercedes using a microwave band radio system to send information from the car via a series of receivers around the track, but sending data across an entire road network is much more challenging than a three mile race circuit.

The average saloon creates 600MB of data per day, although this varies according to the number of sensors, what these are monitoring and what is being transmitted back. This is a huge amount of data to be sending across already strained 3G networks.

Priestly suggests doing the opposite to what F1 teams are doing and proposes cars have a degree of intelligence to choose which data to transmit and when, claiming car makers don’t need to know when a vehicle is safely travelling at 30mph.

“If a car has a hundred sensors on it, I don’t want all of it going back to a data centre from a million cars,” he says.

F1 can make anything work

The true vision of connected cars, whatever that means, may be some way off, but it wouldn’t be surprising if many of the innovations seen in Formula One make their way to the M20 in the near future.

A new set of F1 regulations come into force next season that will see the teams change from 2.4 litre V8 engines to 1.6 litre V6 turbo engines, along with a maximum fuel load of 100kg. The cars lose around 2kg of fuel each lap, so the only way to finish the race is to use the hybrid KERS system that turns heat into kinetic energy.

“It’s about making the sport greener”, says Red Bull’s Peasland, who says if you put any technology into the F1 regulations, the teams will find a way to make it work effectively. The same could eventually be true of communications and the future of connected cars.

Are you a tech Olympian? Find out with our sporting IT quiz!

Formula One Communications

Image 1 of 12

Red Bull