How data keeps Formula One on track

28 May 2013

Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronics

If there was ever a metaphor to sum up how innovations in one industry sector can spark improvements in other sectors, Formula One Grand Prix motorsports may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

Yet the way Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronics, describes it, innovations on some of the world’s premier Grand Prix racing tracks are having ramifications in other sectors, such as medicine, communications and transport, and this is becoming big business for McLaren.

To many Formula One fans, there is nothing like the start of a race when the roar of the engines reach an earsplitting cacophony and 22 cars propel themselves into the distance.

“I think it’s the speed and the violence,” van Manen said and laughed.

Open Innovation 2.0 conference

Van Manen attended the Open Innovation 2.0 conference at Dublin Castle recently, where experts gathered to find a new way for Europe to be more nimble in converting research into jobs and profits.

Van Manen has been with McLaren for more than 20 years and he has been involved in every control unit the company has ever deployed. A mechanical engineer, he has also been involved in NASCAR racing and IndyCar.

“Formula One is quite complicated and we start off with a car that in itself is quite complex – the chassis is made up of 11,000 components, there are 6,000 components in the engine and there are more than 8,000 electronics components. In every car there are 25,000 things that have to come together in order to be successful.”

He said that every weekend that McLaren races, the car is practically 95pc a brand-new build.

“Every year, 3,000 to 4,000 new components are made and for every 20 minutes of race time a new part is being designed.

“The pace of development is the closest thing in mechanical form to software development.”

In terms of measuring understanding, van Manen said Formula One is an increasingly data-driven industry.

“It’s a matter of understanding what you have built and turning that data into stories from which you can take action,” he said.

“On each vehicle there are 120 sensors measuring different things – from how the suspension operates, the state of the tyres – and sending this data back in real-time across the world from the track to the garage and to the factories.”

Race prep

Before a race begins, McLaren engineers begin laying fibre-optic cables attached to wireless access points to capture data transfer and relay the information to the track-side garage and to the factory on the other side of the world.

Van Manen said that as the cars hurtle at 200mph around tracks, data is being sent at a speed of between 2Mbps and 4Mbps (megabits per second) back to McLaren’s computers.

Formula One is underpinned by data and data is received through the IT networks.

“The reason being is that cars are complex – and they are developed throughout the season to make them faster – and the only way to understand them quickly and to act fast to make a difference is by collecting data and being able to turn that data into some kind of knowledge you can act upon,” van Manen said.

“The way that the IT systems can underpin that is that on a race weekend you are creating a whole network around the garages and track, taking data from a car via telemetry so you are sending hundreds of millions of numbers from the cars to the garages.”

McLaren then fuses that data together to understand things such as how much life is in the car’s engine, if the tyres are degrading, and how much fuel is in a car’s tank.

“So while the cars are making all that noise, you have all this information floating about to make these highly strung machines to do their best on the track,” said van Manen.

Preparation for the typical race that TV viewers would observe at the weekend begins early in the week.

“For a single race, the guys would normally turn up at the race track on the Tuesday or Wednesday and the track would be set up with fibre-optic lines around the track for the TV and the telemetry on the Wednesday,” van Manen said. “There are garages that would be built and set up with the networks on the Thursday and then the cars would go out on the track for the first time Friday morning.”

Van Manen also said the preparation includes three practice sessions: two on the Friday and one on the Saturday, and then a qualifier and then the race.

“The car that hits the track at speed on the first practice on the Friday has never been raced or turned a wheel on the track in that configuration ever before,” van Manen said.

“So the attention to detail to ensure that you are putting the driver in a piece of machinery that is both safe and can perform and then to be able to optimise performance very quickly is the crucial bit.”

Then on Sunday, after the race, everything is packed up and moved to the next race, which is typically two weeks later in another part of the world, van Manen said.

Data transmission

With each car sending data at a rate of between 2Mbps and 4Mbps over the course of a two-hour race, some 750m numbers are transmitted from each car.

“That’s about twice as many words as you or I will speak in our lifetime,” said van Manen. “Over the whole grid you’ve got 22 cars so it’s about 40GB (gigabytes) of real-time data; that’s raw data and on top of that there is real-time processing of data in the garages, which increases that by a factor of three or four. So by the end of the race there would be 100GB of data for people to look at in real-time while the racing is going on.”

Van Manen said the investment in IT is as critical as the parts that go into each racing car.

“As far as the car itself is concerned, about 95pc of the car is brand new every year. The electronics on the car is part of the 5pc, which is re-used from year to year.

“But as far as the IT systems both at the track and at the back of the factory is concerned, there is an investment in more processing and storage, which is a fairly continual investment.”

The technologies used in the engine diagnostics, as well as communications from the track, are now being translated into solutions in other industries.

For example, doctors at Birmingham Children’s Hospital are using the diagnostic systems developed by McLaren to try and spot the danger of cardiac arrest in newborn babies.

It started with a conversation over dinner with a consultant from Birmingham Children’s Hospital, van Manen said. The hospital had already introduced a paper-based system for detecting deterioration in acutely ill patients.

“We were talking about what we do with our race cars and at one moment it clicked: that our newborn race cars and newborn children had an awful lot of things in common,” said van Manen.

“We have to learn about them very quickly and detect when conditions have started to change because in both cases you have a very short window of opportunity to be able to make a difference and so it evolved from that.”

Technology for transport

McLaren’s technology for communicating wirelessly around race tracks and sending telemetry data back from moving vehicles has also been deployed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) railway in San Francisco, California.

“It evolved from a discussion about things we do in racing, which is taking real-time data to make the vehicles run better to be able to deal with maintenance diagnostics, etc. And we said why don’t we embed this in the rail vehicles because then not only do we provide bandwidth to passengers on the railway, we can then start taking data and video images from the tracks themselves to help the operation of the trains.”

Van Manen said translating innovations from one industry to the next will be de rigueur further into the 21st century.

“We didn’t go into railways or hospitals just because we had an epiphany. The point is that if you can expose a way of looking at things to someone with a close domain knowledge of their own industry, you can potentially make a difference.

“And that is the essence of innovation.”

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 26 May

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years