Under the bonnet: how tech and innovation are gaining speed at F1
What does a passion for science and a culture that focuses on constant improvement bring you?
Ask Andrew Shovlin, Trackside Engineering director for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, and he will point to a decade of dominance at the Formula One races. Speaking to Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview, he highlighted several topics that have been making waves across the industry, as well as insights on how Mercedes is continuously innovating to improve the brand’s performance on the track.
While many would say that it all comes down to the engine and the driver’s skill behind the wheel, Shovlin elaborated further: “You’re neither trying to build the best chassis or the best engine – you are trying to build the ultimate lap time; and you need to evaluate those elements as one. If you were trying to create the most powerful engine, it would probably have cooling requirements that would make it very difficult to package and as a result, the aerodynamic solution would be weak.”
What ultimately needs to happen is a compromise. The technical challenge is working out where to make that compromise, how to understand the needs of the two areas, and how to arrive at the best overall solution. The digital world plays a “crucial” role in this equation, Shovlin said.
“We are able to drive next year’s car and power unit in the simulator, so here at our base in Brackley, we can be driving around a circuit like Abu Dhabi, understanding how the car is behaving, and we can do all of that work before we’ve even made a single component. The development loops that you go through in the virtual world mean that when you do actually make the car, you have a good chance of getting it right,” he said.
Asked how the technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution have made their foray into the sport, Shovlin said that they are all areas of growth and how the brand handles big data is key. “F1 has been very good at gathering data; we log thousands of channels of data on the car throughout a race, but merely using the humans involved, it is impossible to extract the maximum learnings from all that information.”
“We are very interested in AI, VR, and Machine Learning, and they are now being deployed in the battle at the racetrack,” he explained. “We have lots of systems which are now utilising Machine Learning and, over time, it will become a bigger area of growth. There is always pressure on us to optimise the amount of time we have to develop the cars, to test them at the track – that is forever being squeezed into an ever-decreasing time period – and AI is proving very useful as a means to make best use of the diminishing time resource we have.”
“There are so many areas of innovation in our sport,” he added. “The team has to identify what the emerging technologies that we need to be at the forefront of are, then understand and adopt them quickly within the team, because they will be a source of competitive advantage and a key differentiator in the championship battle.”
In addition, the world of simulation is becoming a bigger area of innovation; vehicle dynamic simulation, computational fluid dynamics, and finite element analysis are all areas that are growing and expanding as one area of technology. The new power units have also been an engineering challenge, because for the first time in F1, it has become an energy challenge. You have a finite amount of energy in the fuel and the team who makes the best use of that energy is the one who wins the race.
Shovlin also noted that fuel efficiency became a big part of the industry when the fuel flow metre was introduced in 2014 which limited fuel flow for all teams to 100kg an hour. “At that point, we also had 100kg per race. So the challenge for us all became who can make the best use of that limited amount of fuel; fuel efficiency was suddenly a function of how quickly you can get down the straight.”
As your engine becomes more powerful, given that all engines have access to the same flow of fuel, the more powerful engines are the ones that extract the most performance from the fuel. “That is, they turn more of the potential of the fuel into drive,” Shovlin explained. “That became a key challenge in our sport. It’s now a simple fact that the most powerful F1 engine is also the most efficient. The gains we have made in F1 can then be applied to road cars.”
Shovlin also explained that the culture at Mercedes is one of always trying to improve, to look for opportunity, and to work together to fix problems. “Toto Wolff often talks about us having a no-blame culture, it’s easier to say that than to create one, but we have always been very focused on the processes – if we have a problem, it is down to the process, not the people; and we fix the process. That has also been key to our success.”
More recently, he said that Mercedes has become even more focused on investing in talent. “We have had some great young talent coming into the team and it’s so exciting seeing the engineers of the future. We’ve been showing them what F1 racing is all about and figuring out the areas they enjoy working in. That’s certainly been an important part of the team’s more recent success over the last three or four years. We are trying to build an organisation that is future-proof, one which can improve and grow.”
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