Software speeds Formula One designs

DN Staff

December 4, 2000

10 Min Read
Software speeds Formula One designs

With blue Finnish flags painted on their faces and red Ferrari stallions painted in their hair, a screaming mob of 200,000 people watched Formula One cars race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 24.

American race fans had been waiting for this moment for nearly a decade, since Phoenix, AZ had hosted the last F1 race in this country in 1991.

At speeds over 200 mph, the race at "The Brickyard" took less than two hours. But the real race had happened in January, as teams of engineers completed the hectic development cycle to build entirely new cars for the racing season-in just five months!

The demands on these cars are so huge that barely half the field of 22 cars finished the race at Indy, the losers spewing flame and smoke from blown engines. The winner, German driver Michael Schumacher of Team Ferrari, credited his engineers for the team's victory: "We have 300 parts on a car, and I don't know how many you can adjust, but it's like a puzzle."

Solving this puzzle means hard work for the engineers throughout the 17-race season, as they tweak the race cars to achieve maximum speed on each specific course.

"When people see an F1 team on the track, they just see the visible part of the iceberg," says Didier Perrin, engineering manager of Team Prost, Guyancourt, France.

The team employs 230 people working on everything but the engine, and collaborates with the 170 Peugot employees who supply that specially-made engine. Prost engineers start to design a new car every year, starting with a full scale CAD model in September, and completing it by January.

That's just five months for design, tooling, manufacturing, and assembly. In short, says Perrin, "We have a very, very, very busy winter."

And when this guy says it's a completely new car, he's not kidding: "From one year to another, the only common piece on the whole car is the mirror," says Perrin. "It seems crazy, but it's true."

Accelerating the design cycle. There's only one way to make it through such a tight design cycle-concurrent engineering. In Team Prost's case, that means they must begin to design tooling and molds before they finish defining the specifications for the parts.

The challenge begins with specifications set by FIA, the sport's governing body. For instance, at all times the car and driver must weigh at least 1,323 lbs, despite constraints such as the driver's weight and the 265-lb, V-10 Peugot engine.

With those tight restrictions, the only way to shave weight is by designing each component to meet more than one requirement, Perrin says. For instance, the monocoque chassis is primarily structural, since the engine and suspension are fixed to it. But attaching an aerodynamic skin on top would add too much weight, so the chassis must be aerodynamic as well.

When you're moving this fast, the real cost is in production, not design, explains Pascal Lecland, executive VP of research and development for DELMIA, CATIA's digital manufacturing product.

So for Team Prost, another way to speed design is to outsource production. The team has production capabilities to manufacture every component of the car in-house, except for the engine and gearbox. But even with production quantities of just eight cars per year, they seldom do it.

"We are producing only 40% in-house and subcontracting 60%," says Perrin. "It's a strategic choice to make the confidential and emergency components in-house, because the process would be too slow otherwise, and the factory wouldn't be used the rest of the year."

Computer productivity tools. Team Prost tackles this schedule with 44 seats of CATIA, and uses Dassault's ENOVIA PDM to manage all the components in a single, common database-a crucial detail when different engineers are designing parts simultaneously.

They also use CATIA Composite to design for shop floor manufacturing information, and to send CAD models to MSC.Patran and MSC.NASTRAN FEA.

Other CAD products used in F1 design include SDRC's I-DEAS (used by the Jordan and Williams teams), PTC's Pro/ENGINEER (used by Team Ferrari), and Unigraphics (used by Team Jaguar).

But cool software tools alone can't speed the design cycle enough for F1-the teams must change their design process, too.

"It's important not to run the development cycle as a closed shop, like puffing white smoke out of the chimney and that's it," says Martin Jetter Jr., manager of IBM's product lifecycle management solutions group. "For F1, the most important thing is to have a collaborative link between the race team and the development arm of a company, since the engine changes race-to-race over a season," says Jetter.

This is also true for Team McLaren, headquartered in Wokingham, UK.

"Their time to market is inbetween races, so it's less than 10 days," says Richard Jacklin, Sun Microsystems' technical account manager for McLaren. "Seventy-five percent of the car is different at the end of the season."

Using FEA early in the design cycle. A crucial part of this quick design process for any team is to encourage designers to do their own basic stress analyses.

This can mean more training for the engineer, but automatic meshing and stress analysis can make the process so simple it can be run from drop-down menus, he says. There is still a need for FEA specialists, but only in the most complex simulations.

These methods also work for commercial automakers, says Jetter. When he began teaching CATIA in 1986, the design cycle for a Mercedes S-Class was 10 years, compared to today's cycle of 28-36 months.

