The electronics system on a Formula 1 car can be compared to the human central nervous system, as it controls and monitors almost every function of the car's performance relating to engine, chassis and all the various systems used to control the...
The electronics system on a Formula 1 car can be compared to the human central nervous system, as it controls and monitors almost every function of the car's performance relating to engine, chassis and all the various systems used to control the gearbox, differential and other components.
"Electronics has two main tasks, the first is to measure and the other is to initiate an action," says Roberto Dalla, Head of Electronics for Scuderia Ferrari. "This means that in order to understand the overall performance of the car, we want to measure more and more aspects of what goes on in the car. Electronics is our main tool for taking measurements and it is mainly done with several computers and sophisticated sensors placed all over the car and its components."
Data acquired using electronics might be used simply to help engineers develop the car during testing, but it also serves to activate other elements of the electronic package to act on the car. "We use electronics to act and control functions such as traction control, the gearbox, the differential and other components," continues Dalla. "In this case, actuators receive information from the sensors, elaborate the information and then actuate something."
While on-board computers can monitor data and then automatically perform an action, there is another very important element connected to electronics and that is the driver. From the cockpit he can activate a variety of electronic controls on the car to alter its performance.
Like every other component on a Formula 1 car, not only do the electronic systems have to perform complicated tasks while operating with maximum reliability, their weight and bulk also have to be kept to a minimum. Look at a grand prix car and it is hard to see any evidence of electronics.
"The technological capacity of the electronics is vast and yet it is almost invisible," agrees Dalla. "We have several wires but they are usually hidden in a harsh environment, underneath the car, in parts of the engine or inside the monocoque, where they have to operate in very high temperatures and also cope with vibration. This is a key difficulty as electronics suffer in these conditions, but we cannot compromise the overall performance of the package by placing electronics in a less hostile environment."
"So not only are we working on the technological sophistication of the electronics, but we are also constantly researching making each component smaller and that is one of the most difficult parts of the task."
The sport's governing body, the FIA, is always pushing to reduce the amount of electronic driver aids on F1 cars, but according to Dalla, this does not simplify the job for the 70 people who work in the Gestione Sportiva's electronics department.
"The ideas that can be developed through electronics are almost limitless, so every time one item is removed from the list, it still keeps on growing to an extent that you cannot keep up. There is a basic technology that can be developed outside of the regulations. For example the issue of reducing the size of a component and making it more robust is a concept that is always valid. This is what we did about five years ago when most electronic aids were banned. We worked hard on this area."
Although there are less electronic aids on the cars in 2004 than in the past, the seven electronics specialists who attend every grand prix as part of the Scuderia have found that the new rules, restricting work on the cars has made their life busier.
"In particular in recent times with traction control for example, we work hard over the weekend in order to improve the characteristic of the system as a function of the characteristics of the circuit, the weather and the driver. Now, with the cars in parc-ferme from Saturday, you cannot work on the car mechanically, but you can tune the car, so there is a deep analysis from Saturday midday until the race, knowing that you can play on the electronic side."
Over a Grand Prix weekend, work on the electronics package on the F2004 follows a set pattern: "We start free practice on Friday with a basic concept and basic electronic settings that we reached as a result of testing at that specific track or other circuits," explains Dalla.
"Different software settings are used to suit the different corner types; for example in Barcelona there are some long fast corners. As another example, the length of the pit lane might be regarded as a trivial issue, but it is important to optimise the way the car tackles entering and leaving the pits during the race. The speed of the car is fixed by the speed limit, but how we approach the pit lane, how we brake, how we leave the pit lane under FIA regulations can all be optimised using electronics and the same applies to every section of the track."
Of course the electronics experts cannot work in isolation. "It is not like in the past when one person could control all the electronics on the car," admits Dalla. "It is too complex, so communication with the rest of the team is vital."