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  • Masterpiece: a model of the W09 EQ Power+ awaits testing in the wind tunnel.
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    Every detail counts.

    The Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Formula 1 team is building on technologies of the future – in close discussion with the Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Stuttgart. A visit to Brackley, England, where world champions are made.

    Text: Markus Götting | Photos: Steve Etherington/Daimler AG, Brian Doherty

Laboratory for the future.

Sometimes just one manoeuvre is all that’s needed to make the effects of technological progress felt. That realisation is something you can experience first-hand at the headquarters of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport in Brackley. Behind locked, ­access-controlled doors, delicate items are handled by employees wearing dark team uniforms, gloves, safety goggles – sometimes even breathing apparatus. Watching them through the small windows on the ground floor, it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t just a ­racing car factory; it’s a laboratory for the future.

Clinical conditions: Brackley operates like a laboratory; maximum precision is essential.

Clinical conditions: Brackley operates like a laboratory; maximum precision is essential.

Fine mist: an employee protects himself from the overspray as he coats racing car components.

Fine mist: an employee protects himself from the overspray as he coats racing car components.

A major step.

The corridors are as clean as in a hospital, and a carbon car underbody is leaning against the wall surrounded by boxes full of equipment. Every few metres there are shelves with older components arranged on them. “Feel free to touch,” an employee says, pointing to a wheel nut that was made in 2013. “And now take this one, it was made just two years later.” It is less than half the weight of the older one. The fact that such a trivial detail constitutes a major step forward gives a sense of how quickly the car as a whole is developed.

Research hub for innovative automobile construction.

A racing car is only ever a prototype, a work in progress; a week later, it will be quite different. In the world of motorsport, standing still makes defeat inevitable next time. Formula 1 is not just about entertainment and high-tech sport. First and foremost, it’s a research hub for innovative automobile construction. These cars collect vast quantities of data in development, with the materials and mechanics tested in extreme conditions and subjected to real-time virtual analysis.

Precision work: the components have formidable demands placed on them, with tolerances a matter of mere micrometres and nanometres.

Precision work: the components have formidable demands placed on them, with tolerances a matter of mere micrometres and nanometres.

Time to refuel: the international team of specialists on their lunch break.

Time to refuel: the international team of specialists on their lunch break.

Expertise.

Since Mercedes and its team became involved, expertise has been flowing in both directions – from the Stuttgart headquarters to Brackley, and back. Even the truck division of Mercedes-Benz played a role in helping the Mercedes team win four consecutive ­Formula 1 world championships. And many features which are now standard in everyday cars were first developed for motorsport: all-wheel drive, gas ­turbines, electronic clutch and active suspension for example, ­together with mobile data logging and aluminium and titanium components. Carbon fibre was used origi­nally in aerospace technology, before making its way via Formula 1 to vehicle construction. More ­recently, in 2009 Formula 1 saw the implementation of KERS, which uses recovery energy to give the combustion engine additional electrical thrust.

Efficiency is Andy Cowell’s favourite word.

Probably the best hybrid engine constructed today comes from Brixworth, about 50 kilometres from Brackley. Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains – the name makes the company’s goal perfectly clear. Managing Director Andy Cowell, 49, and his 500-strong team are working on an engine with output exceeding 735 kW – the exact figure is a trade secret. Cowell tells us that in terms of technology, KERS was just the beginning, and with 60 kW gave relatively little electrical support. Today’s system generates twice as much power at the rear axle and is fed from two sources: brake energy and the heat from the turbocharger. Efficiency is Andy Cowell’s favourite word – a mantra in his job.

He says, “Formula 1 is one of the best platforms in the world for optimising machinery and system efficiency. This will also push electrification forward.” Now that sustainability and responsibility for resources have also become standard in motorsport, the teams have to get through the season with just three 1.6-litre engines. Durability is essential. Refuelling is prohibited. “So if range is a concern,” says Andy Cowell, “you have to make sure that every element is as efficient as possible.”

High tech still benefits from the skilled hands of precision engineers.

High tech still benefits from the skilled hands of precision engineers.

“A perfect union.”

The important thing now is to connect the combustion engine and the electrical modules as seamlessly as possible, so the driver can’t tell whether their car is running on electricity or on petrol. As things stand today, Cowell observes, electrical and traditional engines are “a perfect union”: the battery for starting off the grid or accelerating when overtaking, the combustion engine for cruising speed. In a plug-in hybrid the two technologies are combined, functioning in a similar way to the engine of Lewis Hamilton’s W09 EQ Power+. And this is where the support of the truck division was so important: the team in Brixworth benefitted greatly from the truck division’s knowledge of turbochargers.

The super brain of artificial intelligence.

The engineers on both sites have to address similar questions, of efficiency for one thing, and data handling for another. Geoff Willis, 58, is the director of Digital Engineering Transformation, the super brain of artificial intelligence and machine learning. White-haired and wearing dark chinos, he sits in a glass meeting room at the F1 headquarters. Just a few steps away in the next room, you can look down at test stands on which his people can simulate anything that might happen to a racing car, and the wind tunnel is less than three hundred metres away on site. Geoff Willis notes: “The digital world is the driving force of our time. We work in virtual spaces here, but can validate the data in real life on the race circuit.”

Geoff Willis is responsible for the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Geoff Willis is responsible for the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The virtual world is indispensable for the elite category of motorsport.

The virtual world is indispensable for the elite category of motorsport.

Complex simulation models.

It’s clear to see how closely race sport and the ­automotive industry cooperate from the direction of development. Supercomputers can be used to create incredibly complex simulation models: How does a car behave in different situations? The difference is the objective in mind – on the road, safety and comfort are the priority, while in Formula 1, only one thing matters: pure performance.

Looks like the digital Dark Ages.

Anyone who had the chance to look inside a pit wall in the 1990s would have thought they were looking at a vision of the future. Monitors displayed telemetric data in colourful curves, while the car lapped the circuit. That looks like the digital Dark Ages from today’s perspective. The “Race Support Room” feels like a cross between an auditorium for 30 spectators and Ground Control at NASA. On race weekends, the engineers who don’t travel to the circuit come here. From England, they analyse all the data transmitted by hundreds of car sensors; they watch what is happening to the competition and pass their information directly to the pit wall. James Vowles sits here too. He decides on the strategy.

James Vowles, 38, speaks precisely and doesn’t waste words. In 1995, he says, a racing car collected data on 16 channels. Nowadays, it uses 50,000. “Data processing and machine learning will fundamentally change our work,” he says, “and we’re only just getting started.” The trick is to interpret the data correctly. Computers are already of vital importance when interpreting data, James Vowles says, “but ultimately we’re the ones who have to gauge or anticipate the race situation. We are still better at that than any computer.” So the critical factor is still the human element.