AT&T recently asked me if I wanted to learn about how the company is helping the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team compete for another Formula 1 Drivers' and Constructors' championship trophies. Me? I don't know anything about cars.
I didn't really see how one global corporation can actually help a car move faster than its competitors and win a race, so I took the offer to learn a bit more. Boy am I glad I did, and I can't wait to turn on the TV this weekend to watch the team race at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain.
I had no idea that Formula 1 racing relies so much on the racing team's connectivity for a win, and that, indeed, AT&T does actually play a crucial role in helping Infiniti Red Bull Racing beat out its competitors. And the team needs all the help it can get right now, because while it has won the Drivers' and Constructors' championships four times, it's currently lagging behind Mercedes in second place, just ahead of Force India-Mercedes in third.
To learn a bit more about what AT&T does behind the scenes, and how the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team uses its network, I spoke with head of technical partnerships for Infiniti Red Bull Racing Alan Peasland and AT&T senior vice president, Global Client Group, ABS, Greg Wieboldt.
Formula One Rule Changes
In 2014, Formula One introduced the largest changes that the Infiniti Red Bull Racing Team has seen in the decade it has been competing in the sport. This year, teams must use 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines instead of the 2.4-litre V8 engines that were allowed in the past. Gearboxes must now have eight forward ratios instead of seven, fuel is limited to 100kg per race, and the minimum weight of a vehicle has to be 691kg. There are tons of other changes, too, including to the exhaust, nose height, front and rear wing standards, driver numbers and more.
Perhaps even more important, Formula One now says that teams are allowed "four tests of no more than two consecutive days at circuits where an event has taken place," and also implemented new "restrictions on wind tunnel testing and CFD simulations."
That basically means that team Red Bull has to perform as much accurate and valuable testing as it can on the Friday and Saturday before a Sunday race as possible. With a limited number of engineers allowed on site, data transfers back to headquarters in the U.K., from anywhere in the world, is absolutely crucial.
"Because of the rule changes, we're trying to learn the about the car, and the test car on the race track is producing lots of telemetry," Peasland explained. "It has to be analyzed by engineers at the circuit, and back at the factory with larger computing power. The network AT&T provides is truly mission critical."
Peasland said there aren't many connectivity restrictions from the Federation Internatiuonale de l'Automobile, the governing body in charge of rules, though the team can only receive data from the car. Since FIA restricts the number of engineers allowed at each race, Red Bull needs its tests, including video feeds, to be truly real-time, even when they're sending a signal back to headquarters from halfway around the world.
What AT&T Provides
So what does AT&T actually provide? Basically, AT&T is always moving one step ahead of the team to make sure that the garages at each Formula One race track are always connected and ready to go ahead of time.
"We provide data connectivity to each and every race track by and large through AT&T's network," Wieboldt explained. "We operate networks around the world, everywhere that Formula One circuits are. We offer network hosting, cloud services, security services, you name it, we have it available around the world." And security is important, not only from keeping prying eyes and ears from other teams out, but from any hackers in general.
"We want the network to act as if it's permanent to the circuit," Peasland explained, noting that AT&T has teams that will alternate races, leapfrogging one another along the way.
"Before we arrive at the circuit, AT&T has sent its own team of people to connect right into the garage at the circuit. We arrive with our equipment and our IT specialists and we plug and play with AT&T's points of presence. For us, it feels like a permanent infrastructure. We use that network for all business traffic and information systems. We send a lot of car telemetry in real time, e-mail, lots and lots of 3D CAD data for engineers to review, and hold live video conferences between the factory and the race track."
AT&T's goal is to make it seamless for the Red Bull team to operate – making sure that it literally feels like everything is always ready to go without any hiccups. From the call, I gather the team hasn't had any issue so far, which is surprising.
This year, for the 2014 season, AT&T increased the speed offered to Infiniti Red Bull by 2.5x what it was last year. That's impressive, because the team isn't a static unit, it's constantly moving around the globe as it moves to 19 different races.
At each race track, Team Red Bull needs to test its car to make sure it's performing up to snuff. Since the rules changed this year, that means more tweaks than ever. They'll measure things like the tire pressure, tire temperature, drag, and anything else that can possibly be tweaked on the car, and send that data back to engineers to analyze and test with simulators in the U.K.
"During an average session we are looking at about 7GB of data from the circuit back to headquarters during an hour or one and a half hour session," Peasland explained. "During the course of a race, it's about 100GB of data between the race track and the factory over the weekend." To put that in perspective, some cable companies throttle users after 100GB of data in a month in the United States.
"We can't divulge the actual data speeds, but would suggest that we're receiving data here in the control room real-time, so effectively it's as though we're reading it on the circuit, even though we're on the other side of the world. That has allowed us top send more data and send it more quickly, which is crucial. Speed is the essence."
AT&T has just a small handful of people at each race. We aren't talking about a massive team of engineers. "We have a key team in each country and they will be our direct contact for any issue should they arrive," Peasland said.
How Vehicle Testing Works
Because of the new changes in the Formula One rules, teams now have to run more tests than ever to make sure they're competing as efficiently as possible. Yes, the goal is to cross the finish line first, but it's much more complicated than that. Peasland said that Formula One isn't about gut reactions, but about what engineers know and what they can predict and solve ahead of time.
"If you look at, take this coming weekend in Spain, Friday is very much 2 practice sessions on track," Peasland said. "It will be the first time we can test on a full scale car and the new aerodynamic changes we made on the car. We try to tailor the car and customize it the best we can for each track. We had a three week break between the China Grand Prix and the Spanish Grand Prix, and the car was back in the factory for bigger changes. Classically, this is the break when all teams apply for updates."
Peasland said Infiniti Red Bull will have 10 new programs to run tomorrow, ahead of this weekend's race, where it plans to measure the forces on the car's wings, air flow as it passes by the car, loads, suspensions, tire wear, tire temperatures and more.
"You name it, we have sensors to measure that data, and on Friday we look at that data to establish what the car is doing on the track with the simulation data we've amassed in virtual testing. Is what we have on track on the real car what we expected from the development data? Once we have that, we start to optimize and apply our modifications and fine tune the car and tailor it to improve its performance on the track."
Peasland said he and his engineers will simulate certain situations, tooling with different tire pressure and suspension tweaks, changing the body work to improve air flow and more.
"We have a young driver, possibly a reserve driver, and we'll be running laps in a simulator [at headquarters] to replicate the car going around the real track, and we'll make changes to the simulator car. Friday is about learning about the new parts on the car and running test programs. The same can be said for Saturday when we have another practice session and a chance to fine tune and optimize."
While Infiniti Red Bull uses the AT&T network all throughout the week for everything from car tweaks to e-mail, it all comes down to race day. Did all of the data it sent back and forth with headquarters pay off? Is the team ready to compete?
The focus changes when Peasland and his team gets into qualifying races. "That's where the network really helps," Peasland explained, noting that the strategy team is timing every car on the track, keeping GPS data on all of the racers, watching satellite TV and more, trying to figure out the best strategy for a win.
"We do very little with gut feel, " Peasland said. "All of our decisions are made with facts and data. The engineers who are responsible for optimizing on Friday and Saturday are making sure the car is in good shape, no damage is occurring on Sunday. We try to predict what might fail and protect and predict around that."
Peasland and his team will start the Friday tests tomorrow, May 9, in Barcelona. The Spanish Grand Prix kicks off on Sunday, May 11 at 8:00 a.m. EST, just three days for now. Will AT&T's network lead to another win? I'll be tuning in to find out.