Computers Chase the Checkered Flag
Man and Machine
- Rubens Barrichello of the Ferrari team, left, inside his Formula
One car at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. A steering wheel,
with its screen and controls, is essentially a computer itself.
June 13 - The buttons, knobs and levers on Michael Schumacher's
steering wheel offer stark evidence of the way computing has transformed
Grand Prix auto racing.
The wheel, about half the size of those in most passenger cars,
is essentially a computer, with electronic controls governing hundreds
of elements of the car's performance and a display giving Schumacher
an instant reading on his status, from his lap speed to his location
on a course map.
And Schumacher, who won the Canadian Grand Prix here on Sunday,
personifies a new breed of racers whose success hinges as much on
his mastery of computerized systems as on his driving skill.
Before each race, he said, "I sit with the engineers and combine
the feeling I have as a driver with what they are seeing in the
data" - data allowing simulations of all manner of situations that
Schumacher might face.
Once in the driver's seat, he sits alone. But as he races, his
Ferrari team can track even the most minute aspect of the competition,
capturing data in multi-megabyte wireless bursts each time the team's
cars flash past the pits, often in excess of 200 miles an hour.
The data is transmitted to a computer center in the team's garage
on the pit lane, where it is analyzed by more than a dozen technicians.
It is simultaneously sent over the Internet to a larger data center
in Maranello, Italy, where more complex analysis is done to help
the team boss, Jean Todt, plot strategy from his seat in front of
a computer screen on the pit wall and talk by radio with the drivers.
Technology, of course, is reshaping the preparation and tactics
for many sports. But in Formula One racing, it is at the center
of the sport, a test of the ability to perfect the synergy between
man and machine. And the result has been to create a cyborg - a
blend of man and machine in every sense of the word.
The emphasis on technology in Formula One racing is a striking
contrast to the Indy-car circuit, which has less powerful cars and
more strictly limits computerized technologies.
Even so, the high-tech push has created tensions in the Formula
One world - particularly over the remarkable spending war among
the 10 teams that compete each year for the championship.
The numbers are not public, but according to Paul Stoddart, owner
of the Minardi racing team, the teams will spend $2.8 billion during
this year's circuit, which continues over the coming weekend with
the sole American event on the tour, the United States Grand Prix
"You can run a small country on $2.8 billion and still get change,"
He said the Ferrari, Toyota,
McLaren-Mercedes and Williams-BMW teams had spent more than $400
million this year, while Minardi, which has yet to notch any points
this season, has a budget of $40 million.
Minardi is at a disadvantage because advanced computer technologies
- and the money that pays for them - play a significant role in
the success of Scuderia Ferrari, the team that has dominated Formula
One for the last five years and has won seven of the first eight
races this year - with Schumacher, a 35-year-old German, as its
marquee name and Rubens Barrichello as its No. 2 driver.
The technological advances are also testing the International Automobile
Federation, the sport's international regulatory body. The federation
is at the center of a debate over the ability of the wealthiest
teams to arm themselves with invincible advantages, almost entirely
centering on computing controls in the cars and computer simulation
The seesaw battle around the role of computing in Formula One began
in earnest in 1992 when the federation eliminated turbocharged engines
in an effort to control race car speeds. As a result, car designers
turned to computerized systems, including two-way telemetry, a relay
of data that enables the pit crew to control the car.
The federation, seeking to keep the sport more competitive, responded
by banning two-way telemetry, and several other automation features
in shifting and other controls. Still, the teams continue to look
for a technological edge, as do sponsors eager to showcase the potential
of their technologies.
AMD, the Silicon Valley computer chip maker, sponsors Ferrari in
part because it sees the company's history as paralleling its own,
said Hector Ruiz, AMD's chief executive. The Italian car company
was once an underdog like AMD, he said. Now he hopes AMD computers
will be instrumental in sustaining Ferrari's leadership. "This is
not your grandfather's Formula One car," he said. "We're trying
to make this a partnership that goes beyond advertising."
Indeed, AMD, the Avis of the PC business to Intel's
Hertz, is trying to turn the tables in Formula One racing. On Thursday,
the company is expected to announce its second Formula One racing
partnership, under which it will supply a supercomputer roughly
as fast as the world's 10th most powerful machine to the Swiss-based
Sauber Petronas racing team.
The machine, to be used for aerodynamic simulation, highlights
another issue for the sport's authorities: the amount of track testing
permitted for the cars, testing that costs about $750 per mile and
badly handicaps the less wealthy teams.
The federation is considering a limit on testing, but that might
well touch off an even more expensive competition in which teams
increasingly replace road-track testing with computer simulation.
Computer simulation is already integral to the sport. The Ferrari
team's wireless data system provides data on more than 500 aspects
of performance - readings that can enable the pit crew to tell the
driver whether he is handling the car correctly through the corners,
to gauge whether parts are about to fail and take preventive action,
or to plot strategy based on tire wear.
The data and analysis tools came into play crucially for Schumacher
in his victory at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona on May 9.
Midway through the race, the team noticed a fracture in the car's
exhaust system, clearly visible in pressure readings from many places
in the engine. Moreover, the technicians were able to watch the
effect of the exhaust leak by constantly monitoring heat sensors
sending back data from points around the engine.
Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, said he recalled a similar
incident several years ago that had led to a suspension failure
from leaking heat.
"We could clearly understand the failure from watching the data,"
said Luca Baldisseri, Ferrari's manager of race strategy. "We knew
immediately there was no safety problem."
But the team continued to monitor the heat of the suspension and
alerted Schumacher to slow his pace to limit the risk of further
The blend of man and machine coming to the fore in racing evokes
the "spam in the can" debate on manned space flight, described by
Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff."
In the face of blindingly fast computer technology, the United
States military has long debated the question of the "man in the
loop," a reference to how much control should be given to aircraft
Now that same debate is recurring in Formula One racing as response
times fall to milliseconds. The drivers themselves generally seem
to believe that the racing will be more exciting if technology is
In an interview in the pit area next to the Montreal race course,
the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Mark Webber, a 27-year-old Australian
who drives for Jaguar-Cosworth, acknowledged that the line between
computer technologies and driver skill is an extremely fine one
and constantly under pressure.
"I'm a big fan of having as much load on the driver as possible
in terms of making the car go faster," he said.