High speed drama

High speed drama

Racing along at speeds of up to 350 km per hour is not an exercise mere mortals should attempt on ordinary roads. Even the expert drivers who compete, on the average, once every two weeks during the annual Formula One (F1) series, such break-neck speeds are only possible by relying on the latest information technology.

Each Grand Prix season from March to October sees more followers of the thrilling, high-pitched, bitumen-scorching car race which we all have come to know as simply F1. The cars that compete are nothing like the ordinary four-wheelers we use on our roads. Instead, they are squat vehicles with oversized tyres, stuffed with electronics and other high-tech features that can take up to 18 months to build, costing undisclosed millions of dollars.

Winning seems to be everything, but only three drivers get to receive the coveted trophies for being the fastest drivers for the day, or until the next race.

But what are the tools behind the almost superhuman abilities of these drivers to push themselves through gruelling three-hour drives along purpose-built tracks, pitting their wits against one another? How much of a champion's success is dependant on technology, and how much on human spirit?

Secret technology

Everyone knows technology plays a big part in the F1 race, but race teams will never fully divulge how they precisely use it to their competitive advantage. Take R&D, for example. All the race teams use wind tunnel technology to simulate race conditions, in order to build the best chassis design. Some acquire supercomputers to help design the latest engines, while others take advantage of grid computing for technical research and product designing.

Take the design of the race car itself: much of the shape of the body is dictated by its dynamic fluid analysis, a process to determine the best possible shape to minimise air drag (a bane for high-speed driving), maximise downforce (to keep the car firmly to the road), and yet, lightweight enough to provide maximum torque for the engine to propel the whole assembly beyond the pace of more than 90 metres per second. At such blazingly fast speed, the car itself needs to be of robust construction to provide massive braking power to slow down quickly.

The IT boost

One race team that relies heavily on IT is AT&T Williams. It uses Lenovo PCs to support engineers in car research, test, development and manufacturing; drivers in race operations and analysis; and the management team in marketing; logistical travel and race planning; networking; inventory; relationships with clients, sponsors and suppliers; human resources; finance; and strategy.

Williams employs about 500 people, 80 per cent of whom are involved in design, manufacturing and race operations. It designs and manufactures its own cars, solely for the purpose of racing. It is also a business, and the decisions it faces in strategic resource allocation are what every business faces: where to invest IT resources for the highest return.

The Williams team typically has five or six F1 cars in production each season. These cars are in varying stages of service, update and amendment at all times. Lenovo computers will typically be processing more tan seven terabytes of data each season, or slightly more than one terabyte per car.

Engine sensors

A typical race version of a Williams car has about 120 sensors monitoring vehicle performance variables and driver behaviour variables. This telemetry data-about one gigabyte of data per hour-is transmitted using AT&T technology to the engineering team at the track, and is downloaded to Lenovo computers at the conclusion of the race. The information is also networked to the engineering team at the Williams headquarters and factory in Grove, England.

Sensors on each Williams F1 car track engine and gearbox parameters such as pressure and temperature of oil, water and air. Before the car is started, the engine is first subject to its diagnostics tests. Data from the engine and car is downloaded to a Lenovo notebook PC. If the engineer determines that all parameters are within limits, then a spark is applied to start the engine. In this manner, the notebook PC prevents damage to the car during the start-up process.

Secret F1 business

Engine performance is critical. The more powerful an engine is, the higher the chances of its team winning the race. While much of the type of F1 data captured is shrouded in secrecy, a good guess will be the necessary data for fine-tuning and improving on ignition timing, petrol-air mixture and other parametric readings to deliver maximum power at the right time.

Apart from monitoring the engine, the overall design of the chassis is another extremely critical aspect. Lenovo, for example, helped install a supercomputer for AT&T Williams, for wind tunnel simulation back in its facilities in the UK. Both Lenovo and the F1 team collaborated on the customised supercomputing solution, which is designed to optimise the aerodynamics of the cars.

To keep the car 'glued' to the track at very high speeds, there is the need to strike a balance between achieving a downward pressure (called downforce) to improve the car's traction round corners, and air resistance (drag) against the car's forward motion. Alex Burns, chief operating officer of AT&T Williams, said: "Aerodynamics plays a critical role in determining how competitive we are for each of the race circuits we visit. The optimum balance of downforce and drag varies between different circuits. The increase in supercomputing power from Lenovo will give us the capability to examine a greater range of design variations between races, which will increase our development rate, bringing more performance to the car sooner."

Computerised airflow

The supercomputer is being used for operations in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), performing billions of calculations that simulate airflow around a virtual model of a three-dimensional, on-track racing car. This process will help predict how even the smallest changes in component shape and placement will affect drag and downforce, with resulting impacts on speed and handling.

With a peak performance of eight teraflops (a trillion floating point operations per second), the Lenovo supercomputer is four times more powerful than the team's previous solution. This will enable the team to speed up the process of aerodynamic simulation by about 75 per cent.

