How McLaren Creates a Level Playing Field for Every Car on the Formula 1 Grid

Fraser MasefieldContributor IOctober 16, 2013

Every minute detail of how the car is responding is fed back to the pit wall via the ECU (Getty Images)
Every minute detail of how the car is responding is fed back to the pit wall via the ECU (Getty Images)

Something strange happened on the podium after the Japanese Grand Prix. As race winner Sebastian Vettel collected his sixth winner’s trophy in seven races, there was generous applause, cheering and some whistles of the supportive kind.

The boo boys that have been a rather tiresome and frankly discourteous constant over the last few races were not there to sour Vettel’s fantastic achievement, and it was a refreshing change.

The Vettel fans were out in force in Japan
The Vettel fans were out in force in JapanMark Thompson/Getty Images

The Japanese fans are a highly knowledgeable and appreciative bunch. They have grown to love Formula One racing since the Fuji Speedway first hosted the Japanese Grand Prix for the now legendary title-deciding finale between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976.

Honda owns the Suzuka circuit, and when the Japanese automotive giant returns to power McLaren in 2015, you can bet there will be even more fans cheering on the team Honda powered to glory from 1988-1991.

In my technical piece following on from the Singapore Grand Prix, I talked about the human factor and how much onus is on the driver on physically demanding circuits such as Yas Marina. But the driver is still reliant on the electronics systems of his car to help him to carry out the essential task of driving.

Nowhere is there a bigger interest in technology and electronics than in the land of the rising sun, where the world’s biggest companies in the industry are based. It may come as something of a surprise, therefore, that the computer brain of each and every F1 car on today’s grid is not manufactured in Japan but at McLaren Electronics Systems in the UK.

The production vehicles that you and I drive on a daily basis make use of sophisticated electronics to make driving a more comfortable experience such as power steering, ABS and traction control. F1 cars are no longer allowed to use such electronics to aid the driver’s ability, with launch control banned in 2004 and traction control outlawed in 2008.

The advantage back then was that the driver could merely stamp on the accelerator and rely on a computer to control the amount of power to the rear wheels for maximum traction and the most efficient starts, eliminating wheelspin.

Now, with the FIA overseeing the software in the car’s Electronic Control Unit (ECU), such heavy reliance on electronics for driver benefit is a thing of the past. The ECU, built by McLaren electronics, is pretty much the brain of every F1 car, controlling not only the engine but also the chassis.

The ignition, fuel injection system, throttles and clutch are all electronically managed on the engine side and the gearbox is also controlled by the ECU as it needs to be able to shift gear without any loss of power. The electronics required to manage this process are extraordinary, with the 2013 ECU set to be able to process around 4000 million instructions per second!

Electronic systems are also important in other smaller areas, from controlling the driver’s drink pump to powering the KERS (Kinetic Energy Resource System) and DRS (Drag Reduction System).

Perhaps most importantly for the team is to be able to monitor what the car is doing at different sectors of a lap and hence be able to measure where time can be made up. This is known as telemetry, and it is where Lewis Hamilton got in so much trouble after tweeting his and team-mate Jenson Button’s telemetry data over a single lap of qualifying at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit last year.

The information Hamilton gave away showed technically sensitive data showing where both cars were gaining or losing time at certain sections of the circuit including speed and gear traces that could be of interest to rival teams.

The system that monitors performance can store up to a gigabyte of data, much of which is transmitted from the car back to the pits in real time, and there are as many as 120 different sensors on the car, measuring acceleration, braking, temperature and, of course, speed. Every sensor is hooked up to the ECU via both a wireless and wired network at a cost of close to £100,000 for the sensors and wiring combined.

Anyone who has ever owned any kind of electrical appliance knows that irritating failures do happen and not even the state-of-the-art world of F1 is exempt from this. But the systems are clever enough to recognise a failure and alert the driver to the fact. Engineers are constantly monitoring the telemetry and are there to react and tell the driver exactly how to recover from any such related problem.

Even so, there is still ore of a premium on driver skill now than for many years. Back in 1992, Nigel Mansell surged to championship glory in the most electronically sophisticated machine of all time, the amazing Williams FW14B. He began the year with five straight victories and set a then-record of nine victories in a season including an incredible 14 pole positions. He did it in a car with active ride suspension, a computer keeping the car as level as possible over bumps, as well as traction control and semi-automatic fly-by-wire gearbox.

Many argued that Mansell’s world title owed far more to the car than his own driving prowess, outstanding driver though Mansell undoubtedly was.