How McLaren applies whizzy Formula One technology beyond the track

If you think the notion of coopetition is relegated to tech firms that compete as well as cooperate, meet Formula One racing. This is a realm where one top competitor, McLaren, also supplies key high-tech components to its racing rivals but then does its best to apply that technology beyond racing itself.

When new tech innovations come online, the company must tread a fine line between keeping core intellectual property (IP) that can help its cars win, securely in-house, but disseminating other IP to customers that also happen to be competitors in a hyper-competitive field. “We supply the engine control system across the Formula One teams,” said Stuart Birrell, McLaren CIO. The company also supplies the Engine Control Units (ECUs) to Nascar and some of the engine systems for Indy cars. But after the novelty wears off, it really wants to find as many uses for that cool new tech as possible.

McLaren F-1 car

As Gigaom has reported, Formula 1 racing is a hot bed of applied IT. It relies on state-of-the-art design, simulation and computational fluid dynamics to model, build and test cars onscreen, and wireless telemetry to capture data on the fly once the car is built for real. And I do mean on the fly. Some of the race courses run through forests and city streets — all tough environments for radio signals of any kind…and the data-spewing vehicles can reach 200 mph.

McLaren’s arsenal includes Dassault Catia for design work;  MySQL(s orcl) and Microsoft(s msft) SQL Server databases for core jobs;  Hadoop for big trial and development workloads; and Intralinks VIA software for secure yet flexible collaboration.

First win, then share

Part of this sharing economy grows out of the nature of F1 racing in which, once a company like McLaren, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz or Ferrari invents a new component and puts it into a car, it goes public pretty quickly. “You have one year to capitalize on your innovation,” Birrell told me recently “Our challenge is to commercialize our engineering knowledge and skills.” At least that’s the challenge after McLaren itself has been able to make hay out of it during the year-long 19-race Formula One tour.

What’s interesting to me about McLaren is how diversified it is. It’s deploying Wi-Fi service in mass transit systems.  It’s working with five British Olympic teams on technology to improve performance. In the last Olympics cycle, for example, McLaren’s Applied Technology group built a wireless system that measured the relationship between paddle, canoe and athlete on the white-water canoe course and another system that collects stores data and telemetry information from cyclists circling the velodrome.

Another customer is an unnamed U.S. shoe company which is working with McLaren to minimize foot injury using sensors and still more data. “We look at what’s really happening in the athlete’s foot, the stresses and how to make them better. We instrument everything and get a huge  amount of detail,” Birrell said.

It’s also looking into the effect of collisions on rugby players who, Birrell said, face 8 G-force impacts in the course of play. (According to this account, that may be an underestimation.) This is hot button lately with growing concern about the damage concussions have on professional — or even recreational athletes. “If you measure your [U.S.] football guys, it’s like dealing with car crash victims,” Birrell said. It’s also working with the Birmingham Children’s Hospital on continuous monitoring of patients.

Who knew that the sometimes esoteric tech used to build super-fast formula 1 cars would end up in a children’s hospital? Certainly not I. But I expect to hear more on this topic in March at Structure: Data when Geoff McGrathmanaging director of McLaren Applied Technology takes the stage.