McLaren IT chief on supercharging F1 team with hardware revamp

Computing speed boost hopes to keep Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton at the front of the grid

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season ended, the company took the decision to refresh its technology infrastructure, which was in danger of becoming outdated and expensive to support.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