Behind the news: Technology hits fast lane

Motor racing gurus once promoted the idea that a big engine, skilled driver and good luck was the ideal race-winning combination.

But these days, the real hero of the multimillion Formula One racing industry is technology.

Without sophisticated information systems for design, engineering and construction, Formula One teams might just as well go back to racing go-karts.

It's testimony to the fact that for some years now, the IT and motor racing industries have witnessed something of a convergence.

At a cost of around a $100 million a year to run a top racing team, IT systems sort the good from the ordinary.

As Debbie Edwards, information systems manger of Benetton Formula 1 Racing Team, asserts: "A 10th or even a 100th of a second can make a difference to the outcome of a race. That sort of differentiation can only be achieved when the entire development process is focused on the end result."

At Benetton Formula 1 Racing Team's Whiteways Technical Centre in Enstone, about 100km north-west of London, the company designs and builds its race cars from the ground up.

The factory itself covers 3500 square metres, houses 300 staff and includes a state-of-the-art wind tunnel.

At the core of the operation is an ATM-based network used for sharing complex computer aided design (CAD) files generated by 50 CAD users who create up to 4500 designs for each car.

In addition, the team also uses the network to analyse and collect data from its new wind tunnel analysis system, stock information and data related to the deterioration of individual car parts due to age.

The Olicom-based ATM network uses an Edge Switch to support up to 32 VLans and automatically prevents broadcast storms, the team reports.

Perhaps one of the most critical elements of the operation is the constant influx of data.

Every test or race can demand manufacturing or design adjustments, often conducted under critical time pressures brought on by the onset of the next race.

"The robustness of the central network is extremely important," Edwards commented.

The team also collects a raft of information from its vehicles and the pits under race conditions, which in turn must be processed and analysed.

This includes information from the car's internal data logger, official race timings and even the engineer's own notes, which are scanned into the network.

As a result, the network supports data traffic between three Novell servers in the factory, two Novell servers on each truck, eight Unix servers, two NT servers, 56 HP C-Class workstations and more than 200 PCs.

Once the development work is complete, a team of around 30 crew travels with the equipment to put the technology into practice.

But the IT work doesn't stop when the car hits the track.

Sophisticated remote data collection technology allows engineers to monitor and adjust the car's engine performance before the critical practice sessions come to an end.

Formula One fans sitting in the stands at the recent 1999 Qantas Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne watched the cars, sank a few beers and had a few laughs.

For the crews working on the multimillion dollar machines, it is mission-critical IT and business in motion.

Mark Jones travelled to the Grand Prix as a guest of Olicom and PowerLAN

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