It is often said that Formula One cars are works of art, with lines and curves that flow like the wind. The creation of such art requires not only a dab hand but also a vast IT back end, something with which today's F1 teams are constantly playing catch-up.
As the hunger for data ramps up, the Formula One racing teams have a choice: run more efficiently or overhaul their systems. And that's a significant undertaking.
At the factory
This year, the Oxfordshire-based Lotus F1 Team decided to tackle the problem head on and made the decision to refit most of their IT infrastructure in the middle of the season. Graeme Hackland, Lotus' IT director (pictured left), told V3 that it was becoming a necessity. "At the factory we don't have the capacity we need for the next couple of years. The data is growing by a huge amount due to the new regulations," he said.
Indeed, as the calendar pages are turned ever closer towards 2014, the problem of IT infrastructure is only looming larger for top-level teams. Next year, Formula One undergoes its biggest ever rule change with electrical energy playing a much greater role in the amount of power the engines produce.
Not only is designing a car for next year an enormous task, Lotus is a front-running team in the 2013 championship, so downing tools for an IT refit is a big decision. "It's not like we can say we can forget about this year," said Hackland, acknowledging that the development phase of a car can't end while it is winning races.
The Lotus team aren't strangers to winning in the face of rule changes: they took back-to-back championships with Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006 after a new set of regulations were enforced. Preparation is key. As such, ahead of the latest reshuffle, the team have signed deals with EMC, Juniper Networks and Avanade, the latter of which has handed over 20 employees to work in Lotus' Enstone factory with the team's other IT staffers.
These staff will be crucial as Lotus has an impressive IT estate to its name. Most notable is its supercomputer, built in partnership with Boeing, which is used for simulating the 420 new aerodynamic parts that are designed every day using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software. This machine, which runs at 32.5 teraflops, is limited in power because of regulations relating to aerodynamic research. Without these, it could run at 45 teraflops.
On the track
The need for such power is underlined by the data being processed. A Formula One car produces 15MB of telemetry data per lap, producing over 1,000 data points, which include everything from tyre pressure and exhaust temperature to pedal positioning and steering angle.
During a full weekend's practice, qualifying and race sessions, the pair of Lotus cars will produce 50GB of data. But engineers still want more.
On a visit to the team's garage at the British Grand Prix, Lotus' senior performance engineer Rod Nelson told V3 he isn't worried about data overload, despite the amount of data needed to understand what a car is doing. "We try to keep a lid on it," he said. "There's a hell of a lot of data, and we try to keep the good stuff and throw away the chaff."
As well as sending data from the car to the pit wall, all cars are fitted with a specification data logger, which only allows 1GB of storage. This can be a worry for the teams, especially in 2014. "Next year the new engines will be getting into energy recovery analysis and optimisation, and that will eat up the data budget like you wouldn't believe," he said.
The race itself is a computational feat for the team, with their dedicated strategy computing software – developed by Avanade – performing several thousands of whole-race simulations per lap for each car. The software uses GPS data along with lap time and telemetry data, to work out every possible permutation of what could possibly happen with every car on the circuit.
The IT staff who develop and keep an eye on the software also find themselves in the centre of the F1 team's tactics and planning, said Nelson: "We've taken the strategy team and plonked it in the middle of the engineers so we're getting that face-to-face stuff going on. That's improved the rate of addressing bugs and adding new features."
Of course, use of this data ultimately rests with one person – the driver. Any race engineer will tell you that the best drivers will absorb all the data they can.
Nelson recalls Williams F1 Team's CTO Pat Symonds perfectly summarising what the modern Formula 1 driver has become: "He said, ‘Bloody hell Rod, it's so different these days. I used to be able to have dinner with the drivers on Friday night!'" Nowadays drivers spend evenings mulling over graphs and spreadsheets to inform their race preparation.
This is both a blessing and a curse for drivers. While they have all‑you-can-eat data to find out what they are doing right and wrong, so do the team. And they can tell when a mistake has been made, which leaves nowhere to hide. "If the driver makes a bad start we know within a tenth of a second that it's happened," said Nelson. But the data, while heavily relied upon, must be augmented by driver feedback.
This is the case, for example, when designing a new front wing. "It might work through some corners but be a real basket case through others," explained Nelson. "We run a lot of computer simulations through CFD but if there's not an absolute change, it'll often be down to feel."
Feel will be the overriding factor in deciding whether several thousand pounds worth of carbon fibre goes in the bin, no matter how clever the computer thinks it is.
Lotus hopes its IT updates will put it ahead of the competition in due course. But the proof of whether it was worth all the effort will only come as its car starts up in Melbourne, Australia, in March at the start of the next Grand Prix season.
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