Dawn of a new era
Formula One is a sophisticated sport. The amount of resources poured generously into the operations of most teams is staggering. Engineering, manufacturing, design, marketing, raw materials, personnel, data and infrastructure are all part of what makes even the smallest of teams capable of competing every two weeks.
Toro Rosso has offered a terrific vignette with their IT manager, Claudio De Plato. If you scour history books, you'll know that F1 has become a series obsessed with electronics since the late 1980's. This is understandable as aerodynamics had been neutered with the ground effects ban and engine regulations had placed series restrictions on how much development could be done.
This left one area wide open and Williams F1 took full advantage of it with their electronic ride-height system. Other teams followed with engine mapping, launch control, traction control and other computer-controlled enhancements to improve their performance. Along with all the models, programs, Electronic Control Units (ECU) and other computer-related gambits came a wave of data that needed to be processed.
The rising tide lifts all servers
As the computer and electronic age of F1 surged, the amount of data harvested on any given grand prix weekend became enormous. Real-time communication with the team's headquarters--often on the other side of the planet--is a key element in getting immediate analysis of certain elements of a race weekend. Is the rear wing not working properly? Red Bull Racing's engineers are watching it in real-time at Milton Keynes as Mark Webber drives around the Singapore circuit on his first qualifying run Saturday morning. They recognize the issue and immediately send solutions to the team in Singapore.
It's this kind of immediate feedback that gives teams the ultimate in situational awareness and the teams who do this with the best infrastructure, digital head-end and backhaul system (read broadband) can excel. The tide of data that has surged into F1 has given rise to a phalanx of servers, computers and data storage devices. What is the difference between Toro Rosso and your company's system? You have an Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF) closet; they have to take their system on the road every week!
The loudest voice in F1
The amount of data harvested in F1 speaks volumes about the team's performance in real time. It is the single most important voice in the operation. Measuring ride height, tire pressures, gearbox temperatures, tire temperatures, fuel-flow rates, suspension movement, throttle, brake and steering wheel input, oil temperatures and levels, Kinetic Energy Recovery system status and deployment, Drag Reduction System status and deployment, and on it goes.
An F1 team doesn't look at a few things on a laptop; they harvest terabytes of data and process that data for future development and insight. It's an amazing feat by anyone's measure and Claudio is at the hub of it all. Imagine having every detail of your car measured--those measurements become a voice and that voice screams with the sound of a V8 engine revving at 18,000 RPM!
Taking your IDF to the Nth degree
As the teams head to Korea, hosting its second annual F1 race this weekend, it represents a particular challenge. New venues often have random niggles that make life hard and unexpected. A new venue is always a challenge and Korea was no different.
"Since the time I started this job, working at the race tracks, I would say that this Korean weekend was the most drama filled time I have ever known at a new venue. Because the electrical current which was supplied by the circuit was a bit different to the one we normally used, electric motors worked faster than we wanted and the cooling fans for the computer servers ran the risk of overheating their bearings. It was a major setback which delayed our set-up, but we got it all sorted in the end".
"In order to get round this we tried to hire in some different generators, but communicating with the local Koreans was not so easy for us. They tackled every problem in a very calm way, so that something we asked for on a Monday would arrive two days later. For example, I arrived on Sunday afternoon the week before the race and we did not have electrical power in the garage until Wednesday night. We are lucky enough to have an electrician on the team who immediately spotted the problem, whereas others were less fortunate and ended up with some damaged equipment. On the positive side, the local people did a very good job of helping us and also the basic infrastructure of the pit garages was all done well. All the information we had been given before coming here, with the exception of that relating to the power, had been correct and so we managed to work as normal without too many difficulties".
One man's access is another man's filter
Imagine showing up for work with a truck-load of servers, switches, cables and computers only to find the power outlets don't work. Panic time! The other issue for a team's IT initiative at each race is its serious need for internet bandwidth in order to send data back to their headquarters--in this case Faenza Italy. Communication with the outside world is crucial and some countries have severe limits on their broadband providers and the amount of data that can be sent.
Couple the access issues and bandwidth issues with security protocol and proxy servers and you have completed an organic stew of digital noise that would make anyone's head spin.
"Korea is well known for being at the cutting edge in terms of internet speeds, but this did not make itself shown here, as our access internet has to go through Faenza for reasons of security and most teams experienced some problems in this area. I have to say that in the hotels, the internet was very fast, but maybe that's because people have other things to do in the hotels, so there was less internet traffic".
Having a system work flawlessly at your office is certainly something that even the most mild-mannered IT professional doesn't take for granted but designing a system that can be mobile, provide the endpoints with the connectivity they need, have the right layer-3 switches and network created, connect to the correct amount of bandwidth in that particular country and chat with the servers securely back at the HQ is a daunting task.
I don't envy the IT manager at each team and you can only imagine what happens to them should the system go down during a race! That loud voice? It mysteriously goes silent and the team operates completely in the dark. There are some F1 fans that would prefer it that way...just like the old days without computers and with clutches and shifters.