The Tech Behind Formula One

Image: Anthony Caruana

The world of Formula 1 racing has developed at a breakneck speed over the last few decades. But, more recently, the technology that supports race teams has progressed with teams now freighting a portable data centre along for the ride alongside some of the fastest cars ever made. And that means having the right leadership. Graeme Hackland has been the CIO of the Williams F1 Team since 2014. I spoke with him just behind pit lane and the garages at the Melbourne Grand Prix.

While the technology makes a great difference to the potential success or failure of the team, Hackland said that if all the tech failed, his team would still race but that they would be at a massive disadvantage. But that ability to race without the tech drove architectural decisions about what technology the team brings on the road and the personnel he needs.

"That was one of the first questions I asked the chief engineer [when I started] - if we cannot go racing without it, then we'd have to build more redundancy. We're running as simple a set up as possible," said Hackland.

Although I wasn't allowed to take photos of the setup, hidden away in the garages, there were just two racks of equipment with some of the gear designated as spares. So, if a switch failed, for example, one of the two support staff that travels with the team would simply move all the cables from the defective switch to the new one. All the kit came from Tier One vendors with the team building a full cabled and wireless network each time they set up in a new city. And that network is different each time as the garage spaces are very different at each city. For example, the garages at Albert Park in Melbourne are long and narrow whereas others are more spacious.

And any race critical systems are connected via a cable, to ensure reliability as the wireless network can easily get congested with data.

"I've got two support guys but I don't want them messing around, keeping the IT running. I want them watching the telemetry that's coming of the car and that the engineers have everything they need," he explained.

Supporting that onsite team, there's also a team of engineers back at the team's base in the UK near Oxford, receiving data in real-time over a 100 MPLS link provided by BT, one of the teams's sponsors. That link is set up at each city the Grand Prix visits.

Any useful information they, or the onsite team, learn from the data is relayed to the race engineer who is the only person that can speak to the driver while he's on the track.

During the race, data from over 300 sensors is constantly tracked. These cover two main areas; vehicle reliability which looks at parts of the car that can fail and performance. That creates a balancing act where decisions about pushing the car to its limits or backing off are made during the race. For example, a very slow leak of fluid from the engine or air from a tyre, that hasn't been detected by the driver yet, can be relayed and acted on before it becomes a race-ending problem.

Hackland has been involved in Formula 1 for over 20 years and has seen lots of changes in that time. But he maintains that each generation of vehicle has been at the forefront of automative engineering. Even fuel economy has changed with teams now running on significantly less fuel than just a few years ago. Past drivers saw a full Grand Prix as being akin to three, shorter sprint races as they could refuel during the race. But now, the cars have to complete the race with a single tank.

Despite the many changes, Hackland said "a lot of it still comes down to the feel of the driver".

Looking at the road ahead

Hackland said his team is constantly looking at what's next in order to be ready for the future. That means looking at new video analytics systems, machine learning, AI, 3D printing and other technologies. One of the things he championed with the Williams team is adoption of cloud technologies. But every new tool or application he introduces is single-mindedly focussed on how it will improve the team's ability to win - something Hackland hasn't yet experienced as the team has been a challenger, rather than the leader it was through the 1980s and 1990s.

"The focus has been on getting the best technologies into Williams so the engineers can make the best decisions here at the track".

Risks

He noted that F1 is not averse to risk. For example, when he took elements of the teams operations to the cloud - some of the in-race computations are done on the cloud to augment his two racks of servers - that was done without a comprehensive data protection plan. He moved forward with the risk of potentially losing data and then followed up with his data protection plan.

Hackland went with the attitude that "We'll go to the cloud, trust the vendors that our data is backed up and then, some time later, we'll sort that out".

The data protection is done in partnership with Acronis. As well as protecting race data, Hackland said Acronis software ensures that ransomware and other attacks don't compromise the team's other data.

That approach has allowed the Williams team to move away from larger cloud vendors as they now have a comprehensive data protection strategy in place.

"That approach has allowed us to be more aggressive with our adoption of cloud as they have given us the assurance that our data is going to be backed up. If something happens to a cloud vendor, we still have a copy of our data".

He notes, though, that the team still has three safes filled with tape backups that he plans to move to a different solution.

The key to his technology strategy, said Hackland, is a single minded focus on the impact on the car.

"Everything that we do, the adoption of cloud, any of the analytics that we've put in place - even things like changing our email system and using Office 365 instead of what we were using - all of that has been about making it easier for the engineers to work, for them to able to make decisions quicker, what's the impact on the car. Every thing that we've done is based on the approach. How are we making sure we reduce risk and focus on the car".


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