Sunday March 27th sees the 2011 Formula One season kick off in Australia. A grid full of cars, predominantly British-built, will line up to compete to be crowned World Champions in a sport that welds together the sheer skill and bravery of driving a car at close to 200mph with the intellectual brawn of some of the industry’s finest mechanical and technological engineers.

IT has influenced all sports, including tennis, rugby, sailing and golf, but Formula One (F1) is where technology is most glaringly apparent. Today’s F1 car is less a car and more a cybernetic extension of the talents of the driver, whether it’s Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton or Jarno Trulli. Each car is extensively modified to suit its individual driver and then further tweaked to make the most out of each track it will compete at.

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To deliver this level of individuality F1 teams are reliant on IT and are constantly pushing the boundaries of what computing can do. F1 really is business IT at 200mph. It is therefore no surprise that F1 and the IT industry have long had a close relationship – follow Martin Brundle’s televised start line walkabout prior to a race and you’ll struggle to find a car on the grid that doesn not exhibit a major vendor logo.

Heading into 2011

Every year brings new teams, new rules and strategies and with them new challenges for the IT engineers involved in the sport. Inspired, perhaps, by the fairy­tale story of the Brawn F1 team that rose from the ashes of the failed Honda­ venture and went on to become 2009 World Champions with Button at the wheel, three new teams joined the F1 circus in 2010, with new Team Lotus, along with Virgin Racing and HST, joining the battle to take on titans McLaren, Ferrari and Williams.

Team Lotus is a reinvention of an F1 team that once dominated the F1 circuit through its bravely innovative approach to the sport spearheaded by founder Colin Chapman. Under Chapman’s leadership the team was the first to introduce a one-piece chassis, wings and a wedge-shaped car that set the aerodynamics standards still followed today. The cars that introduced these swept to championship victories. Chapman’s Lotus also introduced four-wheel drive, turbine engines and double-chassis cars. The team would also win the Indy 500 in the USA, touring car, rallying and sports car titles and spawn a sports car manufacturer that is to this day one of the most desirable and innovative car makers in the world.

Tottenham-born Chapman died in the 1980s, and while the Team Lotus entering the 2011 F1 championships is not the same operation that the legendary engineer and businessman founded, it does have the support of the Chapman family.

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Bill Peters heads up IT at Team Lotus and as he prepared for the Melbourne opener, he explained how his team is entering this season in a more competitive starting position than last year not least because he and his team, along with technology partners Dell, have built an IT infrastructure and strategy that has brought the critical design and build phase of the car back in house.

“From my point of view IT is about support and especially for the key phases of car development,” says Peters.

Team Lotus was accepted into the exalted F1 circus in September 2009 and had to have a car ready for the start of the following season in March 2010. Peters joined Team Lotus in October 2009 and soon set about building an IT operation to suit an F1 team that was determined to be on that grid.

“Last year we were laying down the tracks and the train was very quickly following on,” he says of the manic start-up he had to live through. When he joined Team Lotus was building its car by relying on outsourced expertise, but with the Dell infrastructure that Peters has implemented in place, the team has largely developed and built the car in-house. When Peters spoke to CIO UK the team was ahead of schedule.

“I was looking at building the team and supplier selection, so we had to come up with a very rapid business case and IT that fitted the business, had a cost fit, technology fit and was very responsive.

“I was looking for an enterprise solution and a one-stop shop,” Peters says of his decision to select Dell as the primary technology supplier to Team Lotus.

“Dell fitted our requirements for the infrastructure. They were very responsive. I’ve dealt with HP and IBM in the past and I know their reaction times are different to our needs.” Peters was especially thankful to the vendor consultants that put in as many late nights as his own staff to ensure that the systems and the car were in place for the start of the season.

Peter’s enters the 2011 season with an in-house IT team of nine that focus on infrastructure, trackside IT operations, a high performance computing (HPC), computer aided design (CAD) and ERP experts. “It is a very lean operation,” he says. Team Lotus has a staff total of 250, which is small for a modern F1 operation.

