What provides the better edge in Formula 1 — a driver’s skills or finely-tuned machine? This debate broke out in the 1980s with the growth of electronic systems on Formula 1 cars. Engineers toil ceaselessly to optimize race-cars, tweaking the configuration of the over 18,000 components including sensors, ECUs, and mechanical parts.
Formula 1 engineering crews span scientific fields, from mechanics and electronics to data analysis and aerodynamics. The competition between race teams translates into a technological tour de force to improve their understanding of the dynamic behavior of the cars, down to the microsecond.
The strict regulations of the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobilie) have severely limited the technology, in order to ensure that the driver’s ability still remains an important element. Many solutions found in commercial cars such as ABS and automatic gearboxes are banned in the Formula 1 environment.
Racing cars have radically changed in recent years. Thanks to telemetry, race engineers can monitor and improve the performance of the car by analyzing data from over 300 sensors from different devices located at various points in an F1 car. Hundreds of parameters can be measured in real-time. All data are collected by a logger and sent to the teams via radio, using the antenna in the front of the car.
Speaking to EE Times, Stephen Watt, head of electronics at McLaren Racing, said “The car on track is only the tip of the iceberg; teams are now heavily data-driven, feeding on data received over the paddock-wide 5 Mbps telemetry link as well as offloaded from various onboard loggers to allow the engineers at the trackside and back at the factory to analyze the performance of the car in isolation as well as perform strategic analysis by studying the performance of other teams.”
The modern Formula 1 car is an intelligent, connected data system that can travel at over 200 km per hour. A lot of data are sent from the cars to the teams every second, transmitting various types of information about everything from tire wear to engine temperature.
ECUs and sensors
Each car is studded with multiple ECUs. At the center of the system is the standard ECU or SECU. The SECU is essentially a small but very powerful computer that controls, processes, and transmits large amounts of data from F1 cars to teams. The SECU consists of optimizing the exchanges with the engine, gearbox, and differential, but also with the aerodynamic system. The SECU is also the main data storage and acquisition service that provides real-time values via telemetry to teams and race control. This allows teams to visualize the performance of their cars in real-time, checking engine health, tire degradation, and fuel consumption.
The SECU is provided by the McLaren Applied (sister company of McLaren Racing) TAG-320B and being mandated in the regulation it must be run by all Formula 1 teams. The TAG-320B provides a shared platform used by the team, the power unit provider and the FIA. The TAG-320B hosts functions ranging from the core operation of the power unit to the often taken for granted seamless shifting of the 8-speed gearbox as well as allowing the FIA to restrict the functionality of the control software to ensure that driver aids such as traction control cannot be implemented — or at least their effect can be detected if teams were to use them.
The car has around 300 sensors and the SECU monitors over 4,000 parameters. During the course of a typical race the car will transmit around 3 GB of telemetry data as well as around 4 GB of logging, however this is just the seed for computation. When processed and combined with other sources such as audio and video analysis it can mean a team leaves a typical race weekend with over a terabyte of valuable data — data that is drawn on again and again before and during future events and seasons.
The sensors placed on the single-seater are used to monitor for potential problems; engineers can make immediate decisions based on the data collected. For example, if an increase in engine temperatures is detected, it may be because the driver is too close the car ahead; the driver’s team can alert him to get out of the hot trail of exhaust until the temperatures drop below sensitive values.
There are 3 categories of sensors: control sensors associated with drive-by-wire functions such as accelerator pedal sensor; monitoring sensors to monitor the health of the car such as hydraulic system pressure; and then instrumentation sensors such as non-contact temperature sensors to monitor friction material.
“A Formula 1 car has many lives; during qualifying and the race, it becomes a lightweight racing car with only the minimum of equipment fitted to it that we need to complete the race but even in this configuration the car will have over 1.5Km of wiring onboard and over 200 sensors. At the opposite extreme is winter testing when we’re proving out the car and it almost becomes a test lab on wheels.
The demand for high-quality data shapes a lot of what we do. The changes in both the technical and sporting regulations over the years and the reduction of track testing has put an increased emphasis on having a deep understanding of the car every time it is running on track.
“The recent changes in the Formula 1 regulations following the COVID-19 pandemic aimed at reducing spending by freezing certain areas of car developments are again reshaping that challenge and making us look harder than ever at cost and supply chain aspects as well as maximizing the benefits from the areas of freedom we still have,” said Watt.
Since 2014, the FIA has started to require the use of fluid flow meters (FFMs). FFMs also use ultrasound to measure fluid flow, which ensures a very accurate reading and instantaneous analysis of the fuel performance of the vehicle. Ultrasonic fluid flow measurement requires the use of two piezoelectric transducers. These transducers send ultrasonic pulses back and forth to each other and use flight time calculations to determine the fluid flow rate.