Formula 1 in the supercomputer age

FORMULA 1 teams have long claimed to be at the forefront of technology but often one could argue that the sport has simply been applying aeronautical ideas to automobiles. However, in pursuit of better performance, several teams have in recent months installed "supercomputer" machinery. There was a time when only huge corporations and governments could afford supercomputers. The most powerful computers were built by the Cray company and these cost as much as $20m each. Their powers of calculation were beyond comprehension.

The problem was that there were not many Crays in the world and the competition for computer time was intense. The top F1 teams scrambled to get time on machines owned by the automobile manufacturers and technical partners in the aerospace and defence industries.

But technology has moved on. The supercomputers of yesteryear are dinosaurs and the way to get more computer power today is through large networks of powerful computers.

The supercomputers of today have software which monitors usage on a network and looks for spare processor capacity. This is called compute farming. The market leader in the industry is Sun Microsystems, a McLaren technical partner. Shortly before Christmas McLaren became the first F1 team to install a supercomputer-class system. Using Unix workstations, Solaris software and Sun's latest Technical Compute Farm system, the team now has as much computing power as it wants - for a fraction of what it would once have cost five years ago. McLaren is not saying what the system costs but the Sun TCF system starts with a 16-processor unit for $270,000.

"We're always striving to stay ahead of the competition," says McLaren Information Systems Manager Andy Knight. "And to ensure we keep pace with new technology and leading-edge solutions, we rely on Sun systems to help us get our newly-designed cars on the track fast. We're seeing reduced test times and cost of car development, leading to faster time to market. The time limitations we have, and the need to get it right the first time, every time, is key. McLaren cannot tolerate reboots, system failures or slow equipment."

Other teams are cagey about their computing power but Arrow is believed to have a similar system and we have heard whispers from Switzerland that Sauber has also invested in a supercomputer.

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