Analysing telemetry: The F1 health check

Will Gray

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On the pit wall, behind screens in the garage, inside the engineering truck in the paddock and even back at the team’s home base, there are engineers watching the car’s every move, some focused on optimising performance and others focused on reliability.

“We have 150 sensors on the car,” explains Caterham’s Simon Lock, who is the electronics engineer on Giedo van der Garde’s car. “That gives is a lot of telemetry information, which we get in two different ways: wired, which is when the car is plugged in, and RF, which is transmitted when the car’s driving round the track.

“Approximately 600 of the channels are transmitted back to us through RF at high rate – which means rate is anything 2 seconds and faster.”

This live information is vital to the engineers on the reliability side of the garage – because when the car is out on track they are constantly checking screens of information for any tiny sign that something is going wrong.

“Through the live telemetry data we know what every control system is doing at every point in time,” adds Lock. “We’re looking at key parameters like gearbox shifting, car performance, how much downforce you’re getting, whether your brakes are too hot...and whether your driver is struggling or being a bit of a pansy!

“On the select 600 live channels, some are logged at kHz, some of them Hz (Hz is 1000 times a second). Some things like clutch torque, torque in the drivetrain, load cells, we record at 200Hz, so 200 times a second.

“If we get some heavy vibration we can put an extra log on the car and can actually log that at about 10khz if we want to do vibration analysis on various bits of the car.”

There are banks of computers in the garage, with about 10 engineers looking at different data right there on site. There are also engineers in the truck and engineers in the factory, analysing the same data once it is sent by satellite back to base.

The men and women sitting in the Caterham garage, half of whom come from Renault to monitor any engine issues, are the ones who check the car’s ‘vitals’ through the race – and it is they who can call in to the race engineers and team chiefs to notify them if there is a problem.

“There’s a priority list really,” says Lock, when asked how the engineers break down the mind-boggling amount of data that comes through to them during the race.

“We have some things that flag up automatically through systems that say there is a problem with this, but quite often something will break a lot faster than you can fix it, so you’re looking at trends.

“The engine guys, for example, are looking at how water pressure drops over time. If they see something instantaneous, often they can catch it and say to the driver look, stop the engine.

“Lots of the key elements in the engine - things like ignition - can go wrong very quickly, so you need to know at the time whether it’s going wrong.

“But if you have a gearbox failure and the driver pulls for a shift and the shift’s not there, it will spit some gears out quite quickly. Thankfully that doesn’t happen very often.”

All this data demands a lot of high-tech kit, and Lock alone has three laptops from Caterham’s suppliers, Dell, on his desk. His fellow engineers have similar numbers, meaning the garage is full of computer screens, dedicated servers and virtual machines.

“The laptops I use are pretty powerful and they’re also amazingly robust,” says Lock. “These things go all around the world with us and they can get dropped or bumped around a lot but they survive throughout the year.

“Also, we use them in places like Singapore, where it’s 38 degrees, and high humidity, and they still keep running and very rarely crash.

“We always say we don’t have enough screens! I’ve got a personal laptop and another two screens in the alcove that I flip between. During a session I tend to use two but we also have a Dell server which has two virtual machines which we use to run different parts of the car you need access to in the session.”

Prevention, though, not cure, is the name of the game – and that comes from the data that is downloaded once the car returns to the garage.

“When the car gets into the garage, we plug it in using a big line that’s known as the umbilical,” says Lock. “We have to plug into the car anyway, because we have to start recharging the batteries and doing some other bits to it, but we also use it to get data.

“We have a virtual machine running the data server and once the car is plugged in that starts pulling off the data it’s missing, telemetry data, onto a server. When you’re connected directly by the umbilical, it goes straight onto the Ethernet so you can transmit at a very high frequency because you have plenty of bandwidth.”

So while the live monitoring is crucial to getting through the race, it is the ability to go into deeper analysis that has helped F1’s reliability rates rise significantly in recent years.

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