If you pay close attention to Ferrari F1 cars driven by Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa (and, before him, Rubens Barrichello) you will notice an AMD logo on the tail. For the majority this simply means that AMD is paying to run an ad on Ferrari cars, but that isn’t the case. They are also providing the technology infrastructure for the car’s telemetry system, which collects data in real time and send to Ferrari team during the races, so they can check in real time if something is going wrong and also instruct the driver of corrections he should make in the way he is driving in order to achieve a higher performance during the race. The collected data are also collected for posterior analysis.
We were invited by AMD to check out this impressive electronics system in person by visiting Ferrari’s boxes during the preparation of the last race of the 2006 F1 World Championship that will happen next weekend. Let’s talk more about this thrilling experience.
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Figure 1: Badge clearing access to the paddock area.
The paddock is the entrance area to the boxes, so the boxes have two doors, one to the paddock and another to the pit lane. Each team has two boxes, one for each driver.
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Figure 2: Some guys from Honda preparing some tires.
During our tour we were guided by Dieter Gundel, head of racetrack electronics for Ferrari team, and Felipe Massa, driver of Ferrari team. Both explained in details how the electronics part of the Ferrari F1 cars works.
So, how telemetry works? Under FIA rules, it is not possible to send electronic information to the cars. So this system is a one-way system that sends data from the cars to the boxes. Then the engineers can analyze the data in real time and, like we told, see if something is wrong or tell the driver how can he improve the way he is driving. The data is also send to Ferrari’s HQ in Maranello, where a whole team is dedicated to analyze the collected data.
Each Ferrari car has from 100 to 150 sensors. The number isn’t exact because from track to track they add and remove sensors. Also, from the training sessions to the official race they can remove some sensors they found they won’t need for that particular track and thus can save some weight.
Data is sent from the car to the boxes using from 1,000 to 2,000 telemetry channels, transmitted wirelessly (obviously) using the 1.5 GHz frequency. These channels are encrypted, of course. The typical delay between the data being collected and it being received at the boxes is of 2 ms. For each race the amount of collected data is in the range of 1.5 billion of samples. Since they also collect the same amount for each training day, the total amount of collected data is in the range of the 5 billion samples.
Since data is compressed, here they don’t talk about megabytes or gigabytes, so the actual transfer rate used by the telemetry system is smaller.
Each car is independent, so since Ferrari has two cars, the number of collected data is actually two times higher.
Each car also has an on-board storage system (they didn’t disclosed if it is a hard disk drive or a flash memory) that buffers the most recent data, so if the transmission fails, the car keep retrying until the transmission is completed. So no data is lost when the car enters in a tunnel, for example: as soon as the communication is lost, the car keeps collecting data and storing on its on-board memory and as soon as it exits the tunnel all data collected during the period the car was inside the tunnel is sent at once to the boxes.
We were able to take a look at this system running, however they didn’t allow us to take pictures of their telemetry system (the also didn’t allow us to take pictures of the engines of the cars). In summary, a lot of computers with several LCD displays plotting charts and showing data, with lots of Ferrari engineers analyzing the data.
Driving a Formula 1 car nowadays is completely different from what it was years ago. If you take a look at the steering wheel shown in Figure 3 you will understand why. Pay attention at the number of buttons!
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Figure 3: Steering wheel from a Ferrari F1 car.
The steering wheel also has a LCD display where the driver can set several parameters of the car. For example, he can adjust on the fly several specs of the car, including brakes, suspensions, differential, etc. The plus and minus buttons are used to navigate in the car electronic system (and not to change gears – the gear levers are on the other side of the steering wheel).