How do you drive a supercomputer round a Formula 1 track?

Lotus F1 team gives El Reg a sneak peek into its pits

Tellytubbies, teraflops and traditional tech

“Welcome to Tellytubby land,” says Luca as we walk across the site to the CFD team. Lotus shifted a good chunk of a small hill out of the way to pour the concrete to create the centre, before turfing it back over again. You walk in via a long, slightly beigey concrete corridor, before hitting a central chamber with a gleaming (mock-up) F1 car illuminated by some very tasteful skylights. If you wanted to design a burial mound for a Silicon Age potentate, this would be a good starting point.

Through a glass wall to our left is the CFD developer team. Go through a heavy door opposite, and you’re in the actual computer room. The power kit runs on the left side, with four sets of racks in regulation Lotus black ranged across the rest of the room.

How much computing power do you need to simulate a wind tunnel? Lotus’s beast runs at 32.5 teraflops, and packs in 10,000GB of RAM, with 1PB of storage, and generates 10TB of data a week.

That might not actually trouble the Top 500 supercomputer list, where number 500 kicks in at 96 teraflops. But then again, F1 teams are bound by those restrictions on how much computing power they can actually deploy, in an effort to level the field and enable smaller less resourced teams compete with the monsters.

The blades themselves are HP BL280cs, with each node running 12 cores with 36GB of memory. Storage and networking kit are a bit of a grey area. The team has just struck a deal with EMC, but on the day we were there, there were piles of Panasus branded cardboard boxes piled to one side.

lotus F1 team's supercomputer

Boeing is a "silent" partner

The Boeing name was slapped on the ends of one of the racks. The aerospace company provides its CFD mathematical nouse and software to the team, and in return gets to enjoy the benefits of its aerodynamic developments. Developments which can come at a much faster pace that in the comparatively slow moving world of aircraft design.

Luca is acutely aware of the objections some eco-minded folks might throw at F1 racing. According to the FIA, a team will typically burn through 200,000 litres of fuel per season, covering testing and racing. Bear in mind this isn’t the regular unleaded you get down your local Shell. And that’s even before the whole caravanserai needed to get an F1 team around the world is brought into play. (When we moved on to to Silverstone that day, we had lunch in the Lotus team garage. It was certainly the best steak and red wine we’ve had in what was effectively a very luxurious pop-up diner)

Luca’s answer, and we’re guessing a well-rehearsed one, is that achieving a 1 per cent reduction in drag, would result in a 14 per cent reduction in an aeroplane’s fuel consumption. A case study with Nissan meant an existing roadcar design could be optimised to achieve a 4 per cent reduction in drag, which would deliver a 40 per cent reduction in fuel consumption. And the regulations for the 2014 season will effectively demand a 40 per cent drop in fuel consumption as engine size drops from 2.4 liters to 1.6 liters.

While we love a good room full of racks, a super computer is still a super computer. Almost as noisy, yet not quite as sexy as a racing car.

However, we did get to see cutting edge technology we hadn’t seen before when we were escorted back over to the main building to see the factory.

When we step inside the hangar-sized doors, the first benches we see are pretty much what you’d see in traditional a mechanic's workshop: large vices and wrenches, grimy fingered young men, and a very analogue looking radio. This team produce the exhausts - Lotus is one of the last teams to produce its own pipes, and very fine looking pieces of work they are. Smooth welds, shining alloy and light as a feather compared to the Victorian pipework that’s strapped under our own car.

The rest of the floor is given over to a series of room sized machines that mill, turn and otherwise cut the metal parts.

Lotus F1 car rear view

If you can see this... you're losing

As Luca put it, it takes six weeks of programming to get to the stage where one of the machines will spend 12 hours cutting a part. These will cut the high nickel alloys, tungsten, titanium and other other exotic metals used in engine and chassis parts. Again, it puts today’s buzz about 3D printing into perspective.

Titanium, for example, will be cut with a charged brass wire in a process called “wire erosion”. Similarly, to make a hole – such as a socket for a carbon fibre strut – the material is shaped using a charged piece of graphite.

On the other side of a window, in a separate clean room, another bunch of - mainly - guys wearing hairnets are using what appear to be hair dryers and paint stripper to shape sheets of carbon fibre.

It’s not unusual for new parts to be spat out even as race weekends kick off, with staffers telling tales of having to schlep across the world with ten or 20 pieces of “excess” luggage to ensure the trackside engineers have all the parts they need come race day.

So how do you attach carbon fibre to metal? In as light a manner as possible? You glue it, of course.

But whizzing around at over 200 miles per hour in a car that is “glued together” might leave some drivers feeling a bit nervous. So, according to Luca, “we call it ‘bonding’ to make it sound better.” Similarly, the carbon fibre isn’t heated up, bent into shape then left to cool. It’s “cured”.

Which perhaps sums up the slice of the strange topsy-turvy world of F1 that we got to see. A petrolhead's dream, which is underpinned by supercomputer cycles and 3D printing technology. A world where highly paid young men hit 220mph in cars that are largely “bonded” together and composed of parts spat out by a machine hours before a race. And a world where the allocation of techies is treated like a state secret. ®

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