Aston Martin Red Bull Racing is a relative newcomer to the world of Formula 1, but the 14-year-old team has already won four double championships – the illustrious drivers’ and constructors’ combo – and regularly overtaken illustrious rivals such as Ferrari in the race to the title.
The drivers may grab the plaudits and the public adoration, but their red and blue matte racing cars would struggle to compete without the support of the IT team.
They gave a glimpse of their value at the Chinese Grand Prix in April. The team was trailing their rivals until a crash on lap 31 led race officials to call for the safety car. Red Bull made the bold decision to pit stop both their cars, and added fresh tyres that helped Daniel Ricciardo pass five cars to claim an unlikely victory.
The pivotal double stop decision had been driven by data. The techies off the track had analysed the temperature of the tyres on the cars to assess the degradation, which suggested that the time was right to call the cars into the pits.
“If you react first and you react quickly then you can get a result,” Neil Bailey, Red Bull Racing’s head of IT infrastructure, explains at the team’s Milton Keynes factory.
“There’s an element of luck and gamble, but the reality is that that’s purely data-driven as well, because the guys here in the AT&T operations room and the guys at the track are in complete harmony. They’re seeing the same information and they’re able to make quick decisions and respond to that hopefully a lot quicker than our competition as well.”
Their speed had been enhanced by moving the team’s trackside systems to hyperconverged infrastructure provided by HPE SimpliVity.
The platform has cut the time it takes to post-process the data offloaded from the car on race days from nine minutes to two. This allows them to react more quickly on the track to enhance the car’s performance.
Hard work off the track
On race weekends, up to 400GB of data is generated from around 100 sensors on each car and sent to staff at trackside and in the factory in Milton Keynes, but the bulk of the IT team’s work is done away from the circuits.
“Going to the race track is the visible part of what we do, but for the majority of our business it’s actually much more about the preparation for that race weekend,” says Zoe Chilton, Red Bull Racing’s head of technical partnerships.
“Whether that’s designing the cars, developing components here in the factory, developing new software, or operating as a marketing department even, there are a lot of things going on in our business beyond the racetrack.”
In the factory floor beneath us are four lanes and a mock pit stop that they use to test their tyre change times, but the racing cars are on the road from the Chinese Grand Prix to the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan.
At each circuit of the 21-race season team constructs a temporary headquarters for the week, with its own mini data centre, on-site offices, equipment and garages for the cars.
They have a head count limit at each race of 60 operational staff, so there’s only space for two members of the IT infrastructure team, one of whom moonlights as the rear jackman on pit stops.
Transporting their data centre to every event is a particular challenge.
“The guys are getting there earlier, so the engineers are getting there earlier because they want to start working,” says Bailey.
“It becomes their office environment if you like. They don’t want to sit in a hotel. As soon as they get off a plane they want to get to the circuit and they want to start working, so the pressure is on us to get that up and running, to stand that equipment up as soon as possible.”
They build, take down and relocate their set up at each race. The systems include some highly sensitive equipment that could compromise the results if it fails. This was a major worry in their legacy estate because it needed to be cranked up to its maximum capacity.
“What we find with hyperconverged infrastructure is that because there is that extra punch, you don’t need to operate at maximum performance and so that also helps to improve our stability,” says Bailey.
IT’s role in car design
Regulations are another barrier that the IT team has to overcome. This year the new rules include the addition of a “halo” safety feature that surrounds the driver, an extra race and one less power unit for the cars.
In the five-month offseason, the team has to redevelop the car around the new regulations. They then have just eight days of preseason testing to check their work on the racetrack. This puts a big emphasis on what they do in the factory simulations.
Data plays a crucial role so extra sensors are added to the cars to ensure that everything will work as intended.
The process of taking a front wing from concept to delivery begins with a visual designing of the part and how the air will move across it. They then use computational fluid dynamic (CFD) analysis as a virtual test of how the air will run across its surface.
They can simulate the lap times based on the previous year’s race to understand their likely speeds and strategy and engage the driver by adding the model front wing to a virtual car that a human can drive to give their feedback.
A wind tunnel adds the final validation but needs to be used with restraint, as their total run hours are restricted and the size of the car is limited to 60% of the real thing.
They then built the part in full size and send it to the race track.
“It’s about being more intelligent in terms of how you leverage the technology, and how you’re going to utilise it and live and operate within those guidelines,” says Bailey.
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The cars are updated throughout the season to suit the weather, shapes and surfaces at each of the 21 circuits.
“In the process of designing the car we’re creating a lot of data in terms of aero and stress analysis,” says Chilton. “We’re generating several terabytes in each day in CFD simulation.”
They add around 1,000 new design releases every week, which go from R&D and then through testing before they’re flown out to meet the car at the track.
A lot of valuable IP is generated during the process, which the VDIs help to secure by keeping data where they know it’s safe, but like in most other businesses, the human is the weakest link in the security chain.
Formula 1 IT staff can move between teams and take confidential IP with them, but Bailey says that the staff’s pride in their work ensures they keep their secrets safe.
“People play a big part in the organisation,” he says. “There’s a lot of man-hours and a lot of effort that goes into producing that data so they want to protect it themselves.”