Communications technology plays a vital role in Formula One motor racing, an environment that is as demanding as it is glamorous
What is it that's so exciting about Formula One motor racing? Is it the breath-taking speed of the cars, the skull-shattering noise or the astonishing levels of physical fitness, courage and skill required of the drivers? Well, it is all those things, but, for many, the heady F1 cocktail is topped off by the technology that teams employ to gain extra fractions of a second over their rivals.
When, in the early 1990s, the top teams started to adopt telemetry systems, the cutting-edge technology got its chance to showcase its capabilities to a worldwide audience.
New technology and F1 have an odd relationship. The extremely competitive environment of the sport has traditionally led F1 teams to not only turn to the latest available techniques in mechanics, electronics and aerodynamics, but also to use their own reasearch and development resources to come up with innovative technologies that, years later, end up being a standard feature in mass-produced vehicles.
Yet such brutal pace of development - which means that the fastest car from one season will be so uncompetitive the next that an entirely new design will be needed - is currently producing extravagant engineering gems, whose digitally-enhanced motors and multimillion-dollar features are pricing out the less resourced teams and reducing the contribution of the drivers.
Results get predictable - and fans get bored. So the FIA, the sport's governing body, has the delicate task of deciding when a certain technology is becoming too influential, and imposing either a ban (to increase driver impact and, consequently, entertainment) or its standardisation (to create a more level-playing field among competitors).
Telemetry hasn't remained immune to this debate. If it were up to the technologists, they would already have developed the necessary systems to recalibrate engine or chassis settings of an F1 car while it was out racing - wirelessly, from the pits and without the intervention of the driver. But pit-to-car telemetry has been prohibited by the FIA since 2003, precisely to prevent this type of 'telecommand' operation.
And, although the FIA has also tried to ban car-to-pit telemetry in the past, the teams have managed to convince the body that the collective benefits they get from the technology would make its elimination pointless and expensive. Besides, they argue, research has shown that typical tech-savvy F1 aficionados are demanding more telemetry data on their televisions and broadband connections while they follow the action live.
Anyone who has watched an F1 TV broadcast from the 2007 season might have noticed a series of graphics appearing at the bottom of the screen whenever an in-car shot was on air, showing parameters such as gear selection, engine revolutions per minute or G-forces experienced by the driver. These parameters are just a tiny fraction of the volume of information that modern F1 telemetry systems handle.
Sensing the car
One-way telemetry technology appears then to have its future secured at motor racing's showcase competition. But how does it work, and what are those advantages F1 teams can't live without?
"The main purpose of telemetry is to evaluate car behaviour in real time so that, by interacting with the driver, the team can maximise the probability of finishing the race," says Keyvan Sangelaji, sales director with the motorsport division of Magneti Marelli, one of the top suppliers of telemetry systems to F1 and other categories such as the World Rally Championship.
The long road that telemetry data will have to travel during a race or test session starts at hundreds of different points inside each car. There, an army of sensors, actuators, accelerometers, coils and injectors, as well as the engine and transmission control units, will perform what is known in any telemetry application as the 'data acquisition' part of the job.
"All the data sources in the car are collected through different channels in a data logging system that can sample each variable and input/output at different frequencies," explains Sangelaji. An off-the-shelf data logger from Magneti Marelli, such as its HRDL-1, can store up to 300 channels on its 512MB memory, with a sample rate of up to 1,000Hz and a logging rate of up to 128kB per second.
As for the variables engineers will be looking to monitor, they can include anything from basic temperature readings, tyre pressure and fuel consumption to more sophisticated measurements such as gearbox behaviour, displacement of the suspension or individual wheel speed. The Toyota TF107 car the team raced during 2007, for example, was fitted with around 250 sensors that logged approximately 1,300 different parameters.
Not all of these measurements have to do with hardware performance, though. Some of them are constantly recording every single input from the driver, including right/left-foot activity and wheel handling. This provides both team managers and drivers with valuable information to evaluate driving performance and find areas for improvement. Teammates may then want to share (or hide, depending on how competitive they are allowed to be) this data between them.
