A network of sensors is constantly gathering information about performance, vehicle health, and other metrics in today’s high-performance autos.
Paul Webb, Global Product Manager for Autosport, TE Connectivity
On the road and on the racetrack, just knowing how fast you’re traveling is no longer enough. Your car generates a lot of data while on the road, which it generally stores on its electronic control unit (ECU). Data stored here can help mechanics know which systems need looking at first when you take it in for a service, as well as if there’s anything else they need to understand more before starting a particular job.
Data about a car’s health is also key in the world of motorsport. Data points like oil temperature and pressure are equally critical for these vehicles as they are for their road-car cousins. However, the real critical data as far as trackside engineers are concerned is much more performance related. The need for speed is the name of the game in motorsport!
Let’s start at the beginning. Where does this data come from?
The short answer is all over the car. As soon as a car is started, its ECU begins measuring every aspect of the vehicle. Data is supplied to the ECU by a suite of sensors that measure standard aspects of automotive systems, like pressure and temperature, in addition to movement in several axes and positions. These days, it’s also common to combine tasks, as this saves both space and weight, which are two things that automotive engineers continually strive to find more of. So, it’s not unusual to find pressure and temperature sensors within the same unit. Sensors, although complex in construction, simply convey a change of condition via an electrical signal, in this case to a car’s ECU. In some race series, the changes they detect are also transmitted directly to the pit crews, or even to the car’s factory of origin, potentially many thousands of miles away, in real-time. At this point, skilled engineers interpret what often amounts to collections of squiggly lines and use that data, along with driver feedback, to improve the car’s performance.
Why is a racecar’s environment different from a road car’s environment?
Road cars are generally built to safely transport several people and their luggage in reasonable comfort and in many weather conditions, while racecars are usually built to transport a single individual (Yes, I know rally cars have a crew of two!) as fast as possible for a predetermined span of distance or time and, typically, in much less variable weather conditions. So, for racecars, comfort is sacrificed at the start, which creates some pretty tough conditions for both cars and drivers to manage during events. Autosport engineers would like racecars to be as stable as possible on the track, so suspension movement is reduced to the minimum. Oftentimes, the tire is the factor that moves the most. Consequently, hitting a bump or running over a curb transmits a lot of energy into the vehicle. If an engineer has potentiometers measuring the suspension travel, the sensors can transmit news at a rate of 500 times per second, which means that any interruption from the vibration due to inadequate engineering on the part of the connector or wire would be a big problem. In fact, heat and vibration are two of the largest challenges that the electrical hardware on a racing car has to withstand.
Why choose autosport parts over normal automotive products?
Racecars, as we’ve already established, have a completely different existence than road cars. Apart from all the vibration and heat, racecars are adjusted and alerted throughout an event, which can last for a weekend or longer. When racecars go back to the garage during practice sessions, the covers come off and teams of engineers start making small to major adjustments in response to the driver’s feedback and the data the car producing. These adjustments often require disconnecting and reconnecting the electrical elements in the car.
Normal automotive connectors are generally designed to be mated and unmated around 10 times. So, exceeding those limits could result in some big problems for passenger cars. In racecars, connectors can be mated and unmated 10 times in a single practice session. So, the connectors employed in these vehicles have to be designed to robustly withstand this level of engagement and still work perfectly. The basic design elements that allow autosport parts to achieve these specifications come from features found in aerospace standards. For instance, the same crimp contact technology found in the harsh environment connectors used in jet engines, aircraft cabin systems, and other military vehicle applications can also be found in racecars, as these components are just as mission critical as those found within racecars, despite their different end-goals.
What does the future of automotive racing look like?
Racing technology is changing faster and faster. New materials, new regulations, and new technologies mean that the old standards need to be revised every racing season. More data also means more contacts in ever smaller and more lightweight packaging. Additionally, the increased electrification of racing powertrains — with energy being recovered from turbo chargers, exhaust gasses, and braking systems — means there’s more need for high-current solutions. Full electric racing is gaining momentum too; so, identifying safe solutions for high-density battery applications is another design element that would have seemed like science fiction 10 years ago.
TE Connectivity’s racing solutions help our racing customers achieve the best possible performance from their racecars, and help enable them to win events and championships. So, we are abundantly aware that we need to move at the same speed with our technology development as our customers do on the track. It’s a great challenge, but we gain great satisfaction from seeing the teams who use our technology win races and championships ranging from grassroots to international events.
TE Connectivity (TE) has been a key contributor to the science of racecar engineering for the past 20 years, supplying DEUTSCH Autosport connectors, Raychem wire, heat shrink products, and now sensors to race teams around the world, enabling the transmission of valuable data to autosport engineers.