The process of developing an F1 car is split into four critical phases. The first, Peters explains, sees the perception of the car’s design. For 2011 Team Lotus has designed a car to accommodate a new engine, the Renault motor that powered Sebastian Vettel to championship victory in 2010.

Next comes the design phase, where the CAD systems use HPC servers to design the car and simulate its performance computer aided design (CAD).

The third phase is the build time, where the ERP system from Microsoft Dynamics that Peters has selected is tested and only then do we get down to the business of running the car on the track and being competitive.

Peters says that the development process of this year’s car has been speeded up as a result of Team Lotus having its own infrastructure.

“This is the busiest time for an F1 company, because the extended seasons means the building time for a car has been contracted. It’s my favourite time of year, it’s a buzz,” he says of the frenetic pre-season build time.

Dell provides Team Lotus with a factory infrastructure as well as the mobile infrastructure it needs to travel between the 19 grands prix that will make up the season.

“What we have is a track-side and factory infrastructure that is identical. The primary difference is the track-side has to be packed away, so needs to be as small a physical footprint in weight as possible.

“Using solid state drive storage means we can get all the track infrastructure into one rack, which is 16 virtual machines with 10Tb of usable storage. Back in the factory we have 35 virtual servers.

“We have bought the hardware outright. We have certain cloud tools, not as many as I would like, mainly because of our lack of fibre connection,” he says of the Team Lotus base in Norfolk.

Team Lotus uses the Dell EqualLogic iSCSI storage area network arrays for its factory-based storage and analysis of the masses of data each car creates during testing and racing. The cars have 150 individual sensors delivering data on tyre and exhaust temperatures, airflow through the wings and sidepods as well as a wide range of engineering data.

The factory has a Dell HPC system based on the vendor’s blade enclosures, blade servers and rack servers to run its CAD systems from.

The Dell deal means the team also has a fleet of mobile and fixed workstations. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) fits the constantly travelling nature of F1, so Peters has opted for email continuity and archiving via SaaS and he hopes to introduce more cloud-based applications.

“Fifty per cent of the workforce is mobile, so cloud is essential,” he says.

But any CIOs thinking of seeking a job in F1 with the view to visiting sun-soaked locations like Monaco, Brazil and Italy will be sobered to learn that Peters rarely gets to travel to the races.

“I will go out if we have a business need, but I have to keep the costs low, the remote systems mean there are more people back at the factory,” he explains. His team do, however, travel to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Peters joined Team Lotus after a long career at McLaren, the Surrey-based super-team that gave Lewis Hamilton, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda championship-winning drives.

“I had 12 fantastic years at McLaren, I started on the first road car they developed the F1 before moving to a group role.

“At McLaren I saw the business mature, especially through the influence of Mercedes around procedures,” he says of the close relationship McLaren has with its F1 racing engine supplier and for whom it developed the SLR sports car.

“That has given me a good end-to-end business knowledge of F1 and the car business and the ability to build something from scratch.”

The difference between the teams, says Peters, is their size: his team of nine at Team Lotus is half what he had for IT at McLaren.

F1 was an accidental career choice. “It evolved that way; my first foray into IT was through the infrastructure, and that developed into ERP software. I got into motorsport when I went to work for McLaren to do their ERP implementation.”

It was as a Norfolk-born boy, however, that Peters first became interested in F1.

“It was back in 1978 when I noticed F1 through Mario Andretti,” he says of the American racing driver who won the world championships with Chapman’s original Norfolk-based team.

Mike Gascoyne, the team’s chief technical officer and figurehead of the team at the races also hails from Norfolk.

"There are a lot of Norfolk boys here with a lot of F1 pedigree; it’s like McLaren was 10 to 12 years ago,” he says of the excitement of being in a new team.

Of the three new teams on the 2010 grid Team Lotus was the most successful, and Peters has high ambitions for 2011.

“We are quietly optimistic for this year and want to compete with the midfield teams. We are aiming for eighth place in the championships, if not further up.”