News and views on motorsports

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Sauber's Got Albert

In this story on, Sauber announces the launch of its new supercomputer for computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modelling. More details of this can be found on the Sauber website. The Swiss Dalco company built the supercomputer in tandem with Ferrari partner AMD and has 530 AMD microprocessors providing 2.3 terra flops (i.e. 2.3 trillion floating point operations per seconds) of processing speed and 1 terrabyte of main memory and 11 terrabytes of physical storage. That's a bloody well lot of computing power right there.

Albert is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the racing business and the automtive indutsty as a whole. Williams also has a supercomputer based on clustered Linux servers. See the press release here. I have absolutely no doubt that McLaren, with its technology partnership with Sun Microsystems utilises either a clustered or monolithic solution for its CFD modelling needs.

When I first read about CFD some ten years ago, people were talking about it being deployed on workstations like SGI or Sun. Now it seems, these are not enough for Formula 1 needs. Supercomputing facilites are the order of the day. I have no doubt that Albert will assist Sauber in making enormous strides towards its competitiveness and the effects will either be seen next season or the season after that.

One can see the levels of investment required to be competitive these days. How does one expect Minardi to survive I wonder. In these times of economic uncertainties, how does one find the money to stay ahead of the curve. It simply boggles the mind. If you think about it. It is investments in these infrastructural facilites such as wind tunnels and super computers that lead to costs figures like USD 2000 per lap or something silly like that to run a Formula 1 car.

This brings me back to my point. Teams should be allowed to purchase cars from manufacturers and competing in Formula 1 by simply operating those cars. At the moment, each team must manufacture their own cars. The costs of that is becoming much too ludicrous I believe. If you allow teams to buy cars, say from a manufacturer like Dallara or Lola for instance, the cost per car and the cost per lap per car would immediately drop. After all, infrastructural costs like supercomputing facilities can then be allocated over a larger number of cars and customers. No doubt, if Formula 1 continues on this path many teams will be out of business soon enough, degrading the level of competition even further.

Peter Windsor of F1Racing magazine makes the point that Formula 1 is or should be the pinnacle of not only racing technology but automotive technology as a whole. In a recent issue of F1Racing magazine he suggests that the smaller teams should be left to die since they contribute nothing as far as technological advancement is concerned. His view is shared by many I believe. It is however a little parochial.

Formula 1's main concern to me is that it is a sport. It is the pinnacle of motorsport. Not necessarily technology. It is the category that decides who at any given year is the best driver on the planet. Think about it. That is why it is called the world championship. That's why the Formula 1 champion is termed the world champion. In deciding who should be crowned the champion of the world, the sport should provide a competitive arena for all drivers in that category so that the title is won by the person truly deserving that title because he beat the other guy by driving harder and faster. The technology involved really doesn't matter I believe. Its about providing a category with the fastest cars (not necessarily the most technologically advanced) with the main objective here to find the best driver in the world.

Does Formula 1 really pioneer road car technology? If you compare a good road car with a Formula 1 car you will find that a lot of road cars have technology that was first pioneered on the road and not in racing. Most of the technologies are now banned in Formula 1. Active suspension, anti lock braking, continuously variable transmission, variable geometry steering, fully automated gearboxes, traction control, active aerodynamics, active torque transfer systems are just some of the technologies banned in Formula 1. These technologies were first utilised on road cars and not the other way around.

So what does it matter that we have a dumbed down or at least cost cutting Formula 1 in the future? It would still give racing fans the fastest road racing cars on the planet. The category would still be about determining the world champion. And this really should be the main objectives. Automotive manufacturers looking to showcase technology should really do it where it counts. In the showrooms. Formula 1 is sport. It should not be a showroom. For if it is a technological showcase, the automotive manufacturers would not be in the sport in the long term. After all, if you were Mercedes, would you really want to be beaten by FIAT or BMW time and time again for the next 20 years? It could happen after all, and if it did Mercedes would soon be out of Formula 1. Renault in fact are now thinking about this exact same thing.

If Formula 1 becomes a showroom then a lot more corporate politics and marketing PR crap would be streaming on the race tracks of the world. To the fans, this is completely boring. As a fan, I really couldn't give a goddamned how advanced the technology is in a Formula 1 car. After gawping about it for about an hour or so, in the end, I am really interested in the on track battle. I'm really interested to watch drivers race.

The proof is in the DTM German Touring car championship viewing figures this year. You regularly have crowds of over 100,000 people watching it. No to mention the TV audiences for it these days. Even people from America are starting to catch on. In technological terms the DTM cars are ancient dinosaurs compared to a McLaren. And yet, fans are clambering to see them. Why? Because the on track action is simply amazing. Look at the BTCC in the 90s as another example. Relatively low tech but the battle on track beats anything I've ever seen then or since.

Formula 1 I believe is losing its direction. Yes, I'll always watch it because I'm a hard core fan. However, it could be a lot lot better if the management just quits its greed for a moment and go back to the fundamentals of the sport. It is a sport for drivers and teams not a corporate automotive showroom.

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