Australian GP: Technology in Formula 1

Australia's 1980 Formula One World Champion Alan Jones compares notes with Juan Pablo Montoya "Control to driver: be advised we have adjusted your traction control. Please acknowledge." That's the message Juan Pablo Montoya could be receiving...

Australia's 1980 Formula One World Champion Alan Jones compares notes with Juan Pablo Montoya

"Control to driver: be advised we have adjusted your traction control. Please acknowledge." That's the message Juan Pablo Montoya could be receiving this weekend. When it comes, he presses a button, settles back down into the cockpit of his Compaq-sponsored WilliamsF1 BMW FW24 and gets on with the job of trying to win the Australian Grand Prix.

Bi-directional telemetry is back in Formula 1, and one of the teams best equipped to take advantage of the very latest technology is the BMW WilliamsF1 Team. On a day that started with a tram ride through the Melbourne streets, WilliamsF1 star Montoya, the 1980 Williams driver and Formula One World Champion, Alan Jones, and his Australian compatriot Sam Michael, Chief Operations Engineer at the modern-day WilliamsF1, explained how Compaq products, people and services will make the BMW WilliamsF1 Team a front-runner in this season's 17 Grands Prix around the globe.

Jones, the first man to take the world title for WilliamsF1 in 1980, was awe-struck by the computing power at Montoya and Michael's fingertips when he visited the BMW WilliamsF1 Team's garage at Albert Park today.

"This is our Control Centre," said Michael, pointing to one of the 40 or so Compaq N600 laptop computers in the garage. "We use it to help the drivers make the car go faster, to make sure the car is working the way it should from a mechanical and aerodynamic point of view. There are so many different parameters we need to be looking at, which is why we have six or seven engineers trackside going through every minute detail of the car's performance."

"We can track the car right round the circuit," Michael adds. "We know what's happening with the balance, the steering-wheel, the throttle. We have multiple screens covering everything from the driver to the hydraulics, the steering angle into the corner, where he has lifted off the throttle anything we want, really. And it's a two-way process. We always want to go faster, look at the data as soon as we possibly can, so that in turn helps Compaq drive their own products forward."

"You can do everything," beamed Montoya as he and Jones compared notes from two very different eras of Grand Prix racing. "Even since I tested with WilliamsF1 back in '97, it's completely different. We're only just starting with the new telemetry, but I think it's going to be a big help during races. Before, everything was pre-set, but now you can modify elements like the traction control and the differential which will be a big help with the balance of the car."

Sam Michael, one of the most highly thought-of technical men in F1 at the tender age of 30, later took the chance to explain the full range of Compaq's contribution to the team's work.

"From an operational point of view," he said, "It ranges from the iPAQs the mechanics use to register faults on the car, to the Evo N600, which is our standard tool for analysing data, to the ProLiant Servers, of which we have five or six running in the pit garage at any one time."

At the WilliamsF1 headquarters in Grove, England, another 40 laptops are in constant use, but one of the important ingredients of the whole operation is the Alpha super-computer installed last year.

"Its main use is in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)," explained Michael. This is the discipline which allows engineers to simulate the aerodynamic performance at the design stage before practical experimentation in the wind tunnel, and is reliant on the enormous computational ability of the Alpha super-computer platform.

"The front and rear wings and brake ducts of the FW24 are the main areas where the Compaq super-computer has helped us," added Michael. "I'd say there is a 30 to 35 % improvement aerodynamically thanks to Compaq. Aerodynamics is the absolute key to this sport. If you have strong technologies in your wind-tunnel and CFD, you have a major advantage."

The evidence of improvement has been there for Montoya, and teammate Ralf Schumacher, to see in pre-season testing. "I'd say we have come up with a good, reliable car," said the Colombian. "Last year we didn't really know what worked on the car and what didn't. This year we're a lot better prepared."

Compaq's Director of Formula 1, Andrew Collis, was quick to pick up on the positive nature of his company's alliance with the BMW WilliamsF1 Team. "The first aspect of it was that both WilliamsF1 and BMW were already customers of ours," he said. "Secondly, there was the level of visibility. F1 goes to a global audience of over 300 million people every two weeks, and Compaq's target is well represented in that audience."

"Third, our heavy level of branding means we take advantage of that audience properly and we enjoy access to the assets of the team, such as Sam Michael and his expertise. Last but not least, the WilliamsF1 team has a heritage of technology and engineering and now Compaq is already the most-recognised IT brand company in Formula 1."

While Montoya deftly handled questions about his chances of beating Michael Schumacher this year, Sam Michael insisted on the importance of the man in the cockpit in this technology-driven sport. "Sure, we're doing a lot for him by changing things on the car," said the Australian. "But there is no substitute for driver feedback. We can verify what he tells us, we can even contradict it but we can never replace it. Data, lap times and driver comment are the three crucial things we work with."

As tools for more sophisticated and faster design, for development, for data transfer and communication, Compaq products and services are vital to the Formula 1 programme. Trust a driver, though, to bring it all back to basics. "The electronics and computer stuff give you so much to work on," enthused Montoya. "You can adjust the traction control for every corner, for every part of the corner, and likewise with the differential. Use all those tools in the right way and you're gonna find a lot of time."

Montoya managed to find enough time to win in Melbourne twice before the season even gets under way. In a series of simulated races around a virtual Albert Park Grand Prix circuit at the nearby Compaq offices, Juan Pablo took out two employees and protested vigorously over his defeat and aggressive treatment in the third. "This time use the brakes!" he joked after insisting on a re-run.

Jones declined to 'race' and insisted he would find a return to the cockpit too frustrating after a long absence. But he still had the last word when it came to bi-directional telemetry and the modern Formula 1. "I'd hate to have seen some of the messages I would have got!" was the day's sign-off from the inimitable Jones.

-bmw williams/js-

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Williams