by Edward Qualtrough

Caterham F1 IT chief drives Grand Prix end user support

Jun 18, 20136 mins
Manufacturing IndustryMobileNetworking Devices

Head of group IT at the Caterham F1 team Bill Peters believes a connected mobile workforce will help the struggling Formula 1 team improve their fortunes on the track.

Peters, who has been with the British-based team since their incarnation as Lotus at the end of 2009, said that it was his responsibility to create a “rock-solid and robust environment for our end users so we can focus resources on making the car go as fast as possible”.

“We are still a young company,” said Peters, who joined the team from McLaren where he spent 12 years. “Essentially we had nothing, and we had to bring our systems together very quickly.

“It was a mammoth effort to get the car on the grid back in March 2010.

“One of those important important systems was the choice of WiFi device. We were with another vendor which proved to be entirely unsuitable for what we were trying to achieve before we teamed up with Motorola Solutions.

“There was always a cost element to our choice. We are a very technology-driven business; but we also want to keep our costs down so we can focus resources on making the car go as fast as possible.

“But equally important as the cost element was having a rock-solid and robust environment for our end users. Not just at trackside where it’s most visible, but also around the factory and manufacturing facility.”

Caterham F1 commercial manager Richard St Clair-Quentin echoed how much of a challenge it had been, and explained how in August 2012 Peters helped oversee Caterham’s move from Norfolk to their new factory in Oxfordshire, the previous headquarters of both Arrows and the Super Aguri F1 teams.

There was absolutely no room for there to be any downtime with the headquarters move, St Clair-Quentin said.

“When we came here it had been a derelict site for 12 years, and before that they’d been manufacturing old NASCAR engines,” St Clair-Quentin explained.

“It was like an old archaeological site, you’d walk round the place and find old bits of engine.

“But Bill’s team and Motorola were crucial to getting the site up and running, just two weeks after we turned the lights off in Norfolk for the enforced FIA shutdown. I think Bill must have a screw loose somewhere to move an entire operation of 300 people 350 miles west in two weeks!”

Lean IT and BYOD

Peters said that when his team is up to full strength they will be 15 in his department, including three still at the Norfolk site which manufactures sports cars and who he still oversees. He also explained to CIO while we were looking around the Leafield facility how he likes to run a trimmed down organisation.

“The other key thing from an IT perspective is because we want to focus our resources on designing and building the car we run a very lean IT organisation,” Peters said.

“We employ very impressive guys but they are multi-functioning. It means with our connectivity we needed a system which was easy to deploy, easy to maintain with low overheads, and we made a switch when we weren’t happy with our previous WiFi provider.

“We have 26 access points covering the site. What we’re trying to achieve, fundamentally, it to be able to unplug our laptops and devices, be mobile, and carry on working in different parts of the facility.

“And at the close of the season in the autumn we’re going to take the system trackside as well which will be the true test of the product.”

Peters said that in the fast and glamorous world of F1 he still has to deal with the issue of workers wanting to use their own devices for work, an almost ubiquitous issue for CIOs.

“We provide guest access on a public network, but we have a corporate network which is where our devices live. The public network is also for BYOD devices.

“The jury’s out on BYOD as far as business is concerned. It’s there and we deal with it by segregating it completely from our network; we’ll give people network access but we won’t be cannibalising our bandwidth and we don’t support their devices. We know it’s there, but we put it to one side.”

Unified communications

One of the issues Peters is trying to get to grips with is that of unified devices, while he also said that he is trying to work with VoWiFi (voice over WiFi) to help combat the “outrageous” data roaming costs the team racks up travelling across the globe.

Peters said: “One thing we’re striving for is real, unified communications, with all kinds of devices talking to each other. In the background we have Microsoft Lync which is rolled out across the business, and we’re also going to take those devices trackside eventually.

“Whether we are in the factory or by the track, we have a hub of people that need to be contactable. We’re a mobile workforce in the sense that we are in a factory environment.

“Whether it’s people in the stores, truckers, IT support, engineers – we need to be able to contact them quickly and effectively.

“And when we go trackside one of the things we’re really keen to look at aside from our intercoms system is linking that to our VoIP system and fixed mobile convergence. Turning mobile calls from the GSM network in to WiFi. It’s something we’ve tried on a couple of occasions but we’ve not got there yet. We’re trying to get to that single device utopia and better manage data roaming and call costs which are quite horrendous.

“It’s typical of Formula 1. When we come up against a hurdle, we will lead the way in trying to work around it.”

High-performance computing

St Clair-Quentin and Peters also showed us some of the other behind-the-scenes technologies used by Caterham, including their bespoke 13-teraflop HPC built by Dell and Intel, which is soon to be increased to 60 teraflops to help with modelling and crunching the numbers from the 200 different sensors recording data on the two F1 race cars.

The company is also rolling out Motorola devices to aid stock control at the factory to support bar code scanning on the 30,000 or so parts that travel around the world with the team.

Peters said: “We are a manufacturing facility and need to be able to track parts, manage costs and know where all our stock is while we’re shifting this circus.

“More importantly, we need to know what parts are on the car, how many miles they’ve done and whether they’re safe to be on the car.”

Peters said that removing the burden of that being a manual process was a priority, and that the devices were liked by the end users.

“We need to make sure we’ve got the right devices for the right people,” he said. “And getting this sort of thing right has a real impact on the performance of the team.”