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Last Updated: Monday, 1 October 2007, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Technology powers F1 Williams team
By Monise Durrani
Click On, BBC Radio 4

The Williams Formula One car in action in Turkey
The Williams Formula 1 car in action in Turkey

As the Formula One world waits to see who will win this season's title, behind the scenes the teams are already modelling and testing the cars which will appear on the tracks next year.

Every millimetre of an F1 car is designed for speed and aerodynamics, and underpinning that refinement process is an incredible amount of technology.

Alex Burns, chief operating officer at the Williams F1 team, said the two wind tunnels at their headquarters were currently being used to model next year's car.

"It looks like a piece of industrial equipment but in fact this is precision laboratory apparatus," Mr Burns told BBC Radio 4's Click On programme.

Next year's car will not be unveiled until January and we were not allowed to get too close.

The model is covered in sensors to monitor the airflow over the car.

We're seeing this steady march to a virtual world
Alex Burns, Williams

The aim is to balance downforce, which presses the car onto the road; and drag, which is caused by turbulence and slows the car down.

More than 1,000 parameters are measured every second during a wind tunnel test, and that information is used by aerodynamicists to understand the effects of very small changes to the car's design.

Increasingly, this physical testing of cars is being complemented by computer simulations.

"This move to a virtual environment is really the big change that is happening in aerodynamics," said Mr Burns.

Computer analysis

Computer analysis known as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) allows the team to visualise the airflow over the car.

He said: "In wind tunnel tests or track tests you can't see where the air is going or where the pressures are changing.

"But with CFD you can actually look at the vortices which are being generated by items on the car or the pressures that you get at various parts of the car."

This year Williams has invested in a new supercomputer which enables them to run computer simulations much faster than in the past.

Increasingly aerodynamics are being modelled inside a super computer

A simulation which three years ago took three days to complete can now be done in four hours.

The supercomputer itself fills a room. It is made up of banks and banks of servers, all with multiple processors.

An equivalent piece of equipment could be used to run a small bank (not just one branch, but a whole bank).

It ranks in the top several hundred most powerful supercomputers in the world, according to Williams. But its exact capacity is a closely guarded secret.

"It's always interesting for other teams to know what their rivals are doing in terms of software configurations or exact number of processors, so we try not to broadcast them too much" explained Mr Burns.

He thinks that supercomputers will play an ever-more important role in designing the F1 cars of the future.

"We're seeing this steady march to a virtual world. There are regulation changes which are reducing the amount of track testing that we can do, there are limitations in terms of budget as to what we can buy to do physical testing.

'Physical test'

"Historically the computers were used to validate the physical test routines."

He added: "In the future the computers will do most of the work, and the physical tests will be used to validate the output from the computers."

And computer power is not the only technology spurred on by regulation changes.

From 2009, teams will be allowed to store and retrieve kinetic energy on the cars - effectively, allowing the cars to become hybrid vehicles.

We are really a product development house - we take emergent technologies and we convert them into products
Alex Burns, Williams

The cars will capture energy from deceleration and store for use when the car accelerates.

Alex Burns said this could give a big technology boost to the development of hybrid cars, and that the research from Formula One would filter to road car manufacture - in the way that anti-lock braking has in the past.

He said: "We live in the world of the white heat of competition. Every two weeks, we go racing, and hundreds of millions of people watch to see how we do.

"That drives some very special motivation. We are really a product development house - we take emergent technologies and we convert them into products.

"And we do that faster than any other industry on the planet. It's like warfare."

He added: "We are trying to outdo our rivals in every aspect, and that's why something like kinetic energy storage and reuse will be developed much more quickly, because it's used in Formula One."

Click On will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 1630 BST on Monday 8 October. You can also listen online for 7 days after that at Radio 4's Listen again page.

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