Why McLaren F1 is hoping radio tech can put it back in pole position

Formula One teams claim to have been doing ‘big data’ since before the term was coined and significant resources have been spent in recent years to improve communications between tracks around the world and team bases.

The better use of data can be the difference between winning or losing a race. Superfast connections transmit this information from the paddock to headquarters, but what about the journey from the car to the paddock?

This has traditionally been achieved using microwaves, with flimsy antennas on the nose of the car sending data from sensors back to engineers in the garage. In a sport obsessed with aerodynamics, weight and design it is curious that more attention hasn’t been paid to its design.

McLaren's goal

McLaren, one of the most famous names in motorsport, has bucked the trend by working with antenna specialists Airgain. The partnership is only a few weeks old, but Airgain’s technology will be used for the 2018 F1 season and was ready for McLaren’s tests in Barcelona earlier this month.

The hope is that by placing antennas into the mirror, they can reduce the weight of the car and improve air flow, giving the team an advantage over the competition.

“In F1 we’re looking for every edge we can find,” Tim Goss, McLaren’s chassis CTO tell TechRadar Pro. “The big tickets are aerodynamics, the tyres, the powertrain. But we don’t just top looking at the big-ticket items. We’re pushing to get every part of performance.

“There’s always areas we can improve, we’d be out of a job if we couldn’t. Every now again there is something surprising that comes along.

“The fundamentals of an F1 car have been the same since the sport started: an engine a chassis and four wheels. One of the reasons the cars get quicker is we understand how they work better and what the opportunities are. If we didn’t have wireless technology and sensors and receivers then we wouldn’t know about the types of things [that can improve performance].”

Goss has been in the sport for 26 years and has had a front row seat to observe the increasing volume of data and how important it has become. When he started, teams would download the data in the car overnight and try and use it for the next race. Now, this data can be analysed in real time for immediate improvement.

Quality data

Gigabytes of data are collected from hundreds of sensors in a single practice session and that’re before you consider things like video data, which can reach up to 80GB. Important metrics like tyre pressure and lap modelling would simply be impossible without the systems on board.

This means that any gains in chassis performance cannot be to the detriment of the data quality. Formula one tracks are extremely ‘noisy’ environments when it comes to radio traffic and the environments can be harsh. The technology must be durable to cope with conditions and last a whole season.

But this is not a concern for Goss.

“Their team of engineers know their product and they know what they’re doing,” he says. “It’s a fraction of the weight of the [previous] antenna and it’s smaller which allows us to rethink how we package it.

“We’re told the data quality and the size of the new antennas means it can go into a mirror.”

Of course, any innovation within the sport can only remain a secret for so long and Goss admits that other teams will catch wind if it delivers a noticeable improvement for McLaren.

“if you know something about a performance opportunity from one of your competitors then you go and look at it,” he says.

Airgain ambition

For Airgain, the benefits of the partnership are obvious. Formula One has long been a testing ground for road car technologies and the marketing advantages of being featured on McLaren’s livery are significant, especially since it hasn’t done any marketing.

Its ambition is to crack the connected car industry and because McLaren is a technology company as well as a motorsport team, it offers a chance for Airgain to scale up.

“We tend not do not much for mobile devices because the product cycle is so short and we don’t make enough money,” Airgain CEO Chuck Myers tells TechRadar Pro. “We tend to work in things like small cells or wireless access points, cars, machines and a ton of IoT devices.

“Everything we do is IoT. IoT has been defined as a market of anything up to $250bn a year. It’s not just door bells and smoke sensors. We believe the biggest piece of our business will be the automotive sector.

“We started with discussions with the chip companies and actually started looking at Formula E because of the connected aspect. But those conversations morphed into talking with F1 tams. We were looking for a partner, not just a sponsorship agreement.

“McLaren is different because some F1 teams aren’t integrated with the manufacturers whereas McLaren is. We weren’t looking for a big order, but a platform to develop our technologies in a harsh environment.

“If we can do this [for McLaren], then imagine what we can do for your production car.”

5G Future

Formula One testing took place in Barcelona the same week as Mobile World Congress (MWC), with the Circuit de Catalunya is just 35 minutes away from the conference’s location at the Gran Fira.

Myers took a keen interest in the news coming out of MWC around 5G, even if it isn’t that interested in mobiles, especially with regards to standardisation.

The first 5G standard was finalised late last year, allowing manufacturers all the way down the supply chain to accelerate development. It’s also a member of the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) so it can help get its views across to the rest of the industry and it is more concerned about the materials of cars blocking signals rather than spectrum squabbles.

“We’re excited about 5G, a lot of the products we’re working on you won’t see until; 2020, 2021 as that’s where our focus has been,” he explains. “You’ve got to start somewhere so you need the standard.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.