Formula 1 racing gets a burst of new technology

As Formula One drivers speed around the track this weekend at the 2002 Foster's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, a new wireless technology will allow engineers to adjust vehicle settings while the cars are power down the track.

While the cars still head for the pits for a wheel change, technology now plays a crucial role from the design of the car to its manufacture and is now grabbing a vital role on the circuit itself.

Changes to racing rules by the sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), mean telemetry systems have gone bidirectional for the first time. One-way telemetry systems, which tell the engineer the condition of various aspects of the car while it's racing, have been part of F1 racing for some time.

However, two-way telemetry allows track-side engineers to communicate with the driver and make adjustments to the car's setup during the race.

The Williams-BMW FW24 has been fitted with 80 sensors which monitor the car's condition, including tyre pressure and wear, engine temperature and fuel consumption. This performance data, some 17mb of which is generated each lap, is transmitted in real time to the Pit Wall as the car passes the Start/Finish line.

In the Pit Wall, four Compaq DL380 servers run software developed specially by WilliamsF1 to analyse the data, and transmit it to 15 Compaq Evo notebooks and iPAQ Pocket PCs used by the engineers.

Williams-BMW chief operations engineer, Sam Michael, said bidirectional telemetry signals let the engineers change parameters inside the car, "including the traction control, the differential, fuel, ignition, throttle pedal and gearbox mapping".

Signals alert the engineers to possible engine failure.

"We can change the parameters to save an engine that is in trouble," Michael said.

Williams-BMW drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and team mate Ralf Schumacher, who won the 2001 event, will be taking advantage of the new technology.

Montoya voiced his approval of the technology, saying he can see the problems inside the car and work with the engineer to solve them. He sat alongside former F1 driver and Australian racing hero Alan Jones who quipped that, apart from "the money", the biggest change to driving since his day is the technological infrastructure.

"It's the electronics. It's incredible what they can do now," Jones said.

The team also used a new computing system to aid its Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) testing which, according to Michael, has cut testing time considerably.

Along with wind-tunnel and on-track testing, fluid dynamics is used as part of the design process to predict the downforce or drag of various components of the car.

A Compaq Alpha Supercomputer at the Williams factory in Grove, England, is used to calculate mathematical equations that compute the velocity and air pressure of the wind as it rushes around a computer-simulated model of a racing car.

"A program takes us only 10 to 12 hours, whereas it used to take us two to three weeks to run the tests," Michael said.

* Siobhan Chapman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Compaq

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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