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Computing in the fast lane Part 2

Lenovo powers up Williams F1 racing with new technologies for the garage, the wind tunnel and the track

Montreal – Sam Michael, the technical director, at Williams F1 racing team said that today’s F1 drivers need to be technically aware for controlling the car. In the past, a driver such as Heinz Harold Frentzen, a former driver with Williams, while racing at 330 KPH looked on his own to check tires.

Today, drivers need to be aware of traction control, brake systems, and onboard mapping.

There is a maximum of 400 sensors on a race car. These sensors capture the data for Williams engineers.

This creates an archiving challenge for the team and its storage mandate is in the high terabytes. “Storage is something always being asked for. It always crosses my desk for one or three more terabytes and the speed of that data from a year ago has to be improved. They need it now, not in hours and on occasion they are big data files from the U.K. to the circuit,” said Alex Burns, the COO Williams and its defacto CIO.

Williams has two wind tunnels on its U.K. campus. These wind tunnels are mission critical equipment and IT is at its core. These wind tunnel systems measure the air dynamics of the car. “The only way we can improve the speed of the car is by air dynamics,” Burns said.

Making matters even more challenging is that courses such as the one in Montreal are vastly different than others. For example, in Monaco the race just before Montreal has a circuit with tighter corners and is a slower street course with lots of drags, while Montreal is long and straight with minimal drag.

“We have parts made specifically for Monaco as opposed to Montreal and that is how important the wind tunnels are to the development of these cars. We lean heavily on our IT partners such as Lenovo,” Burns said.

During the off season, Williams devotes its time to the development of new cars and parts. They use an ERP and CAD systems and a product lifecycle management program to manage and configure cars. The rate of production is fast paced. During this past winter Burns said Williams produced 4,000 new parts compared to other businesses with 520 people they would do much less, Burns said.

The Wind tunnel is a bit of black box. You get data but it does not tell the IT staff what to do next, according to Michael.

A system called Computation Fueled Dynamics or CFD is used along with CAD software for stress analysis in the wind tunnel.

“It is a 12 month process from concept to track. The chassis is done in nine months. About 15 years ago it was a two-to-three month process, but it was not refined,” he said.By investing in Lenovo hardware for the CFD system it has enabled Williams to improve by a multiple of three.

Another challenge is basically replicating the entire IT infrastructure every two weeks for F1 races around the world.

Burns calls this the company’s toughest IT challenge. The Lenovo equipment has to be robust, he said. The eight racks of workstations in the garage along with one for each car and engines plus spares needs to be aligned wirelessly to those computers along the pit wall.

That is just the racing part. There are also various people with laptops in the motor home and they too all have to be wireless and connected to the outside world through another partner AT&T.

Lenovo supplies the PC infrastructure to the wind tunnel and at track side. The one thing Burns likes about Lenovo equipment is that it is rugged. “Lenovo (notebooks) can survive after being dropped on to a hard floor. Race engineers are hard folks and expect it to run all the time,” he said.

Beyond racing, Williams is a mid-size business with sales, marketing and other branches. Burns said that the company’s office culture is similar to its track culture. It is all about speed. The only difference Burns added is instead of the finishing line it more about increasing Williams’ speed to market. “It is all about partners and sponsorship and servicing those partners so they get the best value for its sponsorship,” he said.

Williams is a different company than others who make a product and sell it with some margin attached. The business end of Williams is about attracting sponsorships and investing their money to do well on the race track.

“This business is about speed as opposed to time to market. We do things as fast as we can from concept to track and what normal businesses do in a month we do in a week. That is why we need the technical infrastructure and availability that can be shared quickly to keep everyone moving along.”