Still high on adrenaline from Fernando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson’s epic car swap at Bahrain International Circuit, we explain why Formula 1 and NASCAR have more in common than you might think.
And it’s all down to McLaren Applied Technologies.
The electronic control unit (ECU) is essentially a small but very powerful computer that controls, processes and transmits vast quantities of data from the race car to the team.
McLaren Applied Technologies has been the sole supplier of ECUs to Formula 1 and NASCAR since 2008 and 2012 respectively, and the ECUs vary in sophistication according to the individual requirements of the series.
Like its predecessor – the TAG-310B which was used from 2008 to 2012 – our TAG-320 ECU is a fundamental part of the entire Formula 1 electronic ecosystem. It controls the engine, gearbox, differential, throttle, clutch, energy recovery system (ERS) and the drag reduction system (DRS).
In NASCAR, the TAG-400N controls the big V8 pushrod engines, namely ignition and firing of injectors. It sounds simple, but electronic fuel injection was a quantum leap for a series that had been using carburettors for 60 years until McLaren Applied Technologies came along.
It meant that a series which was renowned for being very fast, powerful and loud, became far more efficient. So much so, that NASCAR is now achieving 25% better fuel mileage than it was just 10 years ago.
A unique strength of an ECU designed and built by McLaren Applied Technologies is its security. Whether it’s the FIA, NASCAR, or the sanctioning body of any other series, they are supplied with all the data from the ECU and from there can determine who sees what. On the other hand, teams can see the specific data from their own cars, but not beyond what the sanctioning body allows.
Our ECUs are also very reliable. Since the TAG-400N was introduced in 2012, there hasn’t been a single ECU failure on track. That amounts to over three million miles of racing.
Sensors are vital to the safe and competitive operation of race cars, and McLaren Applied Technologies has been at the cutting-edge of sensor technology in Formula 1 for decades.
Unlike a Formula 1 car, stock cars don’t have tyre pressure or chassis sensors. However, both have engine, brake pressure, and steering sensors – many of which we provide.
The brake pressure sensors used in NASCAR are very similar to the standard pressure sensors used across a Formula 1 car’s engine.
The common denominator?
Yes, you guessed it. McLaren Applied Technologies.
We supply both, with the FIA choosing us to be the trusted sole supplier of engine pressure and temperature sensors to Formula 1 since the start of 2018.
But just what makes McLaren Applied Technologies sensors so good?
They are lightweight, highly accurate and relentlessly reliable. It’s what competitors demand and expect, and what the McLaren name guarantees.
When it comes to telemetry, both series use the same advanced data-visualisation software from McLaren Applied Technologies. It’s called ATLAS (Advanced Telemetry Linked Acquisition System).
More than 300 sensors on a Formula 1 car, throughout the engine and chassis, dwarf the number on a stock car. It’s therefore unsurprising that the number of data inputs on a Formula 1 car run easily into the thousands, whereas in a NASCAR stock car it’s a case of hundreds.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this comparative lack of data means ATLAS is of lesser importance in NASCAR. It’s crucial for teams to monitor engine performance parameters.
Over the course of a race – or indeed, any test, practice or qualifying session – it amounts to millions of individual data points. Combine that with other relevant data, such as the location and speed of the car on track compared with every other car, and you have a vast wealth of information, be it Formula 1 or NASCAR.
For Fernando and Jimmie, the use of ATLAS is familiar to both. The difference is that the engineers who run the software have their own preferences as to how the information is displayed. While the software is identical, the way the information is presented is entirely customisable.
Fernando and Jimmie each set a benchmark lap time in the Formula 1 car and stock car, prior to swapping offices for the day. Thanks to ATLAS this meant the two drivers could compare how they fared against each other in the same machinery, going far beyond lap times and taking into consideration throttle and brake traces for example.
In Bahrain, for instance, Jimmie would climb out of the F1 car at the end of each run and immediately begin to comb through the telemetry data with his engineer for the day, Mark Temple. Jimmie knew exactly how to read the data, and make improvements based on the visualisations he could see.
McLaren has been at the cutting-edge of in-car display technology ever since we developed a bespoke, lightweight dashboard as part of a host of weight-saving measures for the MP4/8.
It is therefore unsurprising that McLaren Applied Technologies has provided the digital dashboard for Formula 1 and NASCAR since 2008 and 2015 respectively.
Over a period of 10 years in Formula 1, the dashboard has evolved from a dot-matrix display to a fully customisable, large-format multi-function colour screen. The latest incarnation, the PCU-8D, has been used since 2014 and is a standardised product for all teams.
Meanwhile, NASCAR’s adoption of our display technology – in the form of the PCU-500N – represented a bold break from a long tradition of using only analogue instruments, and reflected the growing confidence NASCAR has in our high-performance products.
Experienced trackside engineers from McLaren Applied Technologies’ provide expert support to ensure teams and the series extract the maximum performance from our hardware and software.
Our commitment goes beyond the design, build and delivery of cutting-edge electronics. Engineers are on hand at every Formula 1 and NASCAR race to provide trackside assistance whenever and wherever it’s needed. Whether it’s IT troubleshooting or detailed adaptation of ECU settings to suit individual car set-up, we’ve got it covered.
Our engineers act as an extension of the teams and stakeholder bodies they service, drawing on decades of complementary racing experience.
In NASCAR, two of our trackside support engineers are former engine builders, giving every team in the series the reassurance that they are dealing with highly competent experts whose experience encompasses practical engineering, as well as electronics.
In Formula 1, we’ve got five members of track support. One for every two teams. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and bring with them a range of invaluable experience and knowledge which enables them to feed off each other collaboratively.