McLaren Group is revamping the hardware across its business as it seeks to supercharge the computing power its staff have access to.

Alongside the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula One team, the McLaren Group also runs engineering, electronics and marketing divisions and is expanding with the addition of a road car business.

A few years ago, the group had what group IT director Ian Robinson calls a “patchwork quilt” of technology which included Unix workstations, various types of PCs and terminal services.

Towards the end of 2008, the McLaren Group realised it needed to modernise its technology infrastructure at its McLaren Technology Centre headquarters (MTC) – the high-tech Norman Foster-designed home of the F1 team as well as several other divisions – to help the group deal with a growing business.

Jenson Button driving F1 car

The current F1 world champion Jenson Button in this season’s McLaren car
(Photo credit: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes)

When the 2008 F1 season ended, the company took the decision to refresh its technology infrastructure, which was in danger of becoming outdated and expensive to support.

McLaren turned to Lenovo as its tech partner of choice, citing the company’s track record with complex, high-profile global events such as the Olympic Games, making it well-versed in the demands the F1 team in particular would place on the technology.

One of the first areas where the company focused on overhauling hardware was the hugely successful Formula One team around which the rest of the company has grown.

In order to develop an F1 car, there is a constant need to redesign components in response to data produced by wind tunnel work and computational fluid dynamics (CFD), an advanced aerodynamics technology to simulate how air flows across the car’s bodywork.

“The amount of change that goes on from one race to another is phenomenal. We are looking to redesign that car within the rule book every four to six weeks,” Robinson said.

The greatest need for a technology refresh therefore was in the F1 team’s computer aided design (CAD) department, which make the refinements necessary to keep cars at the front of the grid. By refreshing its tech, the team would be able to develop the car much more rapidly and effectively during the season.

Until the end of 2008, the 120-strong CAD team was suffering under the dual burden of ageing hardware and software: its relatively old Unix workstations were becoming difficult and expensive to source while the makers of the Catia design software used by the team, Dassault Systemes, would soon withdraw support of the Unix version of their technology in favour of Microsoft’s Windows platform.

The company therefore decided to replace its Unix hardware with Lenovo ThinkStation S20 workstations, a project that had to keep downtime to an absolute minimum to give staff the longest amount of time possible to work on the car.

In order to carry out the migration as quickly and efficiently as possible, McLaren worked with IT services company AVC Europe. The company completed the migration of its engineering department – which includes the CAD team – onto the Lenovo workstations in just nine days between the German and Hungarian Grand Prix in July 2009, equating to just three hours of downtime per user.

As a result of the migration, the design team managed to speed up the…

…development process from screen to manufacture – for example, the time taken for changes made on screen to be translated to the primary assembly drawings which the manufacturing team use to set up their machines when making components now takes just 25 per cent of the time as it did before.

The migration to the Lenovo workstations also allowed the team to have a single interface to access their CAD system, email and office applications – previously they had to carry out these different tasks on separate machines.

The team started the 2009 season with an uncompetitive car due to focusing on the development of the 2008 car to secure the Formula One title. But thanks to the aerodynamic and engineering development work which the new hardware helped speed up, by the middle of the season Lewis Hamilton was winning the Hungarian Grand Prix, adding a second victory in Singapore.

The Lenovo workstations and notebooks are now making their way to other parts of the company – such as the CFD department, composites manufacture, inspection and assembly – as the company works to have the same technology use across the whole McLaren Group.

McLaren is also using Lenovo D20 workstations – more powerful than those used by the design team thanks to the incredibly complex calculations they deal with – used to run simulations of how air flows over the body parts of the car. Since their introduction, Robinson said they have increased the amount of simulations they can do in the same time period by up to 60 per cent.

McLaren team using Lenovo notebooks

The trackside team have been using Lenovo notebooks since the beginning of the 2009 Formula One season
(Photo credit: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes)

As for the rest of the racing team, the trackside crew were upgraded to Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks and workstations for the first race of 2009, which significantly increased the possibilities of out-thinking the other teams due to the greater computing power at their disposal.

In the run up to race weekends, as well as the Grand Prix itself, a group of strategy experts within the F1 team run thousands of simulations per second of how the race could play out in terms of fuel strategy, changing weather conditions and the impact of a safety car.

By running these simulations, the team is able to make rapid decisions when situations change during a race. If, for example it starts to rain and a safety car is brought out, the team can predict the outcome of several different options open to them and which one is most likely to result in them making up places. As a result of the data crunching, the team can work out when to bring in their cars to change tyres in order to put them back into the race in a good position. If the team makes the wrong call and end up being overtaken as they come out of the pit lane, the race may be ruined.

McLaren Group has recently completed the deployment of Lenovo ThinkStations, ThinkPads and ThinkVision monitors in its new McLaren Automotive division – which is located in a new purpose-built factory next to the MTC and will produce the MP4-12C sports car.

The deployment will provide the new division with CAD capabilities that match the F1 side of the business and mean it will be on the same technology infrastructure as the established divisions.

According to Robinson, the introduction of Lenovo hardware represents a significant step up in the computing power the team had at its disposal both at the racetrack and back at the MTC. “Behind the scenes is a huge punch in terms of computing power,” he said.

The Lenovo hardware has also had an impact on the company’s energy use. The old Unix workstations used about 1KW of power when operating and were also inefficient when in sleep mode. In contrast, the Lenovo S20 machines run at 78W and 7.8W when in sleep mode.

There are now around 500 Lenovo workstations deployed at the MTC, which the company estimates will save around £50,000 in energy costs in 2010, the second year of their operation.