Sky’s the limit for F1 and the cloud

When millions of dollars are spent to gain a mere tenth of a second advantage, it’s little surprise that Formula 1 teams are looking to high-tech solutions, such as cloud computing, for the future direction of the sport.

Competing in F1 is a costly business. The leading teams spend more than $400 million each to propel two cars around a track for a few hours 19 times a year. Every team must design and build its own chassis and, with only 2.5 seconds a lap separating the champions from the losers, getting the technological advantage is crucial.

The most visible components may be the sponsor-covered chassis and wheels, but it’s what the eye can’t see that makes the cars so costly. Incorporating on-board computing power in an F1 car presents its own challenges and increases costs.

To make sure the bodywork is as slender and aerodynamic as possible, all the wiring, electronics and cooling systems must be packed in a tight space around the engine – more difficult than it sounds when there’s 1.25km of wiring and up to 150 on-board sensors to be installed.

Each sensor gives readings up to 1,000 times per second and data is sent wirelessly from the car to the pits. This gives around 1.5 billion samples of data from each race and these are monitored in the garage while the car is on track, then analysed afterwards by supercomputers back at the team’s factory. Leading teams take around 20 engineers to races just to work on telemetry read-outs, with a further 30 back at base working simultaneously. In this environment, quick transfer of data is crucial.

This is the reason why cloud computing is starting to play a major part in the world of F1, long before the racing car even gets on the track. Red Bull Racing has won both the drivers’ and constructors’ world championships for the past four years, and cloud computing is playing an ever-increasing role in the team’s quest for victory.

Its head of technical partnerships Alan Peasland explains: “At Infiniti Red Bull Racing we have a private on-premise cloud that we use for a variety of simulation and computing tasks. In the design and development of the car, we use our high-performance computer (HPC) to run computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations and finite element analysis in order to support the core design activities.”

Cloud computing is starting to play a major part in the world of F1, long before the racing car even gets on the track

This affects areas from the evaluation of aerodynamic performance to the refinement of the mechanical properties of a design, such as its strength and fatigue life. Most of the computing power running within Red Bull Racing’s HPC is consumed in processing the hundreds of simulations performed by CFD in a typical week. Running parallel to this, the HPC also analyses the data produced as the team tests scale models in its wind tunnel.

To accomplish this it has the support of some of the world’s leading tech companies. Suppliers include IBM Platform Computing, Ansys, iLight, AT&T and Siemens PLM who, according to Mr Peasland, “all contribute to the overall solution that takes us from initial concept design, through simulation and analysis, and into manufacture”.

All this takes place long before a car turns a wheel on a track sometimes half way around the world from Red Bull Racing’s Milton Keynes base. Calculations done in the cloud are key to making sure everything runs smoothly.

“Performance on track will be influenced not only by the new components we send to each race that help to tailor the car for the specific circuit, but also how quickly the car can be optimised during the race weekend,” says Mr Peasland. Information travels in the other direction too. “Data captured on-car during practice sessions will be transferred back to the factory, by virtue of our AT&T Global EVPN Network, where it will then be analysed by our team of experts.”

Perhaps surprisingly, at the moment cloud computing is little used for processing data during the race, and Red Bull Racing and the other teams instead transport heavy servers to each race. “We have our own software-defined on-premise cloud,” he says. “The main reason for doing so is due to the sensitive nature of the data being processed and stored, and also the speed of access to this data.

“Formula 1 is a high-paced, time-restricted environment in all areas of the business, so being able to have real-time access to large volumes of data is crucial in order to perform complex simulations during race weekends that can ultimately deliver increased performance on the track.”

However, Mr Peasland believes cloud technologies are set become more important in the near future. “As cloud technology advances and with the introduction of hybrid clouds that can support our peaks in demand, it’s highly likely that this will be an area of development for the team,” he says.

Bill Peters, chief information officer of Caterham F1, says his team is considering migrating IT to the cloud. “We’re starting to look at potentially having our supercomputer capabilities as a service that we buy, as opposed to something we have in-house. Similarly, if we could have reliable enough communications to trackside, there’s no reason why you couldn’t host all your trackside systems in the cloud as well, so you wouldn’t need to carry the whole IT circus from track to track,” he says.

It would also help to cut costs and, in a sport where many smaller teams struggle to keep up with the larger outfits’ accelerating budgets, this could be a driving force behind its proliferation. Mr Peasland agrees that “cloud computing, in the right environment and used in the correct way, will most definitely be able to offer cost-savings.” And that isn’t the only way it will change the sport.

He says: “As cloud technology and services mature, it will not only be areas such as CFD and simulation that will benefit, but all other business systems, including telephony and communications, design and development. And it’s our innovation partners, such as IBM Platform Computing and AT&T, who will work with us to move us forwards in this area.”