Every weekend, millions tune in to view their favourite Formula One drivers go head-to-head on race day, watching with bated breath to see who will emerge victorious. But unbeknownst to many, perhaps the fiercest battles occur off the track. Modern F1 cars are a technological tour de force, and teams must compete to build the best to give their drivers the greatest chance of victory – while the attention may be focused on the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, in reality, it is often the engineers that win world championships.

In an environment which is typified by extreme competition, innovation is key to success. There are many areas in which the car must be optimised, from aerodynamics to the thermal efficiency of the powertrain. The teams aren’t just focused on speed over one lap, but on race pace, tyre degradation, and reliability, to name but a few aspects of overall performance. Making a change to improve on one of these qualities can often have adverse effects on others without the proper research. Needless to say, the design challenges are extremely complex, And the difference can come down to the finest of margins, often measured in hundredths of a second per lap. Ultimately, the aim is to design the most complete package within a restrictive set of rules. In addition to this, the introduction of a budget cap in 2021 means that resources must now be utilised in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that increased computing power would be extremely valuable. This is where quantum computing comes in, particularly with regards to simulation which is critical for several aspects of car design.

The application of quantum computing algorithms can increase the speed and accuracy of simulations over and above what would be possible with even the most powerful of classical computers. As the season develops, engineers are constantly collecting data on the performance of the car which could then be used to produce designs much faster. Over and above simply trying to make the cars faster, some might have a particular weakness such as sensitivity to wind, which teams will try to understand and then fix – bringing upgrades to the car as early as possible will maximise point-scoring opportunities whilst also reducing the cost of production. This is of particular importance when considering the variation across the F1 calendar. For example, slower-speed tracks like Monaco require higher downforce setups compared to higher-speed ones like Monza.

There are several distinct areas where quantum computing could be beneficial. For example, in suspension design, the decision to opt for either pull-rod or push-rod suspension at the front and rear, and subsequently finding the optimum setup would undoubtedly be aided by enhanced simulations. This will ensure the car is both compliant and composed on track. Structural simulations can also be used to determine how a range of materials behave under load. Quantum algorithms are able to precisely model the stresses, strains, and deformations a particular part might undergo at high speeds, and the resulting design could ultimately be responsible for fewer DNFs over a season, along with reduced maintenance costs. Furthermore, the heat transfer properties of engine components and how they respond to fluctuations in temperature through the course of a race could be predicted using Quantum machine learning algorithms which can be trained using data from simulations carried out by traditional classical computers.

However, perhaps the most important advancements may occur in the field of computational fluid dynamics or CFD which involves predicting how air flows over the bodywork of a car. Quantum computers have the power to run simultaneous simulations which will help target multiple areas at once. This will mean parts can be modified far more efficiently to optimise the flow of cold air towards components that need cooling such as the power unit or the brakes whilst also maximising downforce and minimising drag. Therefore, improvements will not only give a speed advantage but also benefit fuel efficiency and reliability. The importance of aero simulation capability is magnified when you consider that teams are capped on their wind tunnel testing depending on where they finished the previous season, so quantum computing may reduce how much this constrains a team’s development process.

CFD essentially involves incredibly complicated sets of partial differential equations, which even high-powered classical computers (HPCs) struggle with because calculation time increases exponentially with the size of the problem when using traditional bits. Quantum computers offer a huge leap in performance. The Harrow-Hassidim-Lloyd (HHL) quantum algorithm is designed to solve multiple linear equations incredibly quickly and can be used effectively in a hybrid approach. Non-linear parts of CFD equations, Which quantum computers are not suited to tackling, can be solved using conventional supercomputers while the linear sections can be sent to a quantum processing unit which uses the HHL method to exploit the speed advantages. In terms of hardware, it is estimated that 50-100 qubits will be required to run any significant CFD simulations, with the potential to scale to 500 or even 1,000 qubits as the technology develops. Current research certainly points toward a quantum future. For example, a partnership between NVIDIA, Rolls-Royce and Classiq has designed a quantum computing circuit for CFD using NVIDIA’s quantum computing platform. Despite the fact modern quantum computers only support circuits with limited layers, the design anticipates a progression in technology with a circuit that is 10 million layers deep. Roll-Royce intends to use the new circuits to help build cutting edge jet engines, but the technology is similarly suited to motorsport. Whatever the industry, gaining a quantum advantage in CFD will undeniably be instrumental to success.

Overall, in the cutthroat world of Formula One, details matter. Races are decided by the finest of margins, so any edge that can be gained can have an immense impact on the outcome. Quantum computing promises to revolutionise how cars are designed, and in a sport which is defined by its technology, its potential cannot be overstated. While the hardware isn’t quite there yet, progress is being made and a quantum future may be right around the corner; the team that can harness its power first will be able to give their drivers the best possible machinery to fight for that all-important championship.