Top Stories from the Business pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, March 5, 1998

Formula One Team Revs Up the Computers to Speed Up Race Cars

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MAGNY-COURS, France - In a sport where the technical regulations change yearly and the cars develop almost daily, there is little mystery why technology has taken a front seat in the manufacture of race cars.

''The difference between the big teams and the average-sized ones is speed -- to develop the car faster, communicate faster, make decisions faster,'' said Alain Prost, a four-time world drivers' champion who retired in 1993 and is now the owner of his own Formula One team.

This month, Prost Grand Prix is moving from a 10-year-old factory here, 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Paris, to a new, state-of-the-art plant in Guyancourt, just outside the capital.

The move will enable the team to work with high-tech tools built for the needs of a 1998 car, such as computer-aided metal casting, blasting ovens to mold carbon-fiber composites and computers to design, build and test all the parts. It will also provide faster communications with Prost's Paris-based high-tech partners, including Alcatel Alsthom and Dassault Systemes SA, and its engine maker, PSA Peugeot Citroen SA.

In Formula One racing, more than 20 cars battle out a sprint race on circuits averaging five kilometers in length and with varying conditions: straightaways, hairpin corners and wide bends, each of which makes a different demand on an engine and chassis.

The technological challenge is enormous. The 11 teams of Formula One construct their own cars to technical regulations devised by FIA, the Paris-based racing federation. The changes FIA is requiring for this season, which begins Sunday in Melbourne, have been called the most drastic in 15 years.

When engine technicians started using computers at the track in the 1980s, Mr. Prost said, ''We looked at them like propeller heads. We had absolutely no confidence in them.''

Today, computers save time in every aspect of designing, building and setting up a car's balance and mechanical configuration.

To counter criticism that most passing is done not on the track but during pit stops, FIA is banning slick tires this year, which should force cars to brake earlier at corners and thus facilitate passing. Tires now must have grooves (three treads going all the way around the front tires and four for the back tires) to reduce their grip and force slower turns.

As slicks have been used since 1971, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Bridgestone Corp. face a huge technical challenge to redesign their racing tires ‹ especially as the new rules stipulate that the grooves must still be present at the end of the race on all tires used.

Another way FIA plans to slow cars in corners is to decrease use of the aerodynamic effect, known in the industry as downforce, that presses the car down to the track and allows it to maintain speed in cornering. The maximum width of the car is being reduced to 180 centimeters from 200 centimeters, raising the center of gravity and limiting the size of wings attached to the vehicle.

Engineers have spent the winter seeking ways to attach new kinds of wings and other aerodynamic aids to recover the estimated 15 percent loss in downforce. This work is done mostly in a team's wind tunnel, not on the track. Some teams use the wind tunnels of research centers; others, like Prost, have their own.


To save time fulfilling the FIA rules, which cover every detail of a car, Prost turned to the design program Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application, or Catia.

Developed by Dassault Systemes, it was used for the first ''virtually'' designed airliner, Boeing Co.'s 777 jet. Several other airplane builders, as well as carmakers and developers of trains, including the TGV, the French high-speed train, use it now. It is also used by many other Formula One teams, including Sauber, Ferrari and Arrows, and for the engines of Mercedes AG, Renault, Peugeot and Cosworth Engineering.

Other teams use design technology from such Dassault Systemes rivals as Computervision Corp. and SDRC Inc.

Before any of the 3,000 parts of a Formula One car is built, Catia enables the designer to create the car in three dimensions on a screen, fit it together, measure its weight and spot likely problems. The program also allows the designer to mole through the on-screen mock-up and see an image, interior or exterior, of any component.

Because of the efficiency of the software, a new longitudinally mounted gearbox for the Prost car was made from scratch in less than four months last summer, rather than the eight months that Prost's head designer, Loic Bigois, said it would have taken in the past.

The creation of the new factory has been overseen by Bernard Dudot, Prost's technical director and the engineer who built the Renault V-10 engine that has won the last six Formula One constructors' titles. When Mr. Prost bought the team a year ago, its Magny-Cours factory housed a staff of 68 in 3,600 square meters (38,750 square feet). The Guyancourt factory has 7,300 square meters for what is now a 150-person work force.

There will be 20 Catia workstations in Guyancourt, compared with 10 here, all operating on Sun Microsystems Inc. computers and servers. While Prost pays for the licenses to use the system, Dassault Systemes is also providing manpower and working closely with the team. Neither side would disclose the financial details of the partnership.

The factory will be linked through high-tech Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN, lines to the team at Grand Prix racetracks worldwide to allow engineers to use Alcatel's videoconferencing to troubleshoot.

It costs so much to test a car on the track that most testing is done on team-designed computer programs.

But the creation and application of technology is secondary to the main purpose of racing, Mr. Dudot said.

''There's only one objective,'' he said. ''That is to win. If you win with high technology, you use high technology. If you win with wheelbarrows, we'll use wheelbarrows. Technology's not the objective.''


Ironically, one of the purposes of FIA's changing regulations is to prevent computers from taking over.

Midseason last year, three years after high-tech driving aids were banned, McLaren-Mercedes created a computerized accelerator that the racing body approved before realizing that it could overrule a driver and thus reduce skidding.

Rather than allowing the driver to directly control the engine's throttle valves, the team's accelerator used an onboard computer to calculate how much torque could be used on the given section of the track. It then limited the opening of the valve, making the best use of the available power of the engine and helping to prevent skidding.

After the season, FIA banned the system, saying that it ran counter to the rules barring computer-aided driving.

''Instead of being a sport of men,'' said Francesco Longanesi, a spokesman, ''it was becoming a sport of computer wizards. We're not against technology ‹ far from it. But the technology must serve the man, and not the other way around.''

Removing control from the driver not only destroys the sport side of things, he said, it also increases the risk of a driver's losing command of the car to a computer and having an accident.

But FIA encourages use of technology to develop the cars, and this has become so costly and highly perfected, Mr. Dudot said, that teams no longer build entire cars on their own. Instead, they subcontract certain parts, such as the carbon brakes and, particularly, the engine.

If technology has killed jobs in some industries, in Formula One it has created métiers, Mr. Dudot said.

''We're seeing jobs here that didn't even exist five or 10 years ago ‹ new computer-related jobs, electronic transmission, data processing, a very high level of metallurgy, and the creation of composite materials that are capable of absorbing enormous shocks,'' he said.

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