IT in the fast lane

Why do so many IT companies sponsor or subsidise Formula One racing teams? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the glamour, in the association with winning, and, of course, the free tickets. But there is another reason: the IT budgets of Formula One teams are rarely huge, but the IT engineering challenges can mirror those faced by the automotive engineers. Indeed, increasingly, the two are working closely together. Take, for example, the Renault Formula One team.

Graeme Hackland, the team's IT manager, argues that successful IT at Renault translates directly into better performance on the track.

Equally, failure of the IT, especially on race days, would be catastrophic. Two years ago, this nearly happened, when a laptop used to calculate how much fuel is needed failed as the car approached the pit stop. It was rebooted and the calculation made with a couple of seconds to spare. Other teams have suffered software problems that put their cars out of races. The engineering challenges are huge. During a season the company's computer-aided design systems are used to produce around 10,000 drawings – because unlike normal vehicles, the car changes radically during the season. For just one car, 140 specialist workstations are used, backed up by another 500 Windows systems.

Each race is a major logistics operation. Servers are transported around the world and wheeled to the trackside by each team, who rebuild dedicated LANs each time. In Renault's case, these servers communicate directly with each car's 200 sensors and on-board computers, both in real time and in burst mode, over WANs and LANs, as they screech around the track. Server failure is a constant fear.

Renault uses high availability, clustered Windows servers and real time back-up software and storage from Veritas and NetApp. Heat is also a problem: at the Bahrain Grand Prix, temperatures reached 40°C – way beyond the normal tolerance of most servers. Key race data (a DVD's worth is collected every race) is sent for back-up and analysis via satellite links to the team's technical centre in Oxfordshire.

There, automated tape libraries and online back-ups are used to store data on every race and test going back to 1977. Small changes in design rules, or the introduction of a new track, mean that engineers may need to call on this data to analyse race tactics or to make design changes.

Sometimes, race day data can be used to prove to the IFA how the car or the driver behaved. Paranoia is rife, with frequent allegations of electronic eavesdropping. For this reason, communications are often encrypted. The stakes are high, with Renault's corporate image on the line in every race.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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