The next step the data will follow after its acquisition is its transmission to the garage, where the engineers will be eagerly awaiting the opportunity to load it on their network and analyse it on their computers with special software tools.
Depending on how urgently they need the information generated by each of the telemetry channels, they will programme the onboard system to transmit a specified subset of the channels in real time and save the rest in the data logger. The stored channels will be retrieved as soon as the car goes back to the garage, either by plugging in an Ethernet cable or by removing a flash memory card.
Steve Wise, Williams F1's head of electronics and R&D, says each of his cars are programmed to send just over 100 channels across the telemetry link, while some 400 channels are logged in total. "With the data rate we have, we get to download up to 20MB of data per lap through the telemetry system," he says, adding that this represents practically a tenfold increase in transfer capacity compared with the early systems.
The Oxfordshire-based team's chief operating officer, Alex Burns, says: "Over a complete race weekend we typically generate about 7GB of information from the two cars. That includes the data that comes back over the telemetry and data stored onboard the vehicles."
One of the key communications challenges is how to ensure the data link isn't broken, considering all tracks have certain sections where the transmitter in the car and the receiver at the pits are badly affected by attenuation.
Magneti Marelli has found a way around this obstacle: "We've developed a method that maps those portions of the track that enjoy a direct communications link and those that don't," says Sangelaji. "As the car enters a dark radio zone, the data is stored in a series of buffers - which are additional to the data logger and located in the transmission unit. As soon as the radio link is re-established, both the real-time data together with the background data stored in the buffers are simultaneously transmitted. This allows teams to reconstruct the data for those short portions of the track where there's no radio link and display it in their monitors."
The monitors he refers to are not just those situated behind the 'pit wall' and attentively observed by the race engineers, but also any of the around 50 PCs and laptops the rest of the engineering team will carry to each track to analyse data and interface with the cars. Providing secure connectivity to these extra network clients at the garage is already a challenge in itself. But this is not where the journey that the telemetry data packets had begun at the car's sensors will end.
"We will be taking those 20MB of telemetry data per lap off the cars and all of those 100 channels or so and transmitting them to the UK in as close to real-time as we can," Burns explains. "We'll have further engineers there who'll be watching the data inputs coming through while the cars are running on the track."
The Williams F1's chief operating officer says this long-haul communications link is most useful in testing and practice sessions rather than the race itself. Equipped with much more processing power and IT resources than would be possible to fit in the racks inside the team's trucks, "the people assessing data in the UK will be looking at quite large data files at the end of a session to see if they can recommend set-up changes or something like that during the course of a race weekend to try to improve our lap times", says Burns.
"The key time really is between the final practice session on Saturday morning and qualifying on Saturday lunchtime. Normally we have two hours between the practice session finishing and the cars going out for qualifying. And, once they've gone out for qualifying, we can't make any more changes to them - the configuration of the car is fixed. So being able to transfer the big data sets back to the UK quickly at the end of - and even during - the practice session is very helpful in giving the engineers in our headquarters time to assess the data and make any recommendations."
This kind of demanding ICT environment is what makes partnering with technology sponsors so important in modern F1. Whereas some teams such as Toyota prefer to go though the trouble of converting one of their trucks into a huge antenna that will provide satellite connectivity between tracks dispersed around the world and its factory in Cologne, Germany, Williams is lucky to have AT&T as one of its sponsors.
By the time the Williams team arrives to a new circuit, the carrier will already have set up a leased line or DSL link connecting the team's garage with a local point of presence from AT&T's global MPLS (multi-protocol label switching) network. At the other end, William's headquarters in Oxfordshire will be connected through a hard line to the same telco's network.
"It's plug 'n' play, yes," Burns replies to an observation of how convenient this functionality must be to sort out the final leg of the telemetry route. "I just wish it was that simple, though!
"The truth is that the setup of the network at the track is quite complicated. And we'll make a big effort to set all that up… only to break it down again after five days. It's a complete network infrastructure that exists only for the duration of the Grand Prix. And then you have to do it all over again ten days later."