Pit Lane Strategy

IT has dual roles to play in F1 - one on the track and one back at the home base factory

Tags: AutomobileFormula OneMcLaren GroupRenaultUnited Arab EmiratesVodafone Group
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  November 8, 2009

At the start of this month, I had the good fortune to attend the UAE's inaugural Formula One race in Abu Dhabi, and get an up close and personal look at the IT systems used to run the McLaren Mercedes racing team. It provided an interesting opportunity to compare with the strategies employed by one of their fiercest rivals, Renault F1, whose IT manager, Graeme Hackland, sat down with me back in January for an extended conversation.

As it turns out, there isn't a massive amount of difference. In both cases, IT has dual roles to play - one on the track and one back at the home base factory. In terms of the actual event, the technology team has to ensure that the entire infrastructure reaches trackside safely and is up and running by the time the race engineers get there. They also need to be able to establish a solid data link with the factory where the statisticians can analyse the data in real-time and look for inconsistencies and improvements.

How much data are we talking about? During an average race, a McLaren Formula One car will generate in the region of six gigabtytes' worth of compressed data from the 100-odd sensors scattered over the body of the car. Considering nearly all of it is raw numerical data drillable down to the one-millisecond range, it's a staggering amount of data - and even more impressive when one considers that the race engineers can simultaneously adjust more than 15,000 variable elements on the car.

But automotive wizardry aside, what particularly drew my eye was how closely these systems resemble standard enterprise dashboard applications. It's no stretch to claim that the average IT user could easily view, understand and make changes to the car's various settings, which were laid out in a simple tree format divided in suspension, engine, transmission and so on - much like a super-advanced version of the Device Manager that Windows users are familiar with.  But if you aren't an FIA-certified race engineer, I wouldn't recommend it - the chances of you sending an errant driver into a wall are quite high!

This is also yet another example of how companies increasingly rely on IT in the new millennium. In ye olde days of racing (ie pre-1995, grease monkeys ruled the roost. "Race engineers" made their changes with a spanner and a well-aimed wrench; suspension set-ups were set in stone by the time the race commenced; and teams were heavily reliant on the individual skills of the driver to bring the silverware home.

But when I entered the paddock, there wasn't an oily rag to be seen. In fact, garages were impeccably clean, while just three technicians worked with surgical precision on the car. They were vastly outnumbered by the race engineers glued to the screens of their laptops and number-crunching desktops, studying the rapidly-changing figures for the slightest hint of advantage.

And much like any piece of mobile IT, the onboard systems need to be hardened against damage and redundancies built into the system to ensure that the loss of any one component does not hinder the race effort. Race engineers have to perform much like IT managers in this respect, planning the full range of disaster scenarios that may occur, from losing aerodynamic components to glitches in the control software. The only real weak link seems to be the one behind the wheel.

Sadly, however, one element carries over from the corporate world, despite all this technological excess - and it's the one bit I've been dreading to mention thus far. It's the fact that IT exists purely as a support function. Race engineers write the software and analyse the data it produces, while IT sits patiently in the back making sure the servers and such are humming along smoothly.  Data security is always one of IT's responsibilities and important particularly in a secretive industry like F1, but surely there's more the IT manager can be doing to help the overall effort besides the virtual equivalent of keeping an eye on the paddock door.

Last year, Renault F1's IT budget was cut by close to 70%, which means that planned projects were pruned of both scope and ambition. This year, I can't see things having improved much, particularly with all the turmoil in the sport. Irrespective of the vertical, CIOs everywhere will have do much better next year in terms of coming up with better ways to achieving business objectives if they are to justify sustaining even their current meagre budgets before the boardroom. Otherwise, they should not be surprised when they find themselves, like McLaren's IT team, relegated to an outer  building watching monitors, instead of being behind the pitwall in the heart of the action.

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