The Age of the Compu-RaceCar

The days of Knight Rider are finally here—cars have gotten to the point that they are almost entirely computer controlled.  Take your average Jaguar, which has computer controlled fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, suspension, ignition, timing, climate control, and entertainment.  With a little more effort, it wouldn’t even need a driver!  Speaking of, Google has been operating driver-less cars for over a year now.  All of this tech in cars hasn’t just affected civilian models, either.  Modern Formula 1 cars are chock-full of computers, and they’re changing racing as we know it.

F1 steering computerBut having computers control the car is one thing, but having computers tell you how to control the car is entirely different.  Take the Lotus F1 Team for an example.  They use CAD to draft parts for their vehicles, keep GPS coordinates of their car as it races to see what line the driver takes, and monitor the engine statistics to see how things are running and what may break next.  They send the data straight to the factory as it’s collected, which means that they will have an accurate picture of exactly what the car and driver are doing at any given time during a race.  Having all of this data means that the driver can more accurately review his or her performance, and managers can make well informed decisions about the best time to bring the car into the pit.  Ever see Moneyball?  Well, using statistics doesn’t just work for baseball—it can mean the world’s difference in an F1 race.

Their team also has taken it mobile.  The nature of F1 is that teams must travel a lot, and lugging around all the computer equipment necessary to deal with all of the data they collect from the car can be quite a challenge.  Their techs need to be able to access their information from all manner of devices from all manner of places, which is why they actually make their own mobile apps.  But one app isn’t enough—no, the Lotus team actually makes new applications for each individual race, as they simply can’t afford to have something not work when the green flag drops.

Collecting real time data and analyzing it worked out well in baseball, and now Formula 1 teams are trying to get a competitive edge by making statistical decisions rather than intuitive ones.  Will it make for more interesting, competitive racing?  Absolutely.  Having computers in the car might not be so bad, after all.

 Marc Pencelle is retired race driver who now writes about American racing and racers.  His work has appeared in race magazines, sports blogs, and motosports sites.