Interview: Alex Burn (COO, WilliamsF1 Team)

Alex had come down to India sometime back to sign a contract with Tata Technologies, it was then that I had met him. He seemed quite eager and enthusiastic about his trip to India and I had suggested some ‘typical Maharashtrian’ delicacies, like missal pav. He couldn’t try it due to paucity of time, but promised that he will next time round. Am waiting to hear from him. This interaction was published in the Dataquest Magazine: (

‘IT is making us a whole lot quicker… to work at speeds similar to our race models’

The date May 1, 1994, has a special significance in the sport of F1 racing. It was the day when Brazilian Formula 1 driver, Ayrton Senna de Silva died in a car crash in San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. He was racing for the Williams-Renault team and was in a winning position, when his car crashed into unprotected concrete barrier. The death of Senna brought the dangers of the sport into the limelight.

Post, 1994, all Formula 1 racing teams have put in massive security procedures in place to ensure that such a event does not occur again. IT plays a very critical role in this aspect, as companies are using the latest computational technology for better car design.

WilliamsF1 has been in the racing circuit for around three decades and is renowned for its FW models released year after year. The company recently signed an agreement with Lenovo, who would be one of the main sponsors of the team. Sometime back, Alex Burns, chief operating officer, WilliamsF1, had come down to India to visit Tata Technologies facilities in Pune. In an interaction with Shashwat Chaturvedi from Dataquest, Burns talks about how his team is using IT and why outsourcing might not be such a bad term after all. Excerpts.

What role does IT play in the development of an F1 car?
Technology is a critical element behind the success of any F1 team. Today, without any exception, every F1 team is investing heavily in latest tech mechanisms to get the best out of their models. Take the case of FW28, used in the 2006 season, we used over 4,500 CAD drawings during the design phase. We are heavily dependent on computational fluid dynamics, telemetry and other to not only develop an F1 car but also run it well.

To be frank, the FIA has introduced rules over a period of time that effectively slow down the car. It is driven by security needs, because otherwise all the cars would be trying to increase speed aggressively. There are whole lists of tests and reports that one has to complete before launching a model. There are the wind tunnel tests and crash analysis tests. Today, with the latest cutting edge applications, not only is it more cheaper than the traditional way but also a whole lot quicker. All this is only due to IT at work.

Once the model is up and running, what is the role that IT plays?
Running an F1 car is a highly data intensive job. For instance, over a weekend of grand prix race, close to 7GB of data is generated. This data needs to be meticulously analyzed and the design changes need to be implemented quickly. Also, this requires speed. At times, we work at speeds similar to our race models. When the car is running there are thousands of sensors that are attached all across the body reporting on different parameters. To make sense out of all this data and implement changes quickly, is a job that is best done with the help of IT.

We function at the very edges of technology. Our work is quite akin to the space industry. The components have a short life, we are constantly testing and incorporating changes. It is a very dynamic industry.

There is a general feeling that F1 racing has become overtly technology driven, the cars are more like computers. Your take?
I do agree that there is a general feeling of overuse of technology but you need to understand the reasons behind it. Since racing is a very dynamic and speed driven sport, any small error can be huge, not only in financial terms but also in terms of risk to the driver. Thus, one has to ensure all the safety and security that one possibly can, this is where IT is extensively used. And to that end, I support the use of technology. But, at the end of the day, the car is just an entity in the hands of the driver and it depends on the individual skills of the driver to steer the car to the premier spot.

What is the reason behind your engagement with Tata Technologies and the benefits of outsourcing?
The very same that are driving a host of companies around the world, namely time and money. Developing an F1 model is big money, and, as I said earlier, a lot of this is in the technology costs. Using the skills and facilities of companies like Tata Technologies we intend to shorten the development time and also decrease costs. We have a production cycle from September-March. That’s when we develop models for the next racing season. We would be working with Tata Technologies (Incat) on CAD models, etc for the FW29 model. Hopefully, as time goes by, we will increase our engagements with Tata Technologies. The quality of skill at Tata Technologies is high, and they have the ability and the wherewithal to put in the requisite numbers if need be for a project. It has the makings of a great marriage. We can do things faster and also in a cost-effective manner due to our association with Incat.

A word or two on the upcoming FW29?
In many ways FW 28 did not really meet the expectations of the WilliamsF1 team. We have learnt a lot from our outings in the 2006 season and we are going to apply them during the design for FW29. As we are retuning back to using the Toyota engine again, hopefully things will be very different in the coming season.

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