Innovative technology at the heart of Mercedes AMG Formula One Team performance at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas
Officially opened on 21 October 2012 by 1978 Formula One World Champion and local hero Mario Andretti, the 5.513km Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, represented a new dawn for a long-standing love affair between the USA and Grand Prix racing.
The inaugural Formula One World Championship race to be held in the United States came at the Sebring International Raceway in 1959, before moving to the Riverside International Raceway in California in 1960 and finally finding a more permanent home at Watkins Glen from 1961 to 1980. After a brief return at the Phoenix Street Circuit for the 1989 and 1991 seasons, the legendary Indianapolis circuit hosted the event between 2000 and 2007.
Between 1976 and 1988, a variety of other venues across the Unites States also featured on the Formula One calendar. The Long Beach Grand Prix was the first in 1976, making the United States the first nation since Italy in 1957 to hold two Grands Prix in the same season. The United States Grand Prix West, as it was called to distinguish from the United States Grand Prix East at Watkins Glen, was held until 1983. The Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas debuted in 1981 but would only last two years, with 1982 heralding the inaugural Detroit Grand Prix – making three Formula One races in the United States that year. Detroit would last until 1988, while a one-off Dallas Grand Prix was also held in 1984.
When Formula One racing finally returned to the United States in 2012 at the first purpose-built Grand Prix facility in the USA, a new state-of-the-art home awaited. And while the circuit facility itself was quite incomparable to the early incarnation of Sebring which first hosted motorsport’s showcase event, so the cars which would tackle this new challenge were a far cry from their predecessors. In decades gone by, the onus was predominantly on the talent and bravery of the men behind the wheel. But now, technology had become an equally significant factor in performance.
In the late 1980s, the early phases of data logging were a little more advanced than they may have been in 1959 – but they were still a far cry from the complex systems of today: “When I started in Formula One almost 30 years ago, we were in the pioneering stage of putting data on the cars” says Executive Director (Technical), Paddy Lowe. “Our first data logger had only eight channels and could record only one lap at a low data rate. Today, we have thousands of channels of data from hundreds of different sensors measuring parameters within the Power Unit, gearbox, suspension and bodywork of the car. It’s a huge aspect of modern Formula One operations.”
And it’s not just the cars themselves that have progressed so vastly in this relatively short time frame. Race tracks – and even entire city centres – are now transformed into fully connected environments during a Grand Prix weekend to support the data and communication requirements of teams and spectators alike. And with radio communications from the pit wall now heavily restricted following amendments to the regulations for the 2016 season, the reliance on fast and reliable data capture is notably heightened. Teams today must be better prepared than ever to give the men at the wheel not just the perfect machine beneath them – but the largest amount of track time possible. From there, it’s up to the driver to find that elusive rhythm on track.
Including rotary switches, buttons and paddles, there are approximately 45 individual controls on a modern Formula One steering wheel – and by far the most frequently used are the gear change paddles. At the Circuit of the Americas, the average number of gear changes per lap is around 66 – which equates to nearly 3,700 changes over a 56-lap race distance.
When one calculates the number of inputs a driver is likely to have to make, the total during a qualifying lap alone is impressive. Steering inputs, gear changes and further inputs for DRS / ERS deployment and any other adjustments can give the driver a predicted workload of over 200 different inputs per lap – all before the balletic dance between the throttle and brake pedals are even considered. Finding that perfect lap is therefore no mean feat. The driver must be totally confident and comfortable in the cockpit – and 100% focused on the task at hand. This is where the vast quantities of data gathered from the cars – and the efficient transfer thereof – becomes crucial.
On track, the team manages 200 physical sensors on the car, used to log 1,000 channels of data, 100 times per second – measuring variables from hydraulic pressures to drivetrain temperatures and, of course, the hundreds of driver inputs undertaken each lap. 17,000 further parameters are recorded in ‘slow row’ (recording whenever there is space in the logger, i.e. every couple of seconds) with a total logging rate of 440kBps in the on-car and 250kBps in telemetry broadcast to the pits. In total, the two cars generate data at the rate of 1MB every two seconds.
Some of this data is sent back in real time through a high frequency telemetry system, which transmits data from the moving car to the pits. However, there is far more data available than can be extracted via that route. The excess has traditionally been transferred using a wired connection once the car has stopped – but even that is problematic, as crucial track time is lost waiting for the download to complete. This is where Technical Partner Qualcomm has helped the team optimise track time. Engineers are now able to download that balance of data – which can be very bulky – in the time between when the car stops in front of the garage and is wheeled back into the garage via an extremely powerful wireless connection.
The most noticeable benefit from this comes in understanding tyres via the infra-red camera system – and more specifically the speed at which information from that feed can be processed. In the past, the crew would plug in the cameras when the driver returned to the box and have just a few seconds to extract as much data as possible before the car returned to the track. There simply wasn’t enough time to extract the full data set until after a session, so the real-time nature of that data was lost. Qualcomm’s technology allows the team to extract that information much more quickly. By the time the car pulls back into the garage, the engineers have now received that information wirelessly – saving crucial track time.
Aside from significantly faster data transfer in the pit box, the on-board SnapDragon processor can extract information and stream it live to the pit wall via the telemetry system – allowing the engineers to see what the driver is doing through each corner before he gets to the next one. With this information, the team is then better placed to fine-tune car setup and provide the driver with more information at the beginning of each run. This reduces the need for a driver to adjust the balance of the car around a lap, allowing him to focus on getting the most from the car.
Ultimately, this technology is designed to achieve one objective. Through more track time and a better understanding of the cars in a more timely fashion, the team can empower Lewis and Nico to focus on what they do best – extracting the absolute maximum from their Silver Arrows. From there, may the best man win…