How data gets the AT&T Williams Formula 1 team over the line

Mobility, global fibre links, telepresence and a supercomputer lie behind the AT&T Williams team's 2011 Formula 1 season efforts

Data, as they say, is at the core of any business. For Formula 1 race team AT&T Williams, the old adage couldn’t be more true.

Read what AT&T Williams’ Rubens Barrichello thinks of the role of technology in Formula 1

Whether it be data sourced from hundreds of sensors aboard its race cars, data generated in the design of highly complex race cars and their components or data streaming in real-time mid-race, it’s fair to say that data is AT&T Williams’ business. It’s the amount of data you’d need a supercomputer to process, and indeed the team has one: A mighty 13 teraflop job at that.

So it’s little surprise to hear the team’s race engineer, Tom McCullogh, talk about the way in which data is changing the sport of Formula 1, the way the team operates and how it is needed just to stay competitive.

Being at the coalface of William’s efforts — his natural home is the pit straight — McCullogh lays plenty of emphasis on making use of the data streamed live from up to 150 sensors on each of the team’s race cars.

“[Having that] data has made it much less chance of making mistakes,” McCullogh told Computerworld Australia at Albert Park ahead of the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix. “Nowadays you have such little valuable track time that every single run has to be used to get the most out of each [car].

“In the old days you’d just listen to the driver and then in the evenings sit down and look at the data and you’d often find you made a few wrong decisions because between the engineer and the driver you’re [still] not as good as all the sensors on the car.”

It’s not only the team members on the ground that can make use of the data. Thanks to a networking link — in the form of a mobile, temporary point of presence, or T-PoP supplied by chief sponsor AT&T — the team is able to send data almost immediately back to Williams’ UK headquarters for analysing and processing.

That’s important for a number of reasons. During the course of a season the team must pack up and tear down their operations every two weeks in as many as 20 different countries and four continents.

Read more about how other Formula 1 teams use IT to give themselves an edge

Relying on highly variable network quality in many of these countries isn’t feasible and using satellite services isn’t close to cost-effective — especially when a single race long weekend can result in as much as 27 gigabytes of data being sent across the network.

To help cope with the distance and time difficulties, the team also makes extensive use of telepresence via a single screen unit in the mobile office taken to each European race event and a three screen unit back at HQ.

Rather than emailing backwards and forwards across time zones about a installing a complex new car component or making changes based on telemetry data, the team problem solve and collaborate visually and in real-time.

To make the most of William’s data the company uses expensive in-house software, such as its “computational fluid dynamics” system to assess aerodynamics — and commercial software packages — such as a TAG Electronics data logging system and Siemens PLM’s NX 6 to design its cars and components.

Software is not only crucial for design and car improvements; without it the team can’t even get its Formula 1 cars started without the correct setup files for the engine, gearbox, hydraulics and clutch being downloaded to the onboard electronic control unit, or ECU.

“You need a certain amount of software working just to get the car fired up, but the car still will operate without the [software] systems,” he says. “We have a lot of backups as sometimes you will get told over the intercom that the servers [in the car] have gone down and need to be rebooted.”

Like AT&T William’s star driver, Rubens Barrichello, McCullogh also doesn’t believe the technology has gone too far and is too complex, stripping the sport of its true racing spirit. Instead, it’s about getting the most out of every opportunity.

“What you are doing is just getting more and more out of the hardware you have got and more consistently getting that,” he said. “In the past you could go to 18 races and you were possibly fully optimised at two or three of them, but nowadays to be competitive we try and optimise things at every single event. We start to break it down at every single session, not just the qualifying or the race, we try to get the most out of it.”

In line with efforts to maximise staff and drivers’ time, AT&T Williams has also invested in a high-end driving simulator, which uses the same car ECU, engine models and control systems that the real car uses. As a result the team can generate data which correlates very well to the real car’s data.

“From a design point of view you can do a lot of sweeping of main parameters to help with the design of next year’s car, and from a race engineering point of view it allows you to try different setup options with the current hardware you have,” McCullogh says.

The heavy reliance on technology doesn’t stop with data, software or driving simulators. The steering wheels on the team’s cars are also incredibly high-tech, and expensive — reputedly as much as much as $200,000 each — with as many as 26 different controls on them to allow the drivers to change various settings and parameters on the car mid-race.

“The steering wheels are little computers to a certain extent but mainly they are more glorified keyboards with displays on them,” McCullogh says. “What has made them very expensive is to get them very light, very reliable and very user friendly.”

With mobility being a hallmark of the teams IT usage, McCullogh believes there could be scope for a major adoption of tablet PCs, such as Apple’s iPad 2, to replace the current pen and clipboard setup.

“Two or three years ago one of the engineers at Williams did use one but at the time the hardware wasn’t [up to scratch] and in the rain there were some problems too,” he says. “Now they are much better from a hardware point of view so I can see us heading toward that.”

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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