Engineering technology of the future
Mark Smyth spoke to the group IT boss of Williams F1 and engineering on a recent visit to SA
There was a time when being the group IT director of an automotive company meant making sure your Microsoft Office licences were in place and trying to save money on the cost of PCs.
How times have changed. Today, the role is more crucial as technology has been thrust to the forefront with connectivity, in-car Wi-Fi, electric vehicles and autonomous driving.
While most of the attention is on the tech people at the big brand car makers, it is the companies behind the scenes that are making many of the advancements. Williams is known mostly for its F1 team, but its engineering division is a key player in the future of the automotive industry and its group chief information officer, Graeme Hackland, has a great deal on his plate.
South African Hackland was visiting SA to meet with one of his IT partners, Avanade, a development company of Accenture. He says the company has been key in reducing the amount of IT infrastructure required trackside at an F1 race and also of improving those all-important pit-stop times.
Hackland joined Williams F1 in 2014 after a number of years with both the Jaguar and Renault F1 teams. He criticises those who say that driving a F1 car is easier today than in the 1980s, pointing out that there is far more technology drivers have to deal with. In what is often called the heydays of F1, drivers only had to concentrate on the driving aspect. Today, he says, they have to be able to drive and change settings, adjust strategy and understand what the tech such as DRS is doing in the car.
The cars themselves generate huge amounts of data too, which is analysed by the trackside team or back at the Williams base in the UK. An example is the crucial start when the lights go out. We all know the technology, but fascinatingly, it is data that decides exactly where the clutch bite point is on the car. Data accumulated during Friday practice is analysed that night and the team then make their clutch selection based on it.
As I was chatting to Hackland, news came in that practice for the Shanghai GP had been cancelled on the Friday. Suddenly the team was pushed into having to make a decision on the Saturday morning, losing the chance to work on the car on Friday night after receiving that all-important data.
These days, Williams operates much like Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari’s passion was always for racing and the road car division basically funded its track activities. The same is true today and also at Williams, where boss Sir Frank Williams wanted a separate income stream, essential for those seasons when revenue from F1 is not so strong.
It has sponsors, of course, most notably Martini in recent years. Interestingly, Hackland says it was Martini that wanted Felipe Massa to come back to the team after retiring in 2016. The famous drinks brand wanted a driver older than 25 who would be able to drink in countries that F1 visits where the drinking rules demand an older age than many current F1 drivers. Perhaps James Bond was not available.
It is appropriate to mention Bond, because Williams developed the Jaguar C-X75 electric hybrid supercar in just 18 months in order for it to make its appearance in Spectre. It was a short timeline, but one which Hackland says showed the strength of Williams’ expertise.
The C-X75 was a public project for Williams, but Hackland and his team have been instrumental in many other models.
Williams was influential in development of the Nissan Blade Glider concept. It also worked on the GT-R that broke the lap record at the Nurburgring. The company developed the electric Aston Martin Rapide concept and is working on a secret electric vehicle for a luxury car maker (I promised Hackland I wouldn’t get him into trouble by revealing who it is).
In these days of outsourcing and collaboration it is no
surprise the expertise of Williams Advanced Engineering is being called on. Hackland says the company is genuinely at the forefront of electric vehicles (EV) mainly because manufacturers can’t do it themselves.
In April the company was part of a consortium that won an Advanced Propulsion Centre contract in the UK to build a high performance, flexible battery manufacturing facility. A major element of the facility will be the battery that Williams developed for Aston Martin, which is also a partner in the consortium.
Not surprisingly Hackland and his colleagues are thinking ahead. Battery technology is advancing rapidly, in part through motorsport series such as Formula E where Williams runs the Jaguar team. A key element of the series is that the battery is an integral part of the race car chassis, a design set to become more prevalent in road EVs in the future. He says the 500km range being touted by manufacturers like Porsche and Jaguar in the next few years is achievable, but he is working on practical charging solutions.
His next target is to finalise solutions for charging on-the-move. He says this is still far away but charging infrastructure built into the road or along the side of the road is a major goal. He is even looking at solutions for the truck industry where solar panels on truck trailers could be an option for on-the-move charging.
You would think that with F1 and EV development going on, there would be little time for anything else. But there is. Williams has developed special fridges that feature a massive 30% reduction in energy usage for UK supermarket Sainsbury’s as well as a number of medical solutions, particularly for hospital infant care.
So you see, being an IT director in the modern automotive age has never been so interesting or so very cool.