Oct 20, 2016
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1.977 seconds. That’s how much time separated first and second place in the July 2016 Hungarian Formula 1 Grand Prix. After racing for almost two hours at speeds approaching 200mph, Lewis Hamilton edged out his Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate Nico Rosberg in the time it takes for you to sneeze.
As Executive Director Paddy Lowe, the team’s technical lead, can attest, shaving even thousandths of a second off of a car’s finishing time can determine a championship. But that’s tricky, because building a dramatically better car isn’t really feasible given the parameters that govern the sport. Instead, Paddy’s team looks at data — information gathered and processed in real time using Qualcomm Snapdragon processor — to improve performance.
Infrared cameras, which are mounted on F1 cars during time-restricted practice sessions and pointed at the tires, collect hundreds of thousands of measurements every second. This tire data impacts several pre-race functions, including suspension adjustments to enhance the car’s performance through the corners, and alterations to the front and rear wings that impact downforce. Team engineers and crew must quickly process and act on the temperature data they receive from IR cameras to make the kinds of tiny adjustments that can have a major impact on race day.
Uniformity in cars leads to ingenuity in people
F1 cars are highly regulated. Rules govern the height, width, and position of bodywork that affects the aerodynamics of the cars and downforce on the tires. Even the fuels used are subject to testing by F1’s governing body, and every single car runs on the same brand of tires.
With so much uniformity across F1 cars, the human element becomes the differentiator. In the past, that was as simple as who had the best driver. Over time, pit crews expanded, and it was the speed of an entire team working on the car that took a car to victory lane. With four tire changers, four tire carriers, two stabilizers holding the middle of the car steady, front wing crews adjusting bodywork angles, front and rear jack crews lifting the car, the fire extinguisher holder standing at the ready, and a starter waiting nearby in case the car stalls, pit crews have around 20 people doing highly specialized jobs with very specific data points.
Data helps crews work faster and smarter
Just how quickly does a pit stop happen? F1 pit stops can last less than three seconds. Maximizing that time is critical, and the information that steers the work being done must be processed well before the driver pulls into the pit. That’s where the data gathered by the infrared cameras used during practice comes into play.
The data the cameras collect directly impacts adjustments that are made during the race. With practice time limited, crews need the IR camera data as quickly as possible. In the past, pit crews had to actually plug in the IR cameras to pull the data. There was no way to collect the data in real time, meaning the car was back on the track — or the practice session was over — before the crew could fully analyze the data. Today, thanks to Qualcomm Snapdragon-enabled technology, the data is in the hands of team engineers sooner, giving them the most time possible to analyze it and develop a winning setup — time saved in practice becomes time saved during the race.
Small changes yield big results
Given that regulations often remain the same season-to-season and dramatic changes to the F1 rulebook are infrequent, revolutions are unlikely to occur in any garage. Rather, it’s an evolution of incremental, improvements that yield milliseconds of performance. For F1 teams, processing data from IR cameras and acting on that information in ways that other teams have yet to consider is one of the best ways to make up time on the track.
When two seconds is the difference between first and second place, there are no small changes to a F1 car. The impact of every adjustment is huge, and infrared cameras are making those decisions smarter. And for F1 crews, smarter means faster.