That's fast, but it's still not five months. Up-front FEA is one of the most common ways to achieve these faster cycles.

The British Team Arrows uses CATIA V4 running on SGI workstations, says Technical Director Mike Coughlan. All that computing power allows him to insist that his engineers do some of their own analysis.

"F1 is all about efficiency of structure, whether that's strength or stiffness. So this way, our boys can have a look at it and avoid some no-no's, then we'll pass it on to the stress office for a more intricate analysis."

Like Team Prost, the Arrows engineers design a new car every year between July and January, created by the company's 250 employees at its Oxfordshire, UK headquarters. And the cycle continues throughout the racing season itself.

Aerodynamics. Some engineers say aerodynamics is the single most important variable. Indianapolis is unique on the F1 circuit because the Brickyard straightaway is so long that the race cars will run at full throttle for 24 seconds-longer than any other course. Yet the cars will not have their fastest speeds here, since aerodynamics reign supreme. The Indy course's tight corners demand that the cars have tremendous downdraft from their front and rear wings, producing too much drag for blazing straight-line speed.

"It's like a Rubik's Cube when you design one of these cars, because we have so many conflicting requirements," says Matt Cranor, a suspension specialist for Team Sauber, in Hinwil, Switzerland.

But after all these calculations are done, there's only one bottom line-the race results.

"The race weekend is really proof of what you figured out when you were testing," he says. "You just come here, the curtain goes up, and you go."

The formula for success in F1

Price Tag

Designing a car in five months costs much more than the 36-month cycle typical in Detroit. It costs about $100 million to run a mid-pack team like Prost for a year, and that number can rise to $120 million for the top teams like Ferrari and McLaren, says Prost Francois Sedan. Yes, that's $100 million for eight vehicles.

Where does all the money go?

Each car will run through 32 tires in a 200-mile race, and more if it's raining. That's $100,000 per weekend in tires alone.

Each team will use about 210 engines per season, including both the race cars and the test car.

Each steering wheel costs $20,000 to $30,000

Radio Telemetry

Each team tracks about 50 parameters from the engine and 100 more from the chassis, monitoring variables such as loads on the suspension arms, brake and oil temperatures and pressures, and the timing of gear shifts.

Team Prost monitors 60% of the data through real-time encoded radio transmissions, then gathers the remaining 40% through a second antenna under the engine cover that broadcasts a "burst transmission" each time the car passes the pit, says Prost engineer Francois Sedan.

Team McLaren gathers about 2 MB of data per lap, per car, storing it on Sun UltraSparc2 servers at the back of the garage. Those servers then translate the most important data to Java, and transmit it via a microwave link to the team's strategists at trackside.


Engineers charged with designing 2000 season champion Michael Schumacher's cockpit for the 2001 season scanned his body with 2 million points at plus or minus 1mm accuracy, says Robert Carrier, CEO of Safework, a Dassault subsidiary.

"They've invested millions on the mechanical side, but they've never invested at the interface level, which is seat design, pedal positions, and steering wheel design," he says.

Of course, at that accuracy, they had to scan him nearly naked, so there are two versions of the digital Schumacher-in his underwear, and in his full racing suit. Each version includes multiple positions, such as the way a bicep flexes when he turns the steering wheel. The result is a seat that's ergonomically optimized for everything from his field of vision to minimizing the energy it takes him to drive the car.

Gears and suspension

Each team must calculate the best set of gears to send to each of the 17 races. To do this, Team Sauber simulates the course in virtual drives beforehand by entering the tire characteristics, expected top speed, and other variables into a track simulator.

The program predicts the effect of each race track on the suspension. For instance, Turn 13 at Indianapolis is the only banked turn F1 drivers have ever raced, so that produces unique stresses in the wheels, bearings, and struts, says Team Sauber's Matt Cranor.

Steering Wheel

The F1 steering wheel is like a miniature Starship Enterprise, with dozens of buttons, LED displays, dials, and gauges. Oh, and it also has a clutch and a gear shift. Why? The shifting is semi-automatic, done by flicking your thumbs on paddles mounted on the steering wheel. You're shifting through seven forward gears (and one reverse), so your thumbs get a workout.

"It's like a Gameboy," says Team Prost's Francois Sedan. This comparison seems apt when you see the driver remove the wheel each time he steps in or out of the car, holding the $20,000, pretzel-shaped appliance like a video game control. But when you're making four left turns and nine right turns every circuit for 73 laps, the stakes are a little higher than winning at the arcade.

Nose cone and wings

There are two or three spare parts for every piece of the car at a race. But for frequently damaged components such as the delicate, aerodynamic nose cones and wings, there can be as many as seven spares.

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