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Insight: Inside McLaren's secretive F1 operations room, "Mission Control"

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Insight: Inside McLaren's secretive F1 operations room, "Mission Control"
Jul 11, 2016, 8:04 AM

“Formula 1 is the probably the world’s most secretive sport and McLaren is known as one of the most secretive teams,” were the opening words ...

“Formula 1 is the probably the world’s most secretive sport and McLaren is known as one of the most secretive teams,” were the opening words on a tour down the McLaren Technology Centre’s history lined boulevard.

During FP1 for this weekend's British Grand Prix, JAonF1 was offered the chance to take a look behind that secrecy and inside McLaren’s famous “Mission Control” centre at its Woking factory.

A few months earlier, the British team had opened a small viewing gallery next to the private communications room that live monitors the system’s of the McLaren cars competing in Grand Prix events around the world.

McLaren Technology Centre

Viewed from the adjacent room are three banks of desks, staggered upwards in height from front to back, which are manned by 13 McLaren engineers, with several screens at the front of the room showing the various FOM TV feeds of the on-tract action at Silverstone. Although a Grand Prix practice session is only 90-minutes long, during the long hours of winter testing these engineers will work in shifts to cover the duration of the day’s running.

We’re told to think of Mission Control along the same lines as NASA’s famous set-up in Houston, although the F1 equivalent is obviously smaller. The first row of engineers is dedicated to checking the health of the two cars as they traverse Silverstone’s 5.891-km layout and they will alert the race team to any problems they see occurring from the data.

McLaren Mission Control

The back row of three engineers is dedicated purely to race strategy. Both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have one strategist each, and they are separated by another, who is purely concerned with picking the best plan for the overall result of the team.

A Grand Prix Friday is the busiest day for the engineers inside Mission Control as they chase the best set-ups and strategy for their drivers to use during the race. It’s quiet inside – none of these analysts will speak to the drivers directly and to avoid unnecessary radio clutter, a lot of the communication takes place via a secure instant chat messenger system.

McLaren has a similar set-up known as the “war room”, where a separate team of engineers study the aerodynamic data sent back by the cars to check it is matching what the team’s simulator and computer systems have indicated.

Jenson Button

Inside the viewing gallery, which will mainly be provided to McLaren’s partners, three screens are divided to show the pictures of the action on track, live timing and a visualisation of the reams of data coming from the cars.

On the third screen, two maps show the position of all the cars on the circuit – one large circle and one map of Silverstone. The circle is deliberately simple to show exactly how many seconds separate the cars currently running, while the track map is there to make sure the engineers only talk to the drivers when they on the straights and not in the corners. During a race, the circular map will show the engineers precisely when a pitstop window is opened.

Visitors to the gallery can listen in via headphones to the team’s communications at any track. During FP1 at Silverstone, when the drivers are sent out of the pits, the majority of radio calls are to inform them of gaps to other cars – “Fernando, plus six to Palmer on a timed lap.” Button is warned he will be near to Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes when he leaves the pitlane and the short gap between the labels on the circular map is translated into the length of Silverstone’s National pit straight on the track guide.

Jenson Button

When the drivers return to their garages after a ten-lap run mid-way through the session, both Button and Alonso spend time giving detailed feedback about the handling of their cars. “The circuit is very bumpy this year,” reports the Briton, “it’s unsettling the car.” Alonso suggests the team prepares a “special toggle” for Turn 3, presumably to help his passage through the tight right-hander.

Although F1 team radio has been massively restricted in 2016, McLaren’s engineers can still be heard giving orders in codes. These are changed for every event, just in case another team is listening in – secretive indeed.

McLaren announces new data partnership

Every F1 team sends a vast amount of information across the world from a racetrack to their own live monitoring set-ups at their own factories, and this requires a safe, reliable, and above all, fast data transfer network.

Shoji-san and Ron Dennis

McLaren recently revealed a new technology partnership with the NTT Communications Corporation, the ICT solutions and international communications business within the Japanese NTT Group.

The initial three-year deal will provide McLaren with network, cloud, data connectivity and systems for the team’s IT strategy, which it says is concentrated on “cloud, mobility and people centric services”.

Speaking when the partnership was announced, McLaren boss Ron Dennis explained how data transfer systems were invaluable to the worldwide operations of an F1 team.

Jenson Button

He said: “Data plays such a key part in motorsport. Our team could be anywhere in the world, it happens to be at Silverstone [this weekend]. But one thing that is very apparent is that the heart of our team is our partnership with Honda.

“We have to have the right people in the right places and inevitably, if we were not blessed with high-speed communications, these people would all have to be collectively hubbed around Silverstone.

“But they’re not, they are connected in real time and Mission Control is a very imperative entity. We have a duplicate version of it at the circuit and [another] at Honda’s R&D facility.

“We are simulating something approaching 300,000 races per second during the course of a Grand Prix and that data provides us with the ability to optimise the strategy and optimise the configuration of the car.”

McLaren wheel hub

Dennis also illustrated the huge amount of information that is measured by every F1 car as he described the processing power of an MP4-31’s wheel hub, which he called “small beer” compared to that of the complex ERS systems in today’s V6 turbo power units.

He said: “Each wheel hub has its own processing power, we don’t even take data from the sensors that surround the wheel [that measure] brake temperatures, brake wear, tyre pressures, G-Forces – all of this gets processed actually in the wheel hub – it doesn’t even get transmitted to the central ECU, the Electronic Control Unit.

“If driver locks a brake or the wheel throws itself out of balance, we’re monitoring the vibration that creates against a model that says, “if the driver continues with this level of vibration the suspension will fail,” or the opposite, “we can cope with this vibration”.

“And that is small beer – very insignificant compared to the Energy Recovery Systems on the car.”

Fernando Alonso

Speaking alongside Dennis was Tetsuya Shoji, President and CEO, NTT Communications, who said: “I am thrilled that NTT Communications is now a Technology Partner for McLaren-Honda, a symbol of innovation for motorsport fans worldwide.

“The NTT Communications technology repertoire is wide and deep, and McLaren’s excellence in Formula 1 is world renowned. With innovation a part of the DNA of both companies, this partnership will help McLaren-Honda transform how it manages the data generated during Formula 1 races and transcend hitherto established boundaries in motorsports racing.”

What do you make of McLaren’s Mission Control and how F1 teams transmit huge amounts of data around the world during Grand Prix events? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
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Series Formula 1
Drivers Fernando Alonso Shop Now
Teams McLaren Shop Now
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