A couple of weeks ago I flew over to Munich to meet up with BMW and Intel. If you're a motorsport fan you're no doubt well aware that Intel is a major sponsor of the BMW Sauber Formula One team, but unlike many F1 sponsors, Intel's involvement with BMW goes far deeper than just paying copious amounts of money to put its logo on the car.
You see the thing about modern Formula One racing, is that it's as much, if not more, about technology than it is about driver or even team ability. Basically, you can tell early on in a season which teams have competitive cars, and which will be "also rans". I'm not suggesting that the driver and support team are irrelevant, far from it in fact - Michael Schumacher proved on several occasions that sheer driver skill and determination could, to some degree, compensate for a car that wasn't quite up to scratch.
BMW representatives have told me on various occasions that the partnership with Intel has resulted in big steps forward in the technology used to design the Formula One cars. Traditionally, any aerodynamic design changes to an F1 car would mean that the new part would be machined, put on the car and subjected to hours of wind tunnel testing. If the results of the wind tunnel were favourable, then the new part would be tested on the track for real world evaluation. Now however, parts can be tested without ever needing to machine them, let alone attach them to a car.
With the use of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) it's possible to assess the aerodynamic properties of new parts by simulating the airflow around the car, without the need to fire up the wind tunnel. In fact, last year BMW decided to invest heavily in new Intel hardware to run CFD simulations instead of building a second wind tunnel for physical testing. Of course computer simulated aerodynamic testing will never replace wind tunnel testing, or track testing, but it will significantly reduce the number of hours dedicated to it, while also reducing manufacturing costs.
If BMW Sauber's performance in the constructor's championship this year is anything to go by, this marriage of computer simulation with traditional testing is definitely working. And with fewer resources needed to develop new, more competitive cars, there's every chance that even the smaller teams will have a chance to do more than just make up numbers on the starting grid.