Tech

GRAND PRIX WIZARDRY

Auto racing is as much about fast computers as about fast cars

DANYLO HAWALESHKA June 25 2001
Tech

GRAND PRIX WIZARDRY

Auto racing is as much about fast computers as about fast cars

DANYLO HAWALESHKA June 25 2001

GRAND PRIX WIZARDRY

Tech

Auto racing is as much about fast computers as about fast cars

DANYLO HAWALESHKA

Formula One is a sport of constant and rapid change. During the course of a season, spanning 17 races, seven months and five continents, as much as 70 per

cent of a cars mechanics, electronics and aerodynamics will be redesigned and rebuilt before a world champion is crowned in October. Ifs a multimillion-dollar race for speed in which high-end technology plays a crucial role—often far from the track. Take Caroline Hogue, a former Montrealer who is now a vehicle dynamics engineer for McLaren International in Woking, England. Hogue, who completed her formal education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and at Cambridge in England, now builds mathematical models that digitally mimic the performance of the F1 cars driven by two-time world champ Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard, currently No. 2 in the quest for this years championship. “It’s amazing what can be achieved now,” says Hogue, “all within seconds on a computer.”

It’s possible, in fact, to build a virtual For-

mula One car and race it around any track in the world without leaving the office. Hogue’s work allows the West McLaren Mercedes FI team of 350 engineers, designers and technicians to test prototypes before going to the expense of building one. During practice sessions, if Häkkinen or Coulthard find themselves struggling with their cars, Hogue, 33, and her colleagues can simulate several different anti-

roll-bar settings to improve handling before the set-up of the actual car is altered.

But computer simulations are just one of the ways innovative technologies make some of the world’s fastest cars go even faster. Java, a widely used programming language developed by Sun Microsystems Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., helps McLaren engineers design the complex software—featuring more than 500,000 lines of

code—that powers each car’s electronics. More than 120 sensors monitor performance. Everything from speed and brake wear to suspension loads and steeringwheel angle is scrutinized. As a car hurdes past grandstands, it transmits radio signals to trackside transponders, which relay the encrypted data to the garage for deciphering. The data are also whisked away, either by high-speed telephone lines or satellite link-up, to McLaren headquarters in Woking for race-weekend analysis.

Each car generates about three megabytes of data per lap. Sun servers in protective housings, affectionately known as battle stations, collect and store the steady stream of information to the garage, while the Java programming crunches the numbers into usable data. But radio telemetry has shortcomings, and buildings, tunnels and forests often block the signal, says Andrew Knight, McLaren’s information systems manager. Up to three seconds of data per lap can be lost. “Which doesn’t sound like a lot,” says Knight, “but it’s a big headache for the engineers.”

Throbbing temples are par for any For-

mula One course. This year, however, has been particularly challenging with the introduction of launch control, used during the standing starts that are a characteristic of the world’s most popular race series (more than 300 million television viewers watch each event). Sitting on the grid, FI’s current speeding bullets rely on the electronics system behind launch control to moderate the engine’s revolutions. This avoids traction loss due to tire spin during the drivers’ mad sprint to the first corner. With the rev limiter engaged, the restrained engine makes the racket of a jackhammer pounding pavement, only lower and louder, prompting one frequent race-goer to dub the system “headache control.” It has purists lamenting the possible demise of good old-fashioned, seatof-the-pants driving.

But Steve Hallam, McLaren’s steely chief engineer and a respected veteran of 20 years of FI racing, suggests machine is not triumphing over man. “The driver is arguably one of the most sensitive instruments that we have on the car,” says Hallam, whose experience includes six victories with legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, considered by some the best in the world before he died in a crash in 1994. “The driver doesn’t just press the pedals and turn the steering wheel. He feels, sees and experiences what the car is doing.” Still, some drivers have complained that their skills are being subverted by software. It hasn’t helped that there have been spectacular launch-control failures, most notably in Austria last month, when four cars were orphaned at the start, engines stalled. When it works—and the comparatively uneventful start at the June 10 Grand Prix in Montreal suggests the bugs have been ironed out—launch control introduces reliability into what had been an unpredictable environment. “It enables a driver,” says Hallam, “to go through a sequence of events, initialize the system, and launch the car, for want of a better word, in a very consistent manner.”

Formula One cars are astonishingly fast to begin with. At 600 kg, including the driver, they are a third of the weight of a common six-cylinder sedan. That same family car would have a 200-horsepower engine, but an FI car easily quadruples that output. And what goes fast must also slow down. At the Montreal Grand Prix, cars flying along at 320 km/h were able to decelerate to about 80 km/h for a tight

AS A CAR HURTLES PAST GRANDSTANDS, IT TRANSMITS DATA FROM 120 SENSORS

corner in less than the length of a Canadian football field.

You might think a driver like Austrian Alex Wurz would want to slow down. In 1998, in Montreal, Wurz barrel-rolled his car five times at the start of the race in a frightening crash that, remarkably, left him uninjured. Today, though, he’s a high-speed test driver for McLaren, helping develop traction control, which was reintroduced this year. Drivers can now get back on frill throtde more quickly when exiting corners, without worrying as much about the car’s back end stepping out, or the engine overrewing when the tires leave the ground after hitting the bumpy shoulder in a curve. The impact on lap times is stunning. At the Montreal race, 16 out of 22 cars had better qualifying times than last year’s pole sitter. Wurz exults in the speed, even though he

knows he’s risking his life. The added zip of traction control, Wuiz says with a grin, is a thrill. “It’s a cool feeling.”

Formula One is all about emotions. Atmospherically, it’s a combination travelling circus/rock concert/burlesque show that intertwines showmanship, deafening speed and exotic women. Exclusivity adds to the allure. In Montreal, guests at the Paddock Club, located over team garages

in the pit lane, dined on veal Saltimbocca, saffron risotto with tarragon and braised leek, while savouring a glass of Pouilly Fumé or champagne. The brushed-cotton napkins were by Hermès of Paris.

Formula One is about money, great sums of it. Top teams spend as much as $375 million a season going around in circles. It comes from sponsors like German cigarettemaker Reemtsma. Packages of the company’s American-blend cigarettes, West, lay open on each table in the Paddock Club, promising “Full Flavor” and carrying no ugly Canadian warning labels.

FI is also about sex. Supermodels come to the track as dates of the drivers. Cleavage-baring beauties pose beside the cars. During a closedcircuit broadcast beamed to three flat-panel plasma display screens in the McLaren hospitality suite, driver David Coulthard told the well-fed assembly he liked Montreal’s challenging circuit. But in an unguarded moment, Coulthard inexplicably veered abrupdy in his thinking. “I

think Montreal’s got some of the prettiest girls in any strip clubs I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world,” he said to chordes from men in the audience. “So I definitely recommend anyone coming to Montreal.”

Fast women, faster cars. To sustain the allure, the cars must remain dangerously quick. That invariably means more technology. On the horizon, Hogue foresees the day when her computer simulations will mimic not just the cars, but the drivers as well, with the software taking into account each man’s driving style. “No matter how good a car you build, you need to incorporate the driver in some way,” says Hogue. “If he doesn’t like the car, he’s not going to push it to the limit.” And that’s what Formula One is all about: testing limits with style, speed and a little help from some very fast computers.