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Tech at heart of Williams Martini racing

F1 team relies on BT to fuel its racing machine

Synergy between engineering and IT powers modern racing.
Synergy between engineering and IT powers modern racing.

Powering the sleek racing machines of Formula 1 is an elaborate ICT set-up, without which racing as we know it would be non-existent.

For the Williams Martini racing team, one of the oldest on the circuit, BT is the chosen provider for IT and communications needs.

Big Data was a reality in racing long before it became an IT industry buzzword. As a manifestly engineering-led field, the engineers at the team have to, by default, deal with a lot of data, notes Pat Symonds, Chief Technical Officer at Williams Martini racing.

“We need a way to manage that data as well as communicate at every level, starting with the relaying of data back from the racing track we happen to be at to the factory in England. This is in addition to the personal interaction voice and video conferencing,” he adds.

BT fits very well with the profile of the Williams racing team, says Symonds. “BT is an international telecom company that leads the field in several areas of data and communications. For example, we now run our WAN back to the factory at 100Mbps which allows us to do things that we simply could not do before. BT can provide that because they are worldwide. So for us to route our data from anywhere we are in the world to the factory back in the UK, you need a worldwide provider,” says Symonds.

Real time decision-making is particularly important in the world of F1 racing, where cars zoom past at 350 km/h and races are won and lost in a matter of seconds.

To make those decisions in real time in a racing environment, Symonds says, a large number of experts monitoring the race are required. It is quite expensive and untenable to have all the engineers at the venue and the move them around the world. Increasingly, the Williams team is opting to have analysts based back in the UK. “Without the technology we have today, you needed your people on site so as to make those instant decisions in the past. Today, we rely on the fact that we have instant communications with the analysts working at the base in the UK, and there’s really no difference between them and those sitting in the office at the race track,” says Symonds.  

The only latency the team experiences is in satellite TV connections, says Symonds. “Typically, I will have all the data, voice and video communications in front of me, and the only difference is that, because of satellite signal going up to the satellite and coming back to my TV, I know what is happening before I see it,” Symonds adds.

The team typically travels with all the required ICT infrastructure, setting up its data centre at the circuit. This was the case in December last year when F1 made its annual end-of-season stop at the Yas Circuit in Abu Dhabi.     

There are about 1,000 channels of data on a racing car, Symonds reveals. The data is recorded on the car, but also transmitted in real time back to the garage. To send all this data across requires high bandwidth transmission. Once the information gets to the garage, it’s combined and mathematics applied to the channels of information, ultimately ending up with about 3,000 channels of information. That data is available on the network as soon as it is received from the cars, with latency measured in milliseconds, Symonds says.  This data is distributed to the team on the track side through Local Area Network (LAN) and then through WAN back to the base in the UK where experts will also be studying it in near real time. The data is then stored for further analysis later on.

“I cannot imagine now working without real time analytics,” says Symonds.  “We need to make tactical decisions during the race and we require that real time analytics for that. If we did not have it and someone else did, they would have a clear advantage over us,” he adds.

Engineering and IT merge in modern racing, observes Symonds. “It wasn’t like some years ago. But it soon became obvious that in order to enhance our understanding of the physics, we needed to work with IT to handle all the large amounts of data and also provide the tools needed to do comprehensive analysis of this data,” says Symonds.

“Mechanical engineering is the embodiment of ideas in a physical form, but all of it is supported by IT today. From the very moment we start thinking about racing, from designing to building to racing the car, we start off from the basics with IT and looking at how and when we might improve things, whether that is aerodynamics or computational fluid dynamics or CAD systems for design. Even our process systems in getting parts built, are all IT-based,” says Symonds. “If you took away IT now, I don’t know how we would function,” he adds.

From a security perspective, one has to be aware of threats coming from the outside like malware so the network will require pretty good firewalls, antivirus, etc. says Symonds. He cites an attack on another racing team some years back hat actually stopped cars from running for some hours when they sorted through the issue.

Symonds says the next step is 4K high definition video, allowing for even more precise video analysis.