Red Bull Racing: dynamic engineering

Computational Fluid Dynamics have played a vital role in driving Red Bull Racing to a successful first decade. Jonny Williamson headed to Milton Keynes to learn more.

“We have a Computational Fluid Dynamics department on the bleeding-edge; but we are never satisfied and continually test what is technologically possible.”

That’s what Nathan Sykes, head of numerical tools and technology, explained to me in a boardroom overlooking the Red Bull Racing factory’s assembly race bays.

Red Bull Racing - Photos from the Milton Keynes Factory
The Red Bull Racing factory’s manufacturing department operates 24/7, with 1,600+ parts processed in its advanced machine shop each week.

The factory’s manufacturing department operates 24/7, with more than 1,600 parts processed in its advanced machine shop each week. In total, Red Bull Racing employs more than 600 people to design; engineer; test; manufacture; assemble, and maintain the 30,000 unique components in each of its cars.

But before any new component reaches the R&D testing stage, or even the scale model wind tunnel test, it is evaluated in virtual 3D by supercomputers.

High-performance technology

As an important part of the aerodynamics department, CFD’s primary goal is to provide the best quality simulation results in the shortest possible time, while ensuring consistency with wind tunnel and track results.

It’s a cost-effective and accurate means of analysing new CAD designs and ideas, simulating in detail how air will flow around the structures and surface of the car to see if the new design will boost performance.

Computational Fluid Dynamics is a cost-effective and accurate means of analysing new CAD designs and ideas.
Computational Fluid Dynamics is a cost-effective and accurate means of analysing new CAD designs and ideas.

The CFD carried out by the aerodynamics team uses high-performance technology supplied by Red Bull Racing’s innovation partners – global engineering simulation software provider, Ansys, and IBM Platform Computing – to support and complement the more traditional wind tunnel testing.

At the heart of the factory lies the data centre, performing the many thousands of mathematical calculations that run during every CFD test. Generating hundreds of MB of data every second, 24/7, the data can analyse the aerodynamic performance of a new bodywork design, using Ansys’ software, within just a few hours.

Simulating roots

Having only entered the world of Formula One in 2005, the origins of Red Bull Racing’s interaction with CFD started with what was essentially a “science project to explore what the state-of-the-art was”, Sykes reflected.

“In 2008, CFD became one of our key aerodynamic tools; with the goal of being able to predict what happens on the car so that every new component relates to a bigger hit rate of performance.

Red Bull Racing's RB 12 seen during a UK studio shoot on February 20, 2016.
Red Bull Racing’s RB 12 seen during a UK studio shoot on February 20, 2016.

“We have hard limits [such as FIA regulations], so we need to work closely with hardware and software partners to ensure we squeeze that extra little bit out before our competition. Which in turn means we are less limited than others and can make bigger jumps between component iterations.”

To Sykes and Red Bull Racing, innovation is key, if the team stopped innovating it would swiftly fall behind. Sykes described a graph to me representing one of the teams’ championship-winning F1 seasons;

“If we had the same car at the start of the season that we had for the first test, already we’d be mid-field by the first race; and by the end of the season, we’d be close to the back of the field.

“Everybody assumes that the teams at the back are always going to be there; but actually, if you stop the front four or five teams from developing, those at the back would be snapping at their heels before too long. It’s that rate of development which allows you to stay ahead. It’s not flat, and if it were, you’d go from the front of the pack to the back within one season.”

Innovation partners

Central to this high-level innovation and improvement lie close links with partners, companies which are treated as more than simply vendors. The mutually beneficial relationships sees Ansys, for example, become almost a part of Red Bull Racing’s aerodynamics department, while the racing team fulfils virtually a developer role for the software company.

You can read more about Jonny Williamson’s exclusive pre-season tour of the Red Bull Racing factory at:

“To think that we are going to see all of the problems and ways to solve them would be arrogant; we think we do a good job, but we can always do better. Surrounding yourself with people who’ve got different experiences feeding into what you do is tremendously beneficial,” said Sykes.

“As Ansys’ technology has advanced, we’ve taken advantage of it; and similarly in doing so, we’ve pushed the software further than most and shown potential improvements or issues. It’s really win-win all round.”

Chief product officer at Ansys, Walid Abu-Hadba appeared to agree. “We’re excited to continue our ongoing relationship with Red Bull Racing and further enable the team to overcome increasingly difficult design challenges,” he told me.

“Teams are always looking for a competitive edge, and simulation provides it with advanced, fast and reliable tools to validate and optimise every aspect of a vehicle throughout the design process with complete accuracy and confidence.”

Manufacturing disruption

Walid Abu-Hadba, chief product officer (Ansys) & Nathan Sykes, head of numerical tools and technology (Red Bull Racing).
Walid Abu-Hadba, chief product officer (Ansys) & Nathan Sykes, head of numerical tools and technology (Red Bull Racing).

Abu-Hadba noted that in the near future, simulation would not only become part of the regular day-to-day operations of a product designer, but move from not only the design stage, but to the operating aspect as well.

“Our mission is to bring engineering simulation to everyday life; first with designers and engineers, and work towards consumers, particularly of clothing and personal electronics. That’s going to fundamentally disrupt the way manufacturing happens, and we are very excited by the prospect,” he enthused.

“No longer is cheap labour going to be the key driver of economic growth, it’s going to be innovation and technology.”