Formula One (F1) racer Mark Webber finished sixth in the popular sport's season opener following an error in his engine software that contributed to a poor start. McLaren Electronic Systems, the maker of the equipment, has apologized to Webber and his team, Red Bull Racing, following the incident. In a sport in which precision technology is essential to success, such errors carry high stakes.
McLaren Electronic Systems is the sole supplier of the engine control units (ECU) – complex hardware systems containing hundreds of thousands of lines of code – that power engines for racing series including F1, NASCAR and IndyCar. It introduced a new ECU for this F1 season, and the hardware will also be used next season when the sport debuts its new turbo rule.
F1 is often seen as a sport in which the technology and engineering behind the racing is as important as the driver. Red Bull Racing blamed the supplier for an issue that caused Webber to lose telemetry during his warm-up lap, putting him at a disadvantage, as well as for the failure of his Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) during the first 20 laps, which reduced the engine power available, Autoweek reported.
"We lost all telemetry on the formation lap," Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner said. "And then you can't do the preparation that you need to for the start, so then he's in the blind for the start, and that ECU issue [sic] shut the KERS down as well, so by the time we'd reset the whole system obviously he'd lost the start and lost early ground. It's something that they need to get on top of, because there's been a lot of issues during testing."
McLaren acknowledged the error and apologized, but it noted that the equipment's electronics were sound. The issue was in the software's data transmission functions, which had to be restarted during the formation lap, the company said, according Autoweek.
This incident underscored the heightened complexity of the hardware in F1 cars and, increasingly, the automotive world at large. F1 has very strict technical regulations governing the equipment that can be used in its cars, with the goal of standardizing engineering as much as possible.
Since 2008, McLaren has been the sole supplier of ECUs for F1 engines. In addition to controlling KERS, the only allowed method of increasing speed in F1 cars, ECUs can help monitor settings based on data gathered from around 120-150 sensors on the car, EE Journal explained. Data from these sensors is fed to the car, as well as back to the garage and the factory, to optimize performance. During a race, each car will generate around 500 kilobytes of data per second, totaling around a gigabyte and a half for the entire race.
"This data is then used in real time by the garage team to inform the driver and to guide him on changes that he might make in his driving, although the rules forbid electronic feedback to modify the car electronics," EE Journal's Dick Selwood wrote. "Within the ECU, there may be a number of driver-selectable different mappings, balancing, say, fuel consumption and power. The garage might encourage the driver to use one of these to reduce fuel consumption (Refueling is currently not allowed). The ECU data is also retransmitted to the factory, where it is analyzed in detail to see where improvements can be made for the next race."
F1 is often seen as a development ground for technologies that filter into consumer automobiles and other products. Freescale, the company that makes the processors used in McLaren's F1 ECUs, estimates that 50 million new cars used its chips in 2010, EE Journal reported. McLaren uses modified chips, designed for telecom base stations, but its improvements will likely play out in consumer products.
As software increasingly defines automotive performance, both in cutting-edge racing machinery and standard road cars, ensuring flawless performance is essential. In the high-stakes world of F1, preventing errors in automated systems such as ECUs might be accomplished through more thorough source code analysis and the use of static analysis software.
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