May 22, 2015
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“That’s a fast-moving lab,” says Toto Wolff.
He’s not kidding. You hear it long before you see it—the roaring Doppler effect of something approaching very, very quickly. Then there’s a blur, and then—it’s gone.
That blur is a Formula 1 racecar, zooming around the track in excess of 200 miles per hour. Wolff’s team, Mercedes AMG Petronas, won the championship last year, and hopes to do it again this year. And they’re going to do it in part by staying “at the forefront of technological development,” says Wolff, head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport. (Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. is an official technology partner.)
Today’s Formula 1 cars are some of the most sophisticated vehicles in the world. The Mercedes car, for example, has more than 50,000 parts, including [~200] sensors and actuators, capable of processing [~100-200 Kb] of data every [second]. That information is analyzed by an army of support staff at the track, including performance engineers, race engineers, track engineers, mechanics, and directors, who are supported by other experts working remotely from the team’s headquarters in England.
In fact, about 90% of the Mercedes team’s staff are engineers. And as they work on building the fastest and most reliable car on track, they’re also helping develop the next generation of technologies that will make it into passenger cars.
For example, Formula 1 cars have a sophisticated hybrid engine that switches back and forth between a motor and “basically, a large mobile phone battery,” says Paddy Lowe, the team’s technical executive director. The result: efficiency “far above that of an average car,” says Lowe, a world-class engineer.
Once that technology is worked out on the track, it is likely to find its way into passenger cars, he says. And it won’t be the first. Automotive features ranging from the rear view mirror to semi-automatic transmission first got their start on the racetrack.
Another feature likely to make its way into your garage: increasingly sophisticated telemetry data. But that doesn’t mean a huge data display for the driver to interpret, says Wolff. “I don’t want that information, but I want the car to have that information,” he explains. The more data a car’s computer can process, the more it can adjust to changing conditions and fix problems before they arise, he says. And it can lead to better infotainment and navigation systems, he says.
Formula 1 “is a competition between sportsmen, but also a competition between machines,” Lowe says. The cars are incredibly complex mechanical and electronic systems, he says. And as they get better, so do the vehicles on the road.