The unmistakable roar of Formula One racing cars will fill Yas Island this week during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix festival that culminates in the big race on Sunday.
But, as with all F1 races, in one small room at the track, a dozen or so people will sit in silence, concentrating on every second of the race, ensuring that everything goes to plan.
The race-control room is easily the most crucial aspect for the teams and drivers taking on the 305km race at Yas Marina track. It is there that the race director and his team decide when the race begins and ends and everything else in between. The room is equipped with the latest technology to ensure a safe race and the quickest response times in case of an accident.
“We have our eyes and ears for all the track. For each corner there are two to three cameras, and we have marshals that communicate with us through the radio,” says Saeed Al Mehairi, the Yas circuit manager at Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management and the world’s first Emirati race controller.
Each person in the room has an assigned role dealing with one specific aspect of the race.
There are 42 cameras positioned all round the circuit and each can be individually controlled by the race director.
There will be some 370 marshals in place, ready to report any incident that takes place. There is one person in the control room who listens and transcribes every single word and reports it to the race director, who takes the action he deems appropriate.
“We play the most important role, we are the ones who monitor the screens. Any decisions have to come from the race director. He’s the head and we are his right hand. With more technology, we can respond much faster which makes it safe,” says Mr Al Mehairi.
Among the most advanced technologies to hand are the digital flags. The race director can communicate directly with each driver by flashing a digi-flag on a screen on the racer’s steering wheel. The colour of each flag corresponds with a different command. A yellow digi-flag tells drivers to slow down and not to overtake, a blue flag instructs a driver to let the car behind it to overtake, while a red flag is used to stop a race, flashed when the situation is deemed too dangerous to continue.
There are four ambulances on site and rescue teams aim to be at the spot of any incident within five minutes. Only the race director can send out the ambulance crew and it is thanks to the technology in the race control room and the communication with the marshals that such quick response times are possible.
One of the main ways of ensuring this is through sensors beneath each car that monitor its movement, making sure drivers do not move before the lights turn green at the start of the race. Any drivers who jump the gun will be penalised at the race director’s discretion.
But sensors play a bigger role in F1. Every car has at least 250 sensors that monitor 1,500 parameters generating 1.5 gigabytes of data over the race weekend of Friday testing, Saturday qualifying and the race itself on Sunday. Each car sends about 4 to 6 megabytes of data per lap, about the equivalent amount as makes up a digital four-minute song. The steering wheel alone has more than 100 semiconductor chips and with 30 buttons that monitor fuel consumption per lap, track temperature, humidity, the wear of tyres and many other technical details.
“The steering wheel is a computer. It is unbelievable, you can control everything with it,” says Gianluca Pilot, the motorsport engineering section head at Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management and a former engineer on the F1 Ferrari team.
“Everything in the F1 [car] is controlled and monitored, from the temperature of the tyres to the position of the throttle. Everything from the front to the rear is monitored, nothing is not checked.”
This information is all fed back through to the driver in a steady stream of communication from his pit crew and his onboard readouts, who can then make informed choices during the race.
“One of the things that makes the sport so appealing from a viewer perspective is the nuanced incorporation of technology and the emphasis on the human component,” says Jeff Darrow, the automotive segment marketing director at GlobalFoundries.
“Your average mid-range sedan will likely have more semiconductors and technologies than a Grand Prix racer. ABS, stability control, airbags – none of these are present in an F1 car,” .
“An F1 car may still have a lot of sensors, which are Mems [microelectromechanical systems]-driven, but the sensor data is interpreted by humans as opposed to chips and then verbally communicated back to the driver.
“As technology has advanced I think the sport has done an excellent job maintaining the human component to enhance the overall competitiveness and excitement,” adds Mr Darrow.
Still, technology now makes up about half the operational side of F1 racing, a seismic shift compared with 50 years ago, when almost all the responsibility lay with the driver. It is often said drivers of yesteryear would be at a loss in today’s F1 cars – and vice versa.
The likes of the current F1 drivers Lewis Hamilton and Marc Webber are great multi-taskers, able to take advice, instructions and information fed through from their team and apply that knowledge to their driving while maintaining control of the car on every lap.
“Drivers in the 1970s were more brave,” says Mr Pilot
“The car was fast and not safe like now. Back then you had 120 litres of fuel around you, now the new technology is like airplane technology, the fuel does not leak. The cars had sensors, but it has evolved. The steering wheel was basic and radio [communications with the pit crew] only started in 1977.”
The demands on drivers may have changed, but the aim of the sport has not. F1 remains the pinnacle of technology and speed, pushing limits and boundaries to achieve the seemingly impossible.