Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Electronic control units - A closer look at the McLaren/Microsoft ECU partnership

Published by Mr. C

The F1 world should start waking up sometime during the next couple of days. The summer break has been a welcome relief from the non-stop controversy of the 2007 season, but before we jump on the treadmill again I thought it'd be worth looking into the Electronic Control Unit contention bubbling under the surface.

Back in July 2006 the FIA awarded the sole supply of Formula 1 ECU's to a joint venture by Microsoft / McLaren Electronic Systems. At the time there was a question mark over the choice, given that Magneti Marelli arguably had more experience in building F1 control units for multiple teams, but beyond the odd whisper not much was said at the time.

During the past couple of weeks the issue has come to the fore again. With teams beginning 2008 testing during the recent run at Spa Francorchamps they had a chance to try out the new boxes and by all accounts things haven't been going too well. Firstly we had Flavio deriding the system, proclaiming his cars unable to start when the devices fitted, then Mario Theissen chimed in suggesting that they too experienced some pretty big issues.

Clive has some thoughts on the matter, and by and large I agree with him, but I also want to take a slightly different look at the situation. A look from a technical perspective.

Last month MES partner (and the bane of every office workers life) Microsoft, released a case study detailing their new involvement in Formula 1. Here's what they had to say about it:

As part of the system, the information is mapped and configured using Excel. In addition, Microsoft SQL Server, combined with SharePoint Services, manages data from the car's disparate data sources.

Uh-huh, so they're planning on setting up a Formula 1 car using Excel, are they? I think we can see the real reason team bosses are freaking out!

In all seriousness that case study actually contains a whole bunch of decent information as to how the system will work. We already knew the reason for the introduction was to prevent illegal driver aids, to increase efficiency and to enable the FIA to monitor testing mileage. What I found interesting though was the fact that Microsoft have been partnering the McLaren team since 1999 and also that the first units were delivered to teams at the beginning of 2007.

This last fact is key, because it raises the question of why the complaints have started now, and why the intrinsic problems associated with plugging in a new box were not ironed out in the factories earlier this year?

I'm wondering if it has any bearing on the subject we briefly touched upon during last week's show?

In the recently released FIA document entitled Formula One 2011: Chassis Regulation Framework the governing body states:

The under-tray will be specified by the Overtaking Working Group and designed to produce the aerodynamic characteristics required and to be mechanically stiff so that aero-elasticity issues are avoided. The part is not only to be prescribed, but also supplied by a third party.

While in this months Racecar Engineering magazine Patrick Head is quoted as saying, "All the cars are going to have the same running gear on them which will be the responsibility of the team that won the 2007 World Championship."

As we pointed out during the show, this brings a whole new dimension to the Ferrari / McLaren controversy, but after more thought I think it may also have bearing on the ECU issue too. If it makes sense to have a single under-tray then it also makes sense for a current Formula 1 team to design and build that part because no-one has more knowledge and experience of the car's floor than actual teams. And if you have to pick someone, then best to choose the World Championship winning team, as presumably they have the best car. Right?

Right now McLaren are on course to win that championship this year and what the FIA have inadvertently caused is the potential that two major elements of an F1 car will be built by a single manufacturer. As we said before, there's not going to be much Ferrari inside a Ferrari soon and that must be causing certain team principles a few sleepless nights.

Back to the original FIA decision, Microsoft are a pretty big company and there has long been rumour of sponsorship involvement from them, but nothing has ever materialised. Do you think that Max's choice may have been swayed by the concept of bringing such a massive organisation into the motorsport world?

In truth I suspect Microsoft has very little to do with development of the onboard embedded systems. I would imagine that most work in Redmond comes at the other end of the system, with data analysis and information gathering. As you'd expect, the MES website details a whole bunch of products relating to telemetry capture and the like.

I'm sure this debate is only going to get more heated as time progresses and the more the governing body continues to pursue the single-supplier route of manufacturing race cars, it's only going to get worse.

Now might not be a good time to raise the prospect of a McLaren backed ProDrive team entering the sport next year. They're taking over the whole paddock!