What Formula 1 Racing Says About Auto’s High-Tech Future

What we know about the tech on and off the track.


To learn about the future of the auto industry, you can interview analysts and experts, peruse scientific publications, and attend various conferences. Or you can watch multi-million dollar race cars hurtle around a track at speeds of upwards of 220 miles per hour.

Welcome to Formula 1, the international auto racing sport with a cumulative TV audience of 1.55 billion people. The budgets are eye-watering. Mercedes reportedly spent $442 million in 2019 to clinch two world championship titles, and Formula 1 drivers are some of the highest-paid athletes in the world. (The personalities are big too. Guenther Steiner, anyone?).

While most American fans have flocked to the sport in the past three years thanks to the success of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” engineers have long understood that a Formula 1 car is a sort of time machine on four wheels, a glimpse into what is possible for the commercial vehicles of the future. The money involved is only part of the reason why. Unlike NASCAR tracks, which are almost always elliptical, Formula 1 tracks are irregularly shaped and sometimes just a series of city streets. Thus Formula 1 cars must be able to perform in a wide range of conditions under extreme forces, making the sport a valuable form of research and development for auto OEMs. Among the many innovations that debuted at Formula 1 since the first world championship race in 1950 are computer-managed active suspension and the use of carbon fiber in auto parts.

Fig. 1: A McLaren Formula 1 car on the Baku, Azerbaijan street circuit. Source: McLaren

Fig. 1: A McLaren Formula 1 car on the Baku, Azerbaijan street circuit. Source: McLaren

The 2022 Formula 1 season began in March and will end in November. Insiders say the technology on display and behind the scenes could be especially inventive this year as a result of major rule changes aimed at making the sport more competitive. Of particular note are sweeping new design restrictions that allow cars to pass each other more easily but also create a bouncing phenomenon known as porpoising, and a $140 million cap on expenditures related to the car’s performance.

The most groundbreaking engineering likely will remain invisible to the public for years due to the premium on competitive advantage. In a sport where shaving a few nanoseconds from a lap time can translate into millions of dollars in sponsorship deals, proprietary technology is a closely guarded secret.

There is no doubt, however, that the technology involved is growing increasingly complex. According to Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which has partnered with several teams on design simulations and other activities, each car contains hundreds of sensors. A single season can see 30,000 design changes across teams, and each team manages 18,000 streams of data on race days. Collaborations with tech companies are now a common occurrence for individual teams and the Formula 1 organization itself.

Company executives would only speak in general terms about Formula 1 technology for this story, but their enthusiasm for the subject matter was often palpable. KT Moore, vice president of corporate marketing at Cadence, which recently announced a partnership with McLaren’s Formula 1 team around Cadence’s computational fluid dynamics software, said he is excited by what he’s seen and the implications for the technical advances possible in this lifetime. “If you had asked me about this a few months ago, I would have said, no way. Now I can tell you that, because of the developments in Formula 1, the whole world is going to change. It’s already happening.”

Minimal latency
On the racing circuit or the country road, how quickly a driver or driverless system reacts to new information can mean the difference between life and death. At a Formula 1 race, not only is there a massive amount of encrypted information flowing between vehicles and team members, but the lag time between when that data is sent and received is extremely small. It’s a notable feat especially considering that, in many cases, the people interpreting data in real time and helping to make decisions aren’t near the track at all.

“Right now, data from a track in Miami can be shipped overseas with a latency of about 130 milliseconds,” said Moore. “Formula 1 is the crème de la crème, the best of the best, but the technology will reach.”

The Formula 1-informed future that Moore believes could arrive in 20 years or less, involves fiber optic networks integrated into roads where hundreds of sensors in each vehicle communicate on the network with minimal latency.

Such a future will require massive infrastructure. After all, it’s not just individual teams that are partnering with tech companies. In March, Lenovo announced it would provide hardware, high-performance computing, and server solutions throughout the Formula 1 organization.

Gerald Youngblood, Lenovo North America’s chief marketing officer, called the multi-year partnership “a tremendous opportunity for Lenovo to push traditional boundaries and help create smarter solutions for customers around the globe.”

Daryl Cromer, CTO of the Global Innovation Center in the Intelligent Devices Group at Lenovo, said the partnership also illustrates how much technology is required not only from the teams, but from the organization itself. “The basis for the partnership between Lenovo and Formula 1 is to improve efficiency and security of communication, computation, and storage both on and off the track. Our technology will yield improvements within Formula 1 operations while fostering productivity, mobility and storage of data. The ultimate goal is to enhance the fan experience by producing high quality, customized content, such as high-performance computer hardware solutions that can be used both for video applications, such as graphics and editing, and supporting on-premise broadcast solutions.”