How does IT help when the race cars are already on the track? Seeing race engineers monitoring multiple screens, ears plugged in to communications devices, while keeping an eye on the action, is a common sight.

On a typical race day, AT&T Williams team uses ThinkPad T60p notebooks on the pit-wall to help the engineering team strategise and to make decisions on the number of pit-stops, tyre changes, how they are gaining, and losing, over a race length of some one and a half hours and what the competition are up to at any given time.

Digital technology has essentially allowed the team to pick up timing data from the Grand Prix organisers and process it, build its own timing database and then have live analysis on the pit-wall on how the race is panning out. The engineers on the pit-wall, each with ThinkPads on hand, can see the rate at which the team is gaining or losing on its competitors and try to predict when a pit-stop is required.

For example, at the pit-stop, the team can monitor how long the fuel rig was connected to the car, input that into the program and will be able to predict how long the car will stay in the race and when it needs to make another pit-stop. The technology also enables the team to expect when the car should leave the pit, whether it is likely to meet traffic on the track when it rejoins the race, and if so, whether it should pull it should push the pit-stop forward.

With all the data flowing through, the team can even venture to predict what the final result will be after pit-stops. The software can show whether adding slightly less fuel (and thus less weight) will allow the driver to get ahead of some other competitor.

Keep talking

Clear, dependable communications is of utmost importance, especially during race days when communication links between the various engineering, pit-stop and race management teams must be maintained at all times. For this reason, The Honda Racing F1 team has chosen Avaya to design and install an intelligent communications solution based on secure IP telephony. It became necessary as Honda Racing was already facing difficulty in establishing proper communication links with various parties. Its old telephony system was reaching capacity, consisting of separate exchange lines, switches and voicemail systems that offered little flexibility.

The mobile race and test teams spend 34 weeks per year travelling, and this complicates the communications matter further. Each week the IT team needed to install temporary analogue phone and ISDN lines with different telephone companies for each country, so that engineers could establish contact with its headquarters at Brackley in the UK whenever they needed to. This resulted in different international phone numbers for each person and each event.

Back in Brackley, the Honda factory was expanding. Multiple buildings were in use, and new facilities were under construction. Many Brackley-based staff were not desk-bound and moved around a lot, making it difficult for other staff to reach them. To deal with this, the Honda Racing sought a new system that would overcome all these issues.

Honda installed the latest Avaya Communication Manager software which integrates all users in a single system and directory. This accommodates more than 550 users, with the scope to expand to 12,000, and assigns dedicated extension numbers to staff anywhere in world. All calls are received by the single switch in Brackley and distributed to the location of the required extension number, regardless of the type of phone used to take the call. Through converging mobile and fixed-line telephony, calls between the team, in the UK or elsewhere, are treated as internal calls ensuring consistent call quality and cost as they are no longer using international phone networks.

Honda Racing now uses Avaya IP phones for campus-based staff, and one-X Mobile Edition for the mobile team through an innovative partnership with Nokia. Each offers identical phone features and functions such as caller ID, call transfer and conferencing. More importantly, one-X Mobile Edition enables one-number access to mobile employees. This means that key staff can always be contacted; designers and engineers can communicate latest developments or findings instantly, helping to boost competitive edge.

To further facilitate communications, Avaya has installed modular messaging, a unified messaging system that integrates voicemail, fax and e-mail into Microsoft Outlook so that messages can be conveniently picked up on any device, anywhere in the world.

Racing by night

Racing under floodlights is common. The Sepang International Circuit (SIC) just outside Kuala Lumpur, is the venue where the annual 'Merdeka' endurance race is held, between July and August. Stretching from the morning till close to midnight, the race will have about four hours of artificial lighting.

According to the SIC, floodlights used for the night race are of high-capacity types that provide far stronger illumination than normal streetlights. For race control, there are additional requirements for better visibility, photosensitive equipment, and of course, better power supply and fail-proof measures to overcome possible blackouts, power surges and other emergency needs.

Relatively speaking, the night endurance race in the SIC pales against the commitments required for the world's first night F1 race, which is taking shape in the island state of Singapore, at the end of September this year. The inaugural 2008 Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix will be an entirely new experience for such a high-speed chase done under floodlights and on urban roads. The organisation of such an event in Singapore will be phenomenal, considering that the authorities will have to ensure safety of not just the race teams and participants, but the audiences and the general traffic conditions throughout the race area. This year will also introduce another new street or urban circuit. The Valencia street circuit will host the European GP.

Special Singapore lights

For Singapore, lighting specialists Valerio Maioli S.p.a. of Ravenna, Italy, have designed a special lighting system to deliver optimal visibility for night race conditions. The system minimises glare and reflections from a wet surface or spray from cars through lighting projectors which are strategically positioned around the circuit.

The logistical set up for the Singapore race is vast-108,423 metres of power cables, 240 steel pylons and about 1,600 light projectors with a total power requirement of more than three megawatts will be used. At 3,000-lux levels, the lighting will be four times brighter than the lights at sports stadiums.

Fairfax Business Media

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