Tom McCullough often starts his work day the same way many of us do – by booting up his computers.
The difference for McCullough, however, is that his computers have four wheels, can travel over 300km/h, and if the reboot goes wrong he knows he’s in for a very stressful day at the office.
McCullough is the race engineer for AT&T Williams, one of the 12 teams competing in the high-octane international sporting circus that is Formula One motor racing.
On race day, starting up the team’s 600-plus horse power V8 race cars isn’t a simple matter of turning a key. Instead, it involves loading vital performance parameter data into the onboard systems. Without this data loaded, the car won’t function, McCullough explains. "If the car hasn’t started, it needs a certain amount of software working to get it fired up,” he says.
"The car has to be downloaded with the correct set-up files – that’s all the calibrations for the engine and the control system, the gear box, the clutch and the hydraulics. Once all that information is in the car then you can just start it with a battery and it will go.”
This means that the time before a race starts is the most nerve-wracking, he says. "If you have a problem then, and you can’t put the information into the car, then you’re in trouble. So we just start that process very early. We have backup systems in place should the main system fail, and – touch wood – we haven’t actually had that problem where you can’t start a car.”
McCullough was speaking in Melbourne, ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in March, the first event on the gruelling Formula One circuit, which sees Williams and the other teams travelling all over the globe, competing at 19 venues through to November.
Each team has two cars, two drivers, about 70 staff who travel to the race track, a couple of hundred more back at headquarters (which in Williams’ case is in the UK) and the monumental logistical challenge of carting everything they need to a new venue about once every fortnight.
Global ICT and networking company AT&T uses its sponsorship of the Williams team to showcase its capabilities as a technology provider. The key message for the company is: If it can effectively support and provide the communications and networking services that enable a mobile Formula One race team to perform effectively at 19 locations around the world, it can provide a network that meets any organisation’s needs.
AT&T acknowledges that Williams is, in a number of ways, different from the type of organisation it typically has as a customer. AT&T clients tend to be large multinationals with thousands of staff, spread across dozens, if not hundreds of offices around the world.
But like the typical multinational client, what Williams primarily needs from AT&T is a fast network to efficiently and securely transfer gigabytes of data. It just happens that they are a much more mobile organisation than AT&T typically deals with.
Why does a racing team need to shift so many gigs of data? These days Formula One is as much about IT as it is about mechanics. A tour through Williams’ pit lane garage facilities trackside at Albert Park in Melbourne tells the story. There is certainly more network cabling than engine oil to step over. And while there are a number of mechanics on hand busily hunched over the race cars attending to pre-race tweaks, there are just as many system engineers hunched over keyboards, and enough server racks in the building to meet the data and processing needs of at least a dozen small-to-medium sized New Zealand businesses.
Back at the UK headquarters, IT is even more dominant. A supercomputer is one of Williams’ key assets and race car design and improvement is all about computational fluid dynamics – software to model and analyse the aerodynamics of the vehicles.
Time pressures and cost restraints mean that more and more of the race car development work is done "virtually” on the supercomputer every year. The supercomputer also powers a sophisticated driver simulation solution, which is another vital element for the team, allowing the team drivers to experience the layout of the 19 tracks they will visit ahead of actually landing at each new venue throughout the year.
When the cars are on the track, data collection and analysis comes into play, with screeds of information from about 200 sensors on each car fed back into the system for further analysis.
An example of how reliant the team is on data transfer: During pre-season testing of its cars in Spain during February and March this year, the vehicles were put through their paces over a 16-day period, during which they travelled about 5000km. Over this time about 90Gb of data was transferred wirelessly from the cars to the pit, and then on over the network back to the UK factory.
During a typical race weekend a further 10 to 20Gb of race car data is transferred across the network, initially over a secure radio link provided by the Formula One governing body, the FIA, and then on through the AT&T network.
Ahead of each race meeting, AT&T technicians establish a local point of presence, via mobile fibre connections, from the race venue back to the AT&T global network. Depending on the location, the local POP connection can involve laying hundreds, if not thousands of metres of fibre. The connection is used not only to transfer race car data, but also to meet the team’s telecommunications needs, including providing video conferencing capabilities.
McCullough says he does not believe that the increasing reliance on technology has taken the spirit out of Formula One.
"I don’t think so. I think you’re getting more and more out of the hardware you’ve got and more consistently getting that out of it,” he says. "In the past you could go to 18 races over the year and you were possibly optimised at two or three of them. Nowadays to be competitive we try and optimise at every single event.”
He describes himself as a "non-IT person” and the end-user of the technology, whose job is to use the technology available to get the most out of the cars.
"As end-users, we get much more accurate information, much quicker to our fingertips. In my role as a race engineer, in theory, I personally don’t have to look at a computer for most of the day. I have an assistant who looks at all the data systems and he passes the information on to me,” McCullough says.
"I’m personally processing a lot of the timing data and a lot of the other basic setup information the driver has given me. I have an aerodynamicist, a strategy guy and data guy. All these guys are using the software tools to quickly analyse the data and then give me the information to react to, with the setup and direction of the car and the strategies that we use.”
He says intuition and experience remains important, rather than simply reacting to the numbers crunched by the software.
"I think the data has meant there is much less chance of making mistakes. Nowadays you have such little valuable track time that every single run has to be used to get the most out of the whole package. So with all the data systems that can process the information straight away, as soon as a run has finished, I have guys on the intercom saying the set-up test is better or worse at certain speeds, corners, etc. Then when the driver comes in and starts giving me his comments, you’ve got the two to correlate,” he says.
The ability to take the data that is being presented on board, but at the same time being able to put it in perspective, is a skill also required by the men at the sharp end of Formula One – the drivers.
Williams’ senior driver, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, is into his 19th season of Formula One racing and has seen remarkable technology changes introduced across the sport during that time.
He says the most obvious change was that when he started racing in 1993 there was a single button on his car’s steering wheel – to activate the radio for communicating with the pit crew.
"Now I have 26 buttons. I have to drive, change gears and keep on doing so many things while I'm driving,” Barrichello says.
But he agrees with that McCullough that the ballooning of technology hasn’t taken the spirit – or the need for immense skill – out of the sport.
"You're always driving a car. There's a wrong attitude of thinking that this is a computer. The car cannot be driven by itself. You’re definitely taking it around. I think it’s more difficult to drive it today than it used to [be].”
And, like McCullough, Barrichello is a firm believer that the screeds of data and analysis generated by the technology should be listened to, but also needs to be weighed up against past experience and intuition. He says he doesn’t let computer analysis dictate his driving style.
"It never told me what to do, but it helped me to confirm what I was saying about the car.”
Barrichello says he enjoys playing driving games at home with his two young children, and he says the Williams’ driving simulation technology is a valuable way to learn track layouts. But he believes technology is reaching its limits, at least in terms of the number of buttons the car designers can squeeze onto his steering wheel.
"I think this is where it will stop. If you look, it's just physically impossible to fit more [buttons] on there," he says.