Racing-car designers are using computers in their quest for winning formulas,
Modern armies going into battle hardly carry as much electronic wizardry as a Grand Prix team setting out this week to enjoy a season of motor sport. Millions are poured into racing car computers, which have to be not only smart but also very tough.

Ross Brawn, who designed the cars being raced this year by the Oxfordshire- based Benetton team, says: "Even our laptops get dropped, bashed about and they have oil poured into them. I am amazed how they keep going. We left one Compaq perched on Schumacher's car when it went out of the pits, and it got flung across the pit lane - it survived."

The Formula One season starts in Melbourne on Sunday and the on-board computers face another punishing year of 200mph speeds and 3g forces that would reduce most home PCs to scrap.

"The on-board computers are very specialised, carefully mounted in metal cases," Brawn says. "A computer controls the engine, one controls the gearbox and another gathers data for us to analyse. The box that controls the gearbox has eight different processors.

"A vast amount of data is being collected when the car is going around. A telemetry system transmits information: each time the car passes the pits, the previous lap's data is jettisoned. It's also retained on board, so if we lose it in transmission, we can still retrieve the information when the car stops. That's what you often see the engineers and drivers poring over after a practice or a test session."

This season Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, previously with Ferrari, are doing their homework with Benetton's computer systems. Brawn says: "All the top-line drivers have to come to terms with this technology - those that don't won't succeed, because it is such an advantage. Each driver has a race engineer and a data engineer. They analyse the data and the drivers join in, using the technology to help them to understand what has happened to the car.

"Let's assume that we change a wing on the car. We can can look at the straight-line speed and see whether it was faster or slower. We can analyse much smaller changes than the driver would necessarily be able to feel. The drivers also use this to improve their driving. They look at where they are slower or quicker than they should be and then work on their approach, their throttle and their steering and brakes on that part of the track to improve it."

Communications not only link car with pit, but also the team on the circuit with the Enstone factory, so that up-to-the-minute information is available to the whole engineering staff.

More than words and figures can be sent over the line. This year, Benetton started using multimedia e-mail software to send highly detailed video images of parts from the circuit to the factory. If one of the 3,000 parts in the car needs to be modified, engineers can discuss ideas online.

Technology also has to bridge gaps in the communications chain caused by safety requirements. "We can't, for example, put cables across the pitlane," Brawn says. "During the race I am out on the pit wall, and information goes to the garage via another mini-telemetry system. As our technology gets ever more complex, we are constantly looking for faster, more powerful machines."

Computers not only did all the huge calculations involved in the five- month design project by Brawn that produced this year's B196 Benetton, but also allow simulation of the conditions the new car will face on the world's circuits.

"We can simulate how the car will perform and then change different parameters of the car to see whether it is quicker or slower," he says. "The simplest one to explain: all the wings on the car are adjustable, and you can generate more downforce and more grip. But they have a fixed efficiency, so when you change the setting to give more grip, they also generate more drag.

"You use a simulation to find the optimum setting of downforce and drag on a particular circuit. For example, Monza is a very low downforce, low drag circuit; Monaco is a very high downforce and drag circuit. We have a simulation of each circuit, all the corners, the type of surface on the track and we can predict the wing settings to use on the car."

With Michael Schumacher, Benetton took both the drivers' and constructors' championships in 1995. But Brawn says: "Williams are the team to catch, because they have the continuity of driver and they were very competitive at the end of last year. I think we can give them a pretty good run, if not beat them."

The World Wide Web has lots of places to keep up to date with the Formula One scene. Try:

Latest news on Benetton.

formula1.html Tifosi hot spot: everything you need to know about the Prancing Horse.

Guide to the most glamorous race of the season.

Why McLaren think they are going to win this year.

Magazine with useful Web links. Vast mine of information from a Finnish fan.

Another fanzine, with good pics. Ultimate database: all the facts.

The other French engine and Jordan.

Advance news on the Melbourne GP (10 March).

Damon Hill's home page - no worries.

Now you can read the rules -- the governing body's site.