One of the nicest interviews I ever did in F1 was with CSC (also known as “DXC Technology” these days) during their initial stint with Virgin Racing: I just emailed some random questions and they replied back with written answers. Perfecto. I did a tiny bit of editing and voilà, it turned out to be a very informative piece of engineering at the time.
It had that air of fresh feeling about it, with honest responses, etc.. Sometimes you find amazing stories in the most unexpected of places. F1 peeps and staff are always capable of surprising you with a good tale. Tweeting, instagramming is in the their blood.
I also love the fact that every entity involved in the story has since moved on, it’s a proper vintage piece, F1 history, solidified can’t-travel-back-in-time kinda thing and all: Virgin Racing are no more; CSC doesn’t exist as original CSC; Jerez doesn’t host F1 testing any more; Hockenheim is no longer featured on the F1 calendar; the Chinese GP faces an uncertain future. In less than a decade!
Wow. That’s ruthless ruthlessness.
Q&A with Virgin Racing’s Technology Partner CSC August 2010
Q: How long does it usually take you to get all the systems up and running at each track? Any interesting or unusual challenges that have arisen so far?
CSC: We usually arrive at the track on Tuesday morning and have the main structure of the garage up as well as the network and garage IT systems running by the end of the day. It then typically takes Wednesday to set up the pit wall systems and link them to the network and finally check all the IT system, radio links and TV feeds. That leaves Thursday to do the extra jobs like setting up new screen or pit stop cameras or sorting out general technology niggles. The older or temporary tracks like Monaco and Melbourne make things more difficult to set up the technology as space is often very tight and it can be a struggle to lay cables for the network. The hot and/or humid races are also a problem from an IT perspective as it’s difficult to keep the kit at a suitable temperature. It’s quite strange putting a block of dry ice in a server cabinet!
Q: What advice would you give to someone who dreams of working in Formula 1 and particularly in the IT department?
CSC: The critical thing first of all is to get the right IT experience, probably in a broad based environment such as an IT services company like CSC (now DXC Technology). This will provide you with the core skills that an F1 team needs to develop and deliver the IT in this fast and competitive environment. Even in the tough times over the last 18 months (since the 2008 financial crisis – Q&A was done in August 2010), CSC have taken on hundreds of new employees, including schemes for young people such as a graduate programme, an industrial placement scheme, an apprentice scheme and a technical trainee scheme. The IT experts working as part of Virgin Racing are taken straight from the client facing teams at CSC, but as you can imagine there are quite a few applicants. Good luck.
Q: You’ve been in F1 for more than 6 months now – are you enjoying the ride?
CSC: Yes. It’s hard work with some very long days and times when the pressure is really intense, but it’s a fantastic experience and great to be part of the team and the whole F1 show.
Q: What was the happiest day for the team this year?
CSC: The team is making good progress in its first season so there are new highs all the time. The first two car finish for the team in Spain was certainly the first major milestone of the season but the way the team has brought significant development steps to the car in recent races has also been very rewarding to see.
Q: Why do you think so many Formula 1 teams are based in the UK? What makes Britain so special?
CSC: There are a number of reasons, but much of it is due to the motorsport ecosystem that has built up in the UK that becomes self sustaining. It is about the large specialist supplier base, and the fine balance of supply and demand in jobs and training that delivers skilled and experienced engineers, aerodynamicists and key technical people. Just as southern Germany has Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi located within a two hour drive and Italy has traditionally had great engine builders around Modena with Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati to name a few, so the UK has developed as an F1 centre of excellence.
Q: F1 trades on its glamorous image and many fans think of it as an essential part of the show – can you estimate the actual levels of glamour in F1? How are things in reality?
CSC: Without doubt F1 attracts the rich, famous and sometimes beautiful. The paddock and the grid are definitely places to see and be seen and it’s is an integral part of the show for a lot of fans. People watching can even be quite fun for those of us that are there week in week out. But it’s not all glamour particularly when you are trying to run network cables through drains and over gantries in the rain in Barcelona or across a toilet block in China.
Q: You mentioned something about “a cable called the umbilical which plugs into a socket in the car which allows” the engine laptop to talk to the VR-01 – so how do you fire up the engine with a laptop/Jump Battery? Can you make the Cosworth CA2010 sing with your laptop?
CSC: The umbilical is basically a network cable that hangs down from the over-car gantry in the garage. It means that the car becomes a node on the network which means all the on-board systems are then linked to the garage systems. While telemetry data is sent from the car while it is on the track, much more is collected and downloaded through the umbilical when it’s back in the garage. The umbilical cable provides the car with power and a network connection to the car IT systems. Each car has chassis and engine management IT systems, monitored by separate laptops. These are used prior to starting the car to ensure everything on the car is set up correctly: hydraulic pressures, gear in neutral, throttle/engine/diff maps configured along with a whole host of other parameters that are checked before it is safe to fire up. The car is started with an external starter motor once the engineers give the OK to the mechanic. Whilst it is possible to start the car up without a laptop, we would never attempt to until we are sure everything is in order so that it won’t cause any damage. The engine laptop can control the engine throttle, so in a sense they are on speaking terms, although we haven’t programmed it to sing.
