Profile: AT&T Williams' Rubens Barrichello on technology and Formula 1

Technology central to Formula 1 racing but don't tell AT&T Williams' Rubens Barrichello that he drives a computer on wheels

AT&T Williams' 2011 car at testing in Barcelona, Spain.

AT&T Williams' 2011 car at testing in Barcelona, Spain.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Formula 1 racing will know that the amount of technology — let alone cash — that goes into research and development and used in the cars themselves is staggering.

Read more on how Formula 1 teams use IT to keep competitive and at the front of the pack

Few people could attest to this more than AT&T Williams' team driver and Formula 1 icon, Rubens Barrichello. In his 19 seasons participating in the peak motorsport, he’s seen the role of technology go from next-to-nothing to the point where the cars could arguably be described as computers on wheels.

“I drive a car [not a computer],” Barrichello told Computerworld Australia at Albert Park ahead of the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix and start of the 2011 season.

“I think it is the wrong attitude that thinking that [the car] is a computer. The car cannot be driven by itself… it is more difficult to drive it today than it used to [be]. I used to have one button [on the steering wheel], which was the radio in ’93 and now I have 26 buttons.

“I have to drive, change gears and keep on doing so many things while I am driving. In that respect, you may think it is a computer type of thing, but it is not, it makes the car faster. The G-forces have increased since ’93 so you have to be tougher as well.

“You have plenty of backups [on the steering wheel], like a ‘Control, Alt, Delete’ you do on your computer that you can do depending on what the problem is arising in the middle of the race.”

Unsurprisingly, Barrichello likes to play down the extent to which technology can make or break a driver. He says the technology which helps drivers train — namely high-end fully-actuated driving simulators to practice specific race circuits and trial new components and changes to the car setup — is useful for newer drivers, but is no substitute for real experience.

“[Driving simulators] aren’t to the level where it is that similar [to real driving] yet,” he said. “[The team] uses me and most of my time in the factory to set up the machine and to get closer to what I think is real life. In the case of my team mate [Venezuelan-born Pastor Maldonado] is young and has not driven here, he did possibly 200 laps [in the simulator] of Albert Park to learn the circuit, so in those case it makes things a little easier.”

While driving games, such as the recent Gran Turismo 5, are increasingly real in their presentation of the racing experience, Barrichello doubts whether gaming technology will have a Guitar Hero-like effect and inspire the next generation of performers.

“The games are becoming better and better … but it differs a lot when it comes to the actual driving, and I don’t know if it is an actual inspiration or not,” he said. “Certainly in Brazil you can see a lot of young kids motivated to drive anyway — with the TV on or not. They receive a bowl as a steering wheel and decided to do it.”

Given the amount of time spent touring the world, Barrichello's favourite gadgets — an iPhone and iPad — are never far away.

“I had an experience the last couple days where the airport was shut down in Argentina and I had to be there for 24 hours and if it wasn’t for the iPhone or the iPad I would have gotten into trouble.”

Tim Lohman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of AT&T

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @tlohman

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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