In the run-up to the Indian Grand Prix, The Edge looks at how microelectronics in F1 cars have shaped mainstream automobiles

When an avid motorsport fan sees a Formula 1 car zipping through a 5-km lap in less than one and a half minutes, he/she can be forgiven for thinking that the 2.4-litre V8 engine is all there is to the vehicle.

In fact, hidden not just under the hood, but elsewhere as well, is a maze of embedded electronics. Forget about the 0-300 kmph in 8 seconds propulsion and the 300-0 kmph deceleration that such a car is capable of, these devils would not even be able to start without the electronics.

Electronics has become so pervasive in racing cars that the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body that regulates F1 racing, has felt compelled to intervene in order to ensure that technology does not take away the main purpose of racing — the test of a driver’s skill.

Special electronics in racing cars control everything, from the fuel consumption modes of the engine to technology that helps in drag reduction. Indeed, electronics plays a big part in the delivery of fluids to a racer who undergoes severe dehydration.

The monitoring, analysing and controlling of F1 cars are all electronics-based.

The many compact sensors, the lightning-fast data processing, the quick communications, and the intelligent programs aboard these cars complement the razor-sharp reflexes of the driver behind the wheel. And, the servers in the mission control rooms of Formula 1 teams make it possible for a driver to focus on racing strategy on the go.

The McLaren brain

Every F1 car has at least 250 sensors, monitoring about 1,500 parameters, generating about 1.5 gigabytes of data over a race weekend.

Information such as the fuel consumption per lap, track temperature, humidity, the wear of tyres, and a host of other factors are continually monitored — from the practice sessions till the race on Sunday afternoon.

Not many know that McLaren of the McLaren-Mercedes team developed the brains that run modern F1 racing cars. Each of the 24 cars participating in every leg of each F1 season since 2008 has used the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) developed by McLaren Electronics.

The ECU is a sealed and tamper-proof computer aboard every F1 car. The FIA mandates that all F1 cars deploy ECUs.

What is the ECU?

The ECU is the nervous system of an F1 car. It comprises seven printed circuit boards (PCB), each up to 32 layers, which makes the unit very compact.

The ECUs use undisclosed microprocessors manufactured by Freescale Semiconductors (previously a unit of Motorola). These fingernail-sized chips are the silicon brains of F1 cars. The microprocessors are clocked at extremely high frequencies in order to keep the car in control at high speeds. For instance, the ECU, based on the inputs from the array of sensors, determines the quantity of fuel that is to be injected into the engine, at the rate of 1,000 injections per second.

Rugged electronics

The electronics in these cars, which account for only 5 per cent of the weight of the car, have to be ruggedised in order to enable them to bear the extreme shock, heat and vibration that they undergo. One could find the same level of electronics used in F1 cars, or even with more sophistication in many industrial establishments, the primary difference being that the circuits inside F1 cars lap the whole 300-km race and more at extreme conditions, which are not frequent in many industries.

After all, even if a single soldering link snaps, the consequences can be dire for the driver and his car. Extensive vibration and shock testing, with adequate heat resistance, are performed on these ECUs to withstand the extremities they faceduring a race weekend.

Constant communication

Lapping at 300 kmph, the cars need to be in constant communication with mission control. Along the race track are multiple antennas, which enable the driver to stay in touch with his mission control, which receive telemetry signals from the cars. Hand off of communication signals from one antenna to the next as the car moves along the track, and multipath interference from signals received from more than one antenna simultaneously pose another set of problems in coordinating F1 cars with their control rooms. High-speed communication with intelligent arbitration using fast communication circuits take care of this challenge.

Formula 1 on roads

F1 cars may not be seen on our roads any time soon, but the formula behind these cars is trickling down as high-end technology in the latest cars. F1 is the fountain of numerous contemporary technologies that have made modern cars safer, efficient and convenient.

Power-steering, anti-lock and regenerative braking systems, onboard telemetry, the use of fuel blends and the evolution of advanced tyre rubber composites are some of the results of the advanced technology being incorporated in mainstream cars.

Regenerative braking

Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) in F1 cars use regenerative braking in order to charge batteries using an electric generator. When additional acceleration is needed, this energy is deployed, usually by powering electrical motors. Switching between KERS and engine drive is meticulously controlled by the ECU. The hybrid cars available in the market today deploy this feature using a mini-computer, which makes these cars more fuel-efficient.

Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) in cars on the road today control the traction of vehicles, preventing them from skidding off curves.

This is an improvisation on the technologies used in F1 cars, says Karthik Gandiban, senior engineer for a multinational automotive ancillary company. “In addition to anti-lock braking system (ABS), the ESP module improves the handling of cars. These modules provide additional traction for cars by sensing under or over steer and automatically apply the required braking power.”

F1 racing is not merely an adrenaline-pumping sport, but an arena to showcase high-end technology. The F1 circuit is thus the laboratory that makes it possible for these advanced technologies to be brought into the wider automobile market.