Spring training is in full bloom — and not just for the sport often associated with it.
While major league baseball players assemble in the warm climes of Arizona and Florida to whip their arms and bats into shape for the rigors of a 162-game season, a gaggle of engineers, mechanics and three-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton are putting his Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport race car through the paces, and laps, at Circuit de Barcelona track.
It's winter test season before the 20-race F1 campaign that starts March 26 in Melbourne. Dramatic rule changes to boost speeds for the first time in more than 50 years have revolutionized design of the cars, their internal technology and the strategy of the drivers behind their computerized steering wheels. Formula One officials opted for more speed after years of regulations to enhance safety.
"We're very happy with the car at the moment," Geoff Willis, technology director for Mercedes, says of new regulations that allow for bigger, wider rear tires that have reduced lap times by 2 to 3 seconds.
The radical rule changes have prompted the 10 competing teams — Mercedes' chief rivals are Scuderia Ferrari and Red Bull Racing — to redesign, engineer and manufacture various car parts. Even the steering wheel, which costs up to $35,000 on an F1 car, has evolved for the everyday commuter, with a series of buttons for changing radio stations, monitoring fuel efficiency and navigating streets.
For the first time in decades, regulations have been changed to increase speed, prompting the competing teams (each has two cars) to pour millions of dollars into the redesign, engineering and manufacturing of their sleek racing machines.
"It has put even more of an emphasis on one's technology portfolio," says Willis. "You look at every bit you can do, and improve them all."
As the defending world championship team, Mercedes-AMG Petronas boasts Hamilton, considered the best driver in the world; the biggest budget in the sport; a team of technicians with backgrounds in NASA and the military; and, arguably, the best cars.
The foundation of its recent success, in large part, is underpinned by technology. Pure Storage and Qualcomm are among Mercedes' partners in what has increasingly become a tech arms race. Advances in car technology mirror what's happening in Silicon Valley, where Tesla Motors and Google are developing self-driving cars with sophisticated braking systems, and among the major automakers, who are rapidly transforming their machines into over-sized computing devices.
During a typical race, dozens of people from each of the F1 circuit's teams monitor car performance while navigating a phalanx of cables, super-charged PCs and thousands of car parts within a confined space.
Within the bowels of a team's garage — adjacent to its pit stop — a team of engineers, illuminated by the blue glow of their laptops, electronically monitor a "continual loop" of information. That's everything from a car's barometric pressure and computerized steering wheel to aerodynamics and mechanical balance. In all, there are 35,000 channels of data that is sliced, diced and analyzed.
By the time the season rolls on to Barcelona for its fifth race on May 14, expect plenty of upgrades and adjustments to each of the 20 cars. "It's a great new challenge from an engineering perspective," Willis says.
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