Innovation at speed: How a university R&D lab is helping McLaren lap the Formula 1 field

KAUST is seeing its technological expertise play out on the Grand Prix circuit

December 02, 2021


When McLaren Racing teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris finished one-two in September’s Italian Grand Prix, the gap between them was vanishingly small: 1.747 seconds. If either had run just a few seconds slower at Monza, Formula 1’s fastest track, they would have tumbled off the winner’s podium and into the middle of the pack. This is why F1 teams spend tens of millions of dollars annually tweaking their cars’ aerodynamics, fuel combustion, and telemetry—all in pursuit of an edge worth hundredths of a second per lap.

But when all ten teams line up on the grid in Jeddah on December 5 for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix—on the fastest street circuit ever, with estimated average speeds of 252 kmh (156 mph)—only McLaren will possess a home-grown advantage. In 2018, the team signed a five-year research partnership with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)—the Saudi equivalent of MIT—to treat its vehicles as living laboratories. In exchange, KAUST’s students and faculty would bring their expertise in software, sensors, and chemistry to bear on a unique challenge: navigating the corners and straightaways of Jeddah’s corniche a few seconds faster than everyone else.

“Why is an F1 car faster around the track than a grand prix motorcycle, which can also achieve speeds of 300 kmh?” asks Matteo Parsani, assistant professor of applied mathematics and computational science at KAUST. “Aerodynamics. The manipulation of air around the vehicle is the single biggest differentiator in Formula 1.” Greater downforce, for example, enables drivers to corner turns at higher speeds, which comes in handy on a course with 27 turns.

Traditionally, teams turned to wind-tunnel testing, which is both costly and time-consuming. More recently, F1 has embraced computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which harnesses supercomputing-level processing power to massively simulate and optimize airflow over surfaces. Brute force will take teams only so far, however. The sport’s voluminous regulations include strict caps on the number of CPU hours they can use, which means the most elegant algorithm wins the day. To that end, Parsani and his colleagues in KAUST’s Extreme Computing Research Center have licensed to McLaren the exclusive use of their state-of-the-art solver, which succeeds where off-the-shelf tools fail in accurately modeling turbulent air flow—the bane of drivers.


Aerodynamics is only one arm of the partnership’s ambitious agenda, which has expanded in scope from on-track performance to assisting with McLaren’s decade-long commitment to carbon neutrality and support of STEM education. “KAUST’s world class R&D facilities, faculty leaders, and desire to combine emerging technologies with sustainability initiatives continues to help our team on our ambitious journey,” says Mark Barnett, director of research and innovation at McLaren Racing.

But what originally drew the team to KAUST was a question of fuel. Just as Formula 1 regulates how many teraflops teams can use, each car is allotted a maximum of 110 kilograms (29.06 gallons) of fuel. This means teams must strive to extract every joule from every drop, which, depending on the course and conditions, changes from race to race. “We help McLaren determine optimal fuel combustion by providing them with candidate formulations and the tools,” says Mani Sarathy, associate director of KAUST’s Clean Combustion Research Center. Just as Parsani’s group has substituted simulation for wind tunnels, Sarathy’s team uses machine learning to identify candidates for field testing.

One area where KAUST has able to contribute outside the lab is in sensors. The advent of real-time telemetry in the 1980s transformed Formula 1, as torrents of new data spurred on the optimization of nearly everything. Today’s cars are festooned with hundreds of sensors transmitting gigabytes of data about speed, airflow, engine temperature, braking, exhaust, and much, much more. The weight of those sensors quickly adds up, however, prompting teams to seek yet another infinitesimal edge in swapping them for ones made with ultra-lightweight materials.

As part of that effort, a team of KAUST students was dispatched to observe McLaren Racing in action at the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix. Watching the team meticulously prepare for its practice laps, Altynay Kaidarova, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering, saw first-hand the incredible stresses placed on the car, including extreme G-forces and internal temperatures reaching several hundred degrees Celsius. Upon returning to KAUST, under supervision of her supervisor Professor Jürgen Kosel, set out to “develop customized sensors by exploiting our cutting-edge fabrication technologies,” she explains.

Her material of choice was graphene—atom-thick sheets of pure carbon a hundred times stronger (and lighter) than steel, and nearly as difficult and expensive to forge. Kaidarova’s solution was to 3D-print them, creating a process that enabled her to adapt sensors designed by colleagues to measure strain, airflow, and inertia to survive the extreme environments faced by an F1 car, both inside and out. “Our aim is to incorporate graphene-enhanced wireless sensors to simultaneously obtain parameters such as force, pressure, and temperature from multiple points around the car,” she says.


As Kaidarova is the first to note, these sensors have uses far beyond the track, too. Just as McLaren Racing spun out McLaren Applied to employ its R&D in other industries, KAUST faculty are eager to see their work with the team pay dividends in the classroom and beyond. Sarathy’s group is collaborating with Hyundai to design more fuel-efficient engines, while Parsani’s CFD solver is being put to work by NASA. Kaidarova mounted graphene sensors on marine animals to deliver data both on the animal behavior and on an expanded suite of environmental conditions relevant to marine ecosystem health in Oceanographic of Valencia, largest complex of its type in Europe.

But first, their contributions must prove themselves on the winding streets of Jeddah—and, McLaren hopes, might prove the margin of victory. As Parsani sees it, Formula 1 is the ultimate crucible for KAUST or any engineering university. “Students are exposed to a real industrial project in a real setting,” he says. “It’s a unique opportunity to watch our research start as pen-and-paper, see it evolve into algorithms, and finally apply it to one of the most complicated devices humanity has ever made.”

No one could ask for a better classroom than a Formula 1 track. The final exam is Sunday.

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