Q: In one of your winter testing reports you talked about HD Pit Cam used to record and review pit stops – do you use that piece of equipment on the race weekends?
CSC: As pit stops can be so critical in a tight race, we need to take every opportunity to monitor our performance and look for areas of improvement. As a new team we are learning all the time, so this is just one more opportunity to get better. As you can read in our blog from SILVERSTONE (taken down since 2010 – obviously), we used the HD pit cam for the first time during a race weekend. We had a few issues so by the time you read this we will have tried a different approach from Hockenheim onwards (Jesus! Even Hockenheim is off the radar!!!).
Q: What are your duties at the factory in Dinnington and, apart from looking after the IT department, what other roles did you have since arriving in F1?
CSC: The new F1 factory was only recently opened, so CSC has provided a complete IT infrastructure from the ground up. This ranges from PC’s and laptops to data centre infrastructure including file storage and firewalls to communications including the telephony system as well as internet access and email for everyone. We also make sure that everyone has access to the core applications, such as the accounting system, that they need to do their jobs. The development work for the factory infrastructure is on-going and occupies our time when we are not focussed on the track side IT. When we are at the track, while the priority for us is the IT, we are expected to turn our hands to whatever needs to be done including helping with setting up the garage, packing up the trucks after the race and even cleaning wheels. As an extreme example of this, Joe Birkett, the Virgin Racing IT manager, also serves as one of the pit stop crew.
Q: Virgin Racing is known for taking different approaches so how can CSC (with its 50 years of experience in the IT field) innovate in F1 and do things differently? Is it possible or did you have to adapt your way of doing things to the demands of the sport?
CSC: The primary focus of innovation at Virgin Racing has been with the fully digitally engineered car that has been developed using CFD analysis rather than wind tunnel testing. In terms of trackside IT the emphasis is on reliability and durability rather than out and out innovation. This is an area, like many others, where as a new team it’s important to get the basics right and to learn to walk before we run. We have therefore focussed on standard, proven hardware and software solutions with extra elements like SSD drives on all laptops to reduce the risk of failures.
In the first season it was important to get the foundations right, but there are plenty more innovations in the pipeline from Virgin Racing and CSC that we will tell you about as they roll out.
Q: In Jerez de la Frontera in February (2010) you had a small box with a laptop as the only piece of equipment on your pit wall with an interesting writing saying: “Don’t sit on this box – laptop inside!” Now you have a pretty elaborate pit wall – any interesting facts about pit wall systems and how long does it take to set it up?
CSC: The pit wall system consists of an equipment rack and two pods where the team managers sit. There are multiple screens displaying TV feeds, car position on track and weather as well as laptops linking to the track side IT systems. They also house the radio communication systems. It doesn’t take long to set up, so we tend to do it once the main garage infrastructure is up and working. Pretty much everything is pre-wired, so the main units just need connecting together and linked to the garage IT system – usually be fibre. Being exposed to the elements has caused problems especially if it has been very hot. The equipment rack is protected by an insulating blanket that protects it from most the elements such as sun and rain. Keeping it dry is obviously essential but it’s also important to reflect as much of the sun’s heat as possible to keep temperatures at a manageable levels.
Q: Supposedly both Virgin Racing cars can generate “around one terabyte of data over a race weekend” so how do you store all that data and make sure you can access it from every circuit on the F1 calendar?
CSC: We currently collect around 100Gbytes of data over a race weekend, although we could increase this significantly. Teams with larger infrastructures do capture considerably more. This includes telemetry data, video and standard data files and it’s easily held on a standard RAID data storage array, which provides an extra level of protection. Telemetry information is available from previous races at the track side, although it’s mainly used for running simulations prior to a race weekend where effectively the whole race can be replayed and the car/driver’s responses can be analysed. As one of the new teams we obviously don’t have any data from last year’s races, but as we move into our second season it will be useful to use data from the previous year to help prepare for races in simulations and at the track. We have a network link back to the factory from the track which is used to upload data for long term storage and reference.
Q: One of the striking features of the F1 paddock are the custom built mobile data centres that you see at the rear of the garages and the tall communication masts. In case of Virgin Racing – are they used to send data back to the factory in the UK? How do you transport these masts?
CSC: The big masts are actually for the telemetry transmission as the car goes around the track. The reason they are so tall is to get coverage for as much of the track as possible. Every track has blind spots where we can’t “see” the car, but the aim is to minimise these. The masts are telescopic so when they come down they take up much less space and can be carried in the trucks. Unlike the big teams that have strategy people at the factory online and live during a race weekend, we currently handle the analysis at the track although there is an upload data link back to the factory as well.