Formula 1 Electronics & Controls  

Electronics are the nervous system of a Formula 1 car.  
Some electronics are responsible for sensing what is
happening with the car and many of its  components as
well as sensing ambient conditions.  The electronics
control the engine gearbox and differential.  Electronics
also control the add-on devices such as KERS (Kinetic
Energy Recovery System) and the adjustable rear wing.  
While many of a Formula 1 car's systems are actuated
hydraulically like the gearbox, they are all controlled

The control of the electronics in a Formula 1 car is
accomplished with a computer, which by rule is supplied
to all teams by Mclaren Electronic Systems.  The reason
the teams all use the same computer, is to make it
easier for the FIA to enforce bans like no electronic
traction control or launch assist.  The programs run by
the identical computers are all in the same
system/language so they can easily be identified and
scrutinized by FIA officials.

Drivers inputs come from two sources, the steering
wheel and the throttle and brake pedals.  In addition
many cars use a brake bias lever that is mounted next
to the drivers leg in the cockpit.  Excluding brake bias
and throttle/brake all of the cars controls are on the
steering wheel.  This makes it easier for the driver to
make any necessary changes without taking his hands
off the wheel and without looking around the cockpit
itself.  At 200 miles per hour searching for a button
could prove deadly.

The throttle pedal is actuated by the drivers right foot,
and is electronic only, not mechanical.  This means that
there is no mechanical cable or linkage between the
pedal and the throttles on the engine.  Instead the
angle of the pedal is measured by a sensor
(potentiometer) and relayed electronically to the
computer.  The computer then activates the throttles on
the engine.  This is known in the industry as drive by
wire and is becoming more common in modern road

The brake pedal mechanically actuates a pair of master
cylinders that directly control hydraulic fluid going to
each of the 2 front brake calipers, and each of the two
rear brake calipers.  The front and rear brakes are on
separate hydraulic circuits for the purpose of safety and
redundancy.  There is no electronic intervention at any
point, no antilock brakes by rule.

The steering wheel is not actually a wheel in the
traditional sense.  The wheel has handles on the left
and right sides for the drivers hands, which do not
move from these handles while turning the wheel.  In
fact, a Formula 1 steering wheel only needs to be
turned 90-120 degrees for most turns, and 180 degrees
to execute a sharp hairpin turn.  The steering wheel is
connected to a shaft running above the drivers legs
which turns a rack and pinion type of steering gear
located in the footwell just ahead of the drivers feet,
and at the point where the nose meets the monocoque.

The steering wheel shown above is a Ferrari example
from about 2008.  It is one of the more complex
examples and includes the following components:
neutral button, pit lane rev. limiter button, radio button,
3 differential action knobs, tire selector switch, engine
mapping switch, Gear indicator, and shift lights among
others.  The back of the steering wheel contains
paddles to be activated by the driver's fingertips.  Most
teams opt for at least 4 primary paddles.  The top two
are the gear selector switches, left for downshift,  right
for upshift.  The lower two paddles control the clutch
between the engine and gearbox, which is mainly only
operated by the driver during the start of the race.  
Subsequent clutch action is automatic and electronically
controlled.  Some teams opt for an additional pair of
paddles that adjust the engine mapping settings, these
are often meant to be paired with the action of
changing gears.     

KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System)
The KERS system is essentially Formula 1's attempt at
incorporating "green" hybrid drive technology into the
sport.  The system in simplest terms is an electric motor
attached to the engine and a battery pack.  During each
lap the battery is charged with enough electricity to power
the motor for 6.6 seconds at an output of about 80
brake-horsepower.  The driver operates the KERS boost
through a button on the steering wheel.  The driver can
operate the KERS whenever they chose even multiple
times, for a maximum of 6.6 seconds per lap.  There is a
strategic advantage in using the boost during the start of
the race, or during opportunities to overtake or defend
against overtaking.

Data acquisition is a critical function performed by the
Formula 1 car's electrical system.  Hundreds of sensors are
mounted to the car to measure the condition of the car,
and communicate that via wireless signal to the engineers
on the pit wall.  A few of the vast amount of sensors
  Infra red tire temperature or brake temperature
  Fuel pressure or fuel level
  Brake pad & rotor wear
  Mechanical strain (on suspension or driveline)
  Air pressure and flow (e.g., pitot)
  Engine management (air flow, temp, exhaust gas etc.)
  Tire pressure
  Ride height    
  Coolant and oil temperature
  Steering input, brake and throttle inputs
  G-force and crash force
  Hydraulic temperature and pressure
  KERS temperature       
  The list goes on and on...

The car is able to send gigabytes of data to the pit in
realtime, however the only electronic communication from
the pit to the car is via the drivers radio headset.  Nothing
on the car can be directly controlled by the pit, while on
the racetrack.  When the car is in the garage, it is often
connected to the teams computers via an electrical
"umbilical cord"  Only at this point can the engineers and
mechanics change the parameters of the cars electronic
control systems.

One would imagine with the multitude of sensors,
switches, buttons, and computers that the wiring of the
car would resemble an overflowing dish of spaghetti.  In
fact that is not the case at all, the wiring is quite
manageable thanks to the CANbus network through which
the car is wired.  The various electronic devices
communicate through a common pair of wires like a
computer network.  This is in contrast to each component
having a dedicated pair of wires connecting it to the ECU.  
This makes wiring changes and repairs much easier and
faster-critical to the mechanics working in the pit garage.  
It also substantially reduces the physical wiring required on
the car which saves substantial weight...making the car
faster.  Remember, Formula 1 engineers fight over grams
of weight, not just pounds or kilograms.

Despite weight saving constraints, the wires and
connections must be robust enough to be reliable for the
entire race.  No one wants to "did not finish" (DNF)
because a plug was loose.  Formula 1 engineers utilize the
technology available to the aviation industry, where
reliability is a matter of life and death.
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