With the appropriate infrastructure in place, engineers can focus on correlating the digital and analog worlds. David Fritz, vice president of hybrid and virtual systems at Siemens PLM, said aligning virtual models with real-world data is a critical part of resolving latency issues. Siemens has a longstanding relationship with the team now known as Oracle Red Bull Racing, which uses Siemens software to design carbon fiber parts and organize expenditure data, among other activities.

“The extreme environment of yesteryear was the track, and the extreme environment of the future is the virtual domain. We have to correlate the two together,” he said.

But in the world of autos, sometimes that data is hard to come by. Few people would volunteer to operate an experimental vehicle at potentially lethal speeds under exceedingly dangerous circumstances. Except that’s exactly what Formula 1 drivers do, said Fritz. In other words, the data being generated by the sport creates a valuable testing environment for auto OEMs and their partners to make their technology even faster and more responsive. Armed with learnings from the racing circuit, these organizations can translate their technology into products and services for a wider commercial audience.

Consolidated technology
To be sure, it is unlikely that cities will be filled with open cockpit one-seat vehicles next year, and some critics say the rate of technology transfer between Formula 1 and the public is not entirely clear. There’s also the question of how the commercial auto industry will incorporate more complex systems into vehicles when it is currently struggling to manufacture existing technology. Recent years have seen the industry upended by the global chip shortage, and while there is some indication that the situation is easing, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger recently said the shortage will persist through 2024.

Chip shortages aside, Fritz said Formula 1’s cost cap may in fact create technology that is more easily translatable to the commercial world.

“The way to cut costs is consolidation,” said Fritz. “We used to have a steering controller and a transmission controller and all these other little things, and those are now combined so the computational complexity goes up. But the cost to produce even a limited number of vehicles is significantly lower and the weight is less. There’s a technology dynamic and there’s a cost dynamic, and they have a symbiotic relationship.”

Experts across the industry say the cost cap is also encouraging Formula 1 design teams to rely on modeling and simulation to experiment with designs. Tony DeVarco, HPC manufacturing segment manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, said the computer-aided engineering side of Formula 1 is less visible than some other technology but equally important to understanding the future of the auto industry.

Walt Hearn, a vice president at Ansys, agreed. “Today, simulation is used to design the fastest and most efficient vehicles in F1 racing. Additionally, virtual crash testing is an essential component to producing the safest vehicles on the track. We can expect these design and testing methods (i.e., simulation engineering) to be the norm for designing future commercial vehicles that require the same level of efficiency and safety, including as we move toward an electric future.”

Hearn said Ansys has worked with Oracle Red Bull Racing since 2008. He said the initial focus of the partnership was aerodynamic simulation, which has since evolved into solving cooling problems, managing and optimizing material usage and IP, and ensuring the vehicle is designed to protect the driver in the event of a crash.

Smarter safety
HPE’s DeVarco said engineers should also pay attention to Formula E, the electric vehicle arm of Formula 1 racing, which is where he says he believes the industry is heading overall. But most innovations that make their way to the commercial market, regardless of the engine type, will be around sensors and autonomous driving, according to DeVarco.

“The use of sensors to actually do telemetry data and to be able to stream that data— to me, that is the next generation of innovation that’s happening,” said DeVarco.

Driver fatigue is another important safety issue that is carefully monitored at Formula 1. Fritz said the process relies on advanced interaction between the driver and the vehicle also referred to as the human-machine interface. “The car is essentially making its own decisions but not acting on them, and using that as a measure of the driver’s behavior. Maybe there’s a 1% difference between the driver’s decisions and the computer’s at the start of the race, and then later in the race it gets to 9% or 10%. You’re looking at the eyes, you see them droop a bit, the posture is changing a bit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, ‘This is fatigue.’”

The real question, said Fritz, is what vehicles eventually will do to counteract driver fatigue, like blowing cold air at the driver or some other approach. The answer likely will have a lot to do with artificial intelligence, which Fritz says is appearing in Formula 1 cars in previously unexpected places. “We’re seeing AI for fuel injection. We’re seeing AI for braking and steering. We’re seeing AI for transmissions. And all these AIs are making these nanosecond decisions based on the feedback is coming from other AI-driven and high-performance sensors. And what does that mean? That means we get smarter personal vehicles using that same technology Formula 1 has derived that is more than capable of handling the normal operational conditions for commercial vehicles.”

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