On a basic level, you may know GPS as the 24 satellites that orbit the earth and are generally used for navigation, like the maps you see on your phone or your mum’s Sat Nav in the glovebox of your car. But you might not know that GPS is also a complex and integral part of a Formula 1 car.
GPS can be used to determine the exact speed of a moving car, which can be useful for things like straight line aero testing. Because GPS can also give accurate data on how fast a car accelerates, it can also be used by F1 teams to predict how much power their rivals are producing on track.
GPS can also be used to accurately detail the exact profile of circuits in 3D, like the undulation of a track like Interlagos, or Baku. This can be useful when determining driving lines when taking corners.
Every F1 car has a GPS sensor on it to determine exactly where each car is on track at any given moment. This data is used by the teams to manage traffic during key sessions like Qualifying, where getting your own piece of track position is imperative to a fast lap time.
The streaming of location data can be converted into telemetry from the teams like the track maps you see on F1 broadcasts, which determine which driver in a head-to-head was faster in the track’s micro-sectors over a lap.This can then be used to work out the strengths and weaknesses of cars relative to each other.
In Bahrain 2023 Qualifying for instance, you could tell by GPS data that Ferrari had the best top speed against their major rivals, Red Bull were excelling at stability and acceleration out of corners, and Aston Martin were carrying better apex speed.
During the 2023 Australian Grand Prix weekend, there was an error with the server that handled all the data that F1 had collated on tyres in Free Practice 1. This led to other data systems failing, including the GPS positioning system that the teams use to determine where all the cars are on track. So with the GPS system down, team engineers had no way of telling the drivers where they were in relation to one another. This led to the FIA throwing a red flag to neutralise the session while the system was being fixed.
It might sound strange that 20 cars going round a track that’s only a few miles long are so reliant on GPS, but in a sport where split-second reactions are a necessity, the teams HAVE to know what could be around the corner for their drivers at all times.
If a driver is slowing down to recharge their battery, make space for a hot-lap, or cool their tyres down between runs, like we saw in Australia, and another car is entering the same part of the track at full racing speed, it could potentially create a very dangerous situation, especially if the teams can’t help guide their driver as to where everyone else is on track.
Valtteri Bottas said it would be difficult to drive F1 cars on an open track without GPS, saying:
“When there’s lots of traffic and half of the field is on a fast lap and half of the field is on a slow lap then it’s a bit blind. So, I think it’s a bit of a safety thing. “I think it would be manageable [without GPS], but there’s this one extra risk factor that somebody’s parked in a blind corner and someone who comes flat out without information.”
So there you go, F1 teams don’t rely on GPS to find their way to the local Supermarket, but it does play a quiet and vital role in working out car performance and making sure traffic on track can be navigated safely. Because as we saw in Australia, without it, chaos can ensue.
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