McLaren Applied Technologies

The ECU is among the hardest-working components of a modern Formula 1 car. Tim Strafford, commercial director at McLaren Applied Technologies says: “It’s responsible for all control activities on the car, from engine and gearbox control right through to controlling the driver’s drink pump. With the exception of steering and brakes, which remain largely mechanical systems, all other functions are ‘drive by wire’, meaning they are commanded via buttons and switches routed through the ECU.”

In case that is not enough to be getting on with, the ECU has to handle almost 100 data streams from sensors on the car and engine. Tim says: “The TAG-320 hosts 96 analogue inputs that are used to capture data from sensors around the car and engine. These are used for control and monitoring purposes, and all are capable of acquiring data at speeds of 10kHz or more.”

Formula 1 underwent a quiet revolution in 2013. When the cars lined up on the grid for the opening Australian Grand Prix, each had a new piece of technology at its heart – a TAG-320 engine control unit (ECU) developed and built by McLaren Applied Technologies.

The unit was developed as a replacement for the TAG-310B, another McLaren product. The FIA had introduced this in 2008 as the first Standard ECU to control both engine and chassis functions, with the aim of standardising driver aids and keeping down costs. Previously, teams and engine builders had been free to use their own units.

Tim says: “The introduction of the TAG-320 into Formula One has been very successful. It offers more performance and more features, and maintains the high level of reliability that is expected of our products.”

To cope with the demands of modern racing, the TAG-320 has twice the processing power of its predecessor. Yet the new unit is the same size and shape as the TAG-310B: a distinctive trapezoid of just 154 x 167mm across its longest axes. “It really does represent the art of the possible in terms of electronic system density,” says Tim. “We set out to produce a unit of the same dimensions, but it wasn’t long before regretted such an ambitious self-imposed target!” 

With the old TAG-310B, teams were confined to using the Standard ECU software and were locked out from running their own code. This ensured that they were unable to develop driver aids that could confer an unfair advantage. However, the architecture of the TAG-320 permits the teams to develop their own applications, subject to certain safeguards.

Tim says: “We set out to create a system that would support applications written by the teams, but with security mechanisms that could limit the authority of such applications and thus prevent teams from developing driver aids. This new feature has been used to good effect.”

Success in Formula 1 has prompted other clients to seek out the TAG-320. “It’s not surprising that a range of new opportunities have arisen for the unit,” says Tim. “One achievement has been its gradual adoption into LMP1, as the control unit of choice for manufacturers who are serious about competing at the top of the World Endurance Championship.”

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