Exceptional driver skill or supreme race car? The debate between what is the most important factor in grand prix racing has long been discussed. One thing that isn’t in doubt is the complexity of modern-day Formula 1 cars.
The chassis is made up of around 11,000 components, the engine 6,000 parts, and the electronics another 8,500. That’s over 25,000 separate bits which are at risk of failing during a grand prix.
So, what turns these complex series of instruments into a single, well-tuned V6 orchestra? That would be the brain of the F1 car – McLaren Applied’s electronic control unit (ECU).
McLaren Applied took the brave step to expand its motorsport electronics business over two decades ago by offering complete electronic control systems to F1 teams. Since then, Applied Technologies has been supplying unrivalled high-performance hardware and software to race series across the world, from the World Endurance Championship to IndyCar and NASCAR in North America, and most recently, Formula E.
In 2007 the FIA chose McLaren Applied to be the sole supplier of ECUs to reduce the mounting costs of competing in Formula 1. The ECUs have been re-engineered over time to ensure compatibility with the turbocharged parallel hybrid engines that power F1 cars today.
We look at what exactly an ECU is, what it does and why F1 teams need it.
What is an electronic control unit (ECU)?
The ECU is essentially a small but very powerful computer that controls, processes and transmits vast quantities of data from the F1 cars to the teams.
What does an ECU do?
The ECU provides control for a variety of systems including the engine, gearbox, differential, throttle, clutch, energy recovery system (ERS) and the drag reduction system (DRS). It is also the primary data logging service which feeds live data – via telemetry – to the teams and race control. This allows teams to visualise the capability and performance of their cars in real-time, including engine health, tyre degradation and fuel consumption.
With help from over 300 sensors on each car, McLaren’s F1 ECU deals with over 1000 input parameters and transmits more than 1.5GB of live data back to the garage during an average 300km grand prix.
During a two-hour race, the ECU will receive and send over 750 million data points. That’s twice as many words as each of us will speak in a lifetime.
Why do F1 cars need an ECU?
Due to the complexity of the various systems inside an F1 car imposed by engines with exceptionally tight tolerances, seamless-shift gearboxes and various drive-by-wire controls, there is a requirement for one master control system in the car.
The complexity becomes even greater when there is a requirement to control several different engine manufacturers, with several different gearboxes; all using a single hardware and embedded software platform. Also, the system must support different telemetry systems between car and garage and provide the ability to use different data systems in the garage.
Teams and the FIA also rely on real-time data to make strategic decisions during races, hence the necessity for a high-powered data logger.
Where is the ECU fitted on the 2018 F1 cars?
The ECU is typically positioned underneath the radiator or low inside the cockpit alongside the driver, depending on what the individual car build permits.
What do the teams do when they receive an ECU from McLaren?
McLaren provides the ECU which includes a software framework defined by the FIA so every team is on a level playing field. It’s then up to the teams and their embedded software engineers to write code to build gearbox, engine, hybrid and ERS strategies.
How long does it take to manufacture?
It takes approximately 121 hours in total to complete the ECU build. 7983 components are intricately fixed in place using exactly 28620 solder joints. The ECU is also put through a rigorous testing process at the same place they’re manufactured, the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey. The ECU is built to withstand extreme temperatures and violent vibrations.
The McLaren ECU has set a benchmark in the history of high-performance motorsport electronics. Today, McLaren’s capabilities in electronic systems have taken us into the automotive, public transport and health markets, applying the same fearlessness we have shown in motorsport.
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