It’s not controversial to suppose that Formula One (F1) is a sport of extremes. The drivers are the best, the cars are the fastest and the races the most intense. Another aspect that pushes boundaries is the data collection, handling and manipulation infrastructure that enables car condition monitoring, race timing and much more. Here, Stephen Hayes, managing director here at Beckhoff UK, describes what goes into the impressive systems that keep F1 running.
F1 cars regularly race at truly dizzying speeds, often reaching 200 miles per hour (320 kilometres per hour) on fast tracks like the Italian Monza or Belgian Spa Francorchamps circuits. That’s over 88 metres, or the length of an entire football field, every second.
Radio transponders are fitted to the cars to locate the cars as they speed around the course, as well as keep time of their progress. These emit a signal that is picked up by timing devices built into the track surface as the cars pass over, as well as timing the cars to one thousandth of a second (0.001 seconds).
You might be able to see the input/output (I/O) challenge here as, to be accurate, these devices must be discrete and compact. When cars are moving across them at 200 miles per hour the device has potentially less than a millisecond to recognise the incoming signal, identify the vehicle and timestamp the log, all before feeding that information back to the racing teams, race directors and spectating audiences around the world.
It’s reasonable to assume that each circuit and organisation has its own bespoke trackside I/O setup, making them difficult to talk about in general terms. However, it’s also fair to suppose that the technology underscoring them is clearly substantial — you don’t get an I/O system that can log and crunch data within a millisecond by mistake.
Racing variable monitoring
This cutting-edge track monitoring is a mere slice of the I/O technology apparent in F1 racing, however. While these systems are blisteringly fast and handle a lot of data, the volume pales in comparison to onboard telemetry.
Unlike many classes of racing, in F1 the car is as much of an athlete as the drivers, especially considering the high speeds and lengthy race distances. This is highlighted by the two F1 championships— the constructor’s championship for the engineering teams, and the separate driver’s championship.
Real time condition monitoring of the car is crucial to staying competitive. Each F1 car bristles with sensors and monitoring equipment, keeping a constant eye on every possible variable of the vehicle and driver — from brake thermometers, airspeed pitots and g-force sensors, to driver blood-oxygen levels and heart rate.
During practice sessions, qualifying and the race itself, multiple gigabytes of data courses out of the car and is analysed in real-time by ranks of computers and engineers. They look for how making minor adjustments to the car, anything from suspension strength to fuel mixture, could glean the slightest competitive advantage around the next corner.
The sheer volume of data handling in F1 is arguably unparalleled within sports and most other disciplines. You have to look to industries to find suitable comparisons, where on production lines potentially thousands of sensors can be feeding gigabytes of real time data back through common buses, coordinating with one another on similar millisecond timescales to F1 timings.
Furthermore, modern I/O equipment and protocols like Beckhoff’s EtherCAT G allow for equipment to be timed and coordinated to within ten microseconds — ideal for high-throughput and high-tolerance metal cutting and bending, for instance. The F1 car from before wouldn’t have even made it ten millimetres in that time. The metalworking machine will move considerably slower than the F1 car, but communication problems will still cause dramatic failures as robotic parts crash and product is ruined.
Industrial processes sadly don’t have the skilled and extremely well-paid hands of Hamilton or Verstappen to guide them safely home, but the industrial communication technologies like EtherCAT are fast and efficient enough to be relied upon, even down to microsecond timescales.
Formula 1 might be right on the forefront of technology, but if you wanted to start your own competing racing class then the trackside and car side I/O technology is all ready and waiting for you. Now all you need now is a few million in the bank and an international team of engineers.