Weather and science of auto racing

By Jack Williams ©2015

Although I’ve focused on writing about meteorology and other atmospheric sciences since 1982, I’ve never passed up a chance to write about auto racing.

An April 3, 2010 story on the BBC Web site from the Malaysian Formula One race, “McLaren & Ferrari rue rain errors,” gives me an opportunity to get into how not only meteorology but other sciences and the engineering applications of science are a big part of racing.

As the BBC story explains, the McLaren and Ferrari drivers, any of whom could have qualified on the pole, started well back in the field because they made their qualifying runs in the rain–Formula One cars race and qualify whether the track is wet or dry.

Weatherjack becomes Gearheadjack Williams in the press room during the 24 Hours of Le Mans, France,  auto race in June  2003.  Photo by Darlene Shields

The BBC quotes the head of the McLaren team, Martin Whitmarsh, as saying: “We were watching the radar and it showed us the rain was going to ease off so we were waiting for that to happen, but it didn’t.”

I can imagine a team manager and a couple of the engineers who are glued to computer screens showing data radioed from their car during practice, qualifying and the race, looking at a weather radar display and trying to figure out what might happen without a meteorologist’s knowledge of what they are seeing.

Maybe the team had contracted with a weather forecasting firm to scope out the weather. In Malaysia they’d need a meteorologist who is not only expert in tropical weather, but also the weather in the neighborhood of racing circuit, which is near the Kuala Lumpur airport.

Either way, someone failed to make a good forecast for the next hour or so–illustrating the importance of weather to racing.

When I covered the 24 Hours of Le Mans (France) race in 2003 I told one of the U.S. teams that I’d like to write about the team’s weather forecasting. The team refused–apparently its meteorology is among the secrets a racing team would just as soon keep from the competition.

The importance of weather for racing goes far beyond deciding the best time to send a driver out for a qualifying run. I wrote about some of these concerns, with the help of Chris Jenkins, a USA TODAY NASCAR writer, in a 2004 USA TODAY story: “Auto racers winning equations include weather.”

As that story shows, meteorology is just one of the sciences that auto racing teams depend on.

Race car science and engineering

Men and women who love understanding the physical world, are fascinated by the weather, and want to see concrete results of their work can apply science and engineering to observing and forecasting the weather.

Other men and women with a similar love of understanding the physical world, are fascinated by fast machines, and want see concrete results of their work can apply science and engineering to auto racing.

Generally a high school or college student who wants to learn the basics of meteorological science and engineering and see what kinds of work meteorologists do has an easier time than one who wants to learn about race car science and engineering.

For example, my AMS Weather Book introduces the science and engineering of the atmospheric and related sciences, including profiles of men and women working in these fields.

the Building Speed web site is changing this; it offers science and engineering for would-be gearheads–like me. The Web site also helps teachers who want to use auto racing as a tool to teach science. The Web site, produced with support from the National Science Foundation, is in part the work of Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, the author of The Physics of NASCAR: How to Make Steel + Gas + Rubber = Speed.

She also has a Web site “Stock Car Science: Fast Cars, Fast Physics.”

A good example of the wealth of material on the Building Speed Web site is a video of Leslie-Pelecky using aerodynamics to explain why one NASCAR auto flew into the air after another car hit it, causing it to spin.

For a global view of the importance of race-car science and engineering see an  article by Bradley Lord entitled “What use is F 1″ in the February 2010 issue of

magazine offers other examples of how today’s auto racing depends on leading edge science and engineering.

For example, one way to make a car go faster (or use less fuel) is to reduce the force of drag caused by air flowing around it. Reducing drag is a part of the science (and engineering) of aerodynamics.

“The aerodynamics of am F1 car are so complex–modeling the turbulence created by just one wheel is as complicated as simulating a jumbo jet–that efforts to achieve better computer code in this area are genuinely cutting edge,” Lord writes. Boeing and the Renault Formula 1 team have a partnership. he writes: “Boeing provides the team with advanced CFD (computational fluid dynamics) code, and the team serves as a high-speed development laboratory…”

He quotes Peter Hoffman, Boeing’s director of global research and development strategy, as saying: “F1 functions like a boot camp for our CFD code.” In fact, he says this partnership has helped improve the design of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner.

An article. “Formula One: The car’s not the only star,” published by the British Independent newspaper online in 2009 offers several other examples of transfers of race-car technology to other purposes.

Finally, I mention above that women as well as men can become involved in auto racing. I suspect–I don’t have any figures to back this up–that women in auto racing are about where women in the atmospheric sciences were 30 years ago.

Leslie-Pelecky writes about diversity in racing, especially in NASCAR, in her blog post addressed to NASCAR on “Get Serious About Diversity.”

What she says about how women are treated reminds me of the stories that Joanne Simpson and other women who have been in the field 20 or more years have told me about their struggles to become accepted as serious atmospheric scientists.

In her blog Leslie-Pelecky mentions Janet Guthrie, the first woman to quality to start the Indianapolis 500 race (in 1977) and the Daytona 500 race (also in 1977). Her autobiography Full Throttle: A Life at Speed should be fascinating to anyone who is interested in auto racing or the stories of women who succeed in traditional men’s roles.

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