MONTREAL — As Formula One cars reach staggering speeds, the technology used to track them moves even faster.
Everything from speed, of course, to every gear change and the pressure in each tire is recorded by the car’s multitude of sensors and streamed live to engineers on site or back at the team’s often far-away headquarters.
Driver feedback is still important but the sport is increasingly dependent on telemetry — the measurement and transmission of data — for the safe running of the cars, says Alex Burns, CEO of Williams F1.
“Yes, we can operate without it, the car will still drive,” Burns said.
“But we would be very concerned without it because we can’t monitor key features related to the safety of the car.”
Telemetry has been used for more than 20 years in F1 racing, Burns said recently at Montreal’s Grand Prix, where Williams’ drivers Pastor Maldonado and Rubens Barrichello finished outside the top 10 in a race won by McLarens’ Jenson Button.
Each team has engineers sitting in front of a bank of computers track side and also inside their garages monitoring data.
“For example, if a tire is losing pressure because it has a slow puncture, that’s a potential safety hazard. So they will call in the car in order to change the tires.”
Faster and more advanced wireless networks are allowing F1 teams to get even more precise about how the car is performing, looking at things like aerodynamics and how many degrees the driver turns the steering wheel.
Burns said 10 times as much data on the cars is being generated compared with five or six years ago. About 30 gigabytes of data, or about 6.5 hours worth, are streamed during a race weekend.
Williams F1 has worked with U.S.-based wireless carrier AT&T to increase the speed at which data gets streamed from the track to its technical support team at its headquarters in the United Kingdom. Williams says its network transmits the data 25 times faster than a standard broadband one.
The technology has helped cut down the number of support staff travelling with F1 teams as well as the cost, he said.
“There’s still a set number of guys in the pit stop. We haven’t been able to virtualize that.”
Technology analyst and racer Matthew Robison said NASCAR doesn’t allow telemetry during races.
“NASCAR is focused on minimizing what can be done with technology during races in order to make the events more interesting to the consumer,” said Robison, senior analyst at Wunderlich Securities and part-time race driver.
“There’s a whole different level of human factors in NASCAR involving the ability of driver and crew chief to communicate and assess conditions that might be much more easily understood with the telemetry allowed by other types of auto racing” he said from San Francisco.
“I think most would argue there’s a premium for the human factor that doesn’t exist in Formula One. Meanwhile, Formula One represents the ultimate for equipment performance, which means more technology, and there will always be an audience for that.”