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Up close with AT&T Williams

F1 team banks on everything from telemetry to cloud computing from its primary technology partner throughout the race season and beyond


July 1, 2010  


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MONTREAL — There was notable disappointment for the entire AT&T Williams race team here in June at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, but palpable relief two weeks later at the European Grand Prix when Brazilian Rubens Barrichello finished fourth and gained some valuable points on the street circuit in Valencia, Spain.

Following that race, Sam Michael, AT&T Williams technical director, said he was pleased with the performance of both Barrichello and F1 rookie Nico Hulkenberg in their FW32 cars (FW being the initials of team founder Frank Williams), despite the fact the German driver had to quit the race because of a cracked exhaust tailpipe.

“Both drivers did well,” Michael said in an interview. “Nico stepped up his game in qualifying and that was good to see. Rubens delivered strongly in the race and made the very best of what he had at his disposal.”

What the entire British-based team also has at its disposal is a virtual arsenal of networking, wireless and telecommunications technologies including a suite of advanced IP Virtual Private Network services that allow the team to push telemetry to the limits.

According to an AT&T Williams fact sheet, “telemetry is the process of logging data from 100 on-car sensors, which allows the team to understand mechanical, aerodynamic and electrical/control issues with the cars.”

The data is transmitted via an encrypted radio link to the computer network at the track, and transferred back to the U.K. via the VPN service.

The amount of data transmitted back is immense. At the Spanish Grand Prix in 2007, for example, the team transferred 450 MB of data from the circuit to engineers back at Williams headquarters in Oxfordshire during the morning practice session.

At Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, upwards of 27 GB of data was uploaded over the four-day race weekend in which Hulkenberg and Barrichello finished 13th and 14th respectively.

Speaking in the Williams paddock on the Thursday before the race, Hulkenberg, who at 23, is the reigning GP2 Series champion, talked about telemetry.

As a driver, the most important thing is the data that we record for myself and my teammate,” he said. “We then compare the overlays where he is breaking, where he’s turning compared to myself.

“When you have 20 corners on a track there is always one corner where he will be quicker and another where I will be quicker. You look at what he is doing and try to do it better and that is how you push each other. That is the biggest tool for us.”

Under new rules implemented this year, each F1 race team is restricted to having only 45 technical engineers in the paddock at one time, a fact which Alex Burns, CEO of AT&T Williams, says has lead to an even greater reliance on the network.

“We need connectivity back to the U.K. at all times,” he said. “Our currency is one-tenth of a second. When we are setting up in practice we are looking to gain tenths or fractions of a 10th of a second by changing some of the parameters of the car by optimizing the car to the conditions of the circuit, the driver preferences to the tires. Bringing this car to this circuit is a unique event. We have never brought the FW32 to the Montreal Grand Prix. We have four hours of track time to optimize the car.

“A lot of that involves looking at data and using the data to help the driver optimize his driving on the circuit and help race engineers optimize the setup of the car.”

Security is also pivotal and it revolves around Enhanced Virtual Private Network Services or EVPN.

“The implication of the way in which Williams F1 needs to conduct business means that security services are forefront of mind,” says Burns. “However, these services require ongoing management, continual introduction or updating of security software or hardware, and high costs and extensive hours of skilled IT personnel time. It became clear through consultations with AT&T that the addition of their centrally managed end-to-end approach to security would benefit Williams F1.

“We have all the security concerns that businesses face with a dispersed work force as well. You want to make sure that nothing comes through the systems that can do damage to our headquarters.

“With a network-based firewall we are protecting ourselves against that very effectively and pushing all of the data out on to the AT&T cloud as well.”

AT&T’s Synaptic Storage as a Service, which was launched last year automatically scales storage capacity up or down as needed.

At the time, Adam Couture, principal research analyst with Gartner, said cloud storage holds out the promise of “enabling a new generation of storage services with flexible, on-demand capabilities that address both runaway costs and a diverse combination of changing business opportunities.”