How the “brain” of an F1 car is being adapted for use in children’s hospitals
Posted By: James Allen  |  20 Aug 2012   |  9:06 am GMT  |  62 comments

There was an interesting story in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday about an innovative new use in the medical world for the F1 electronic control unit, the “brain” of an F1 car.

As a result of a chance conversation between a McLaren engineer and a paediatrician, Birmingham Children’s Hospital has been trialling the ECU in a children’s intensive care ward; the idea is that the F1-derived unit can measure all the key signs from the child, sense trends and detect developing problems earlier than the electronics previously used by the NHS.

The unit normally measures oil pressures, brake temperatures and the like.

Here, a lightly adapted version of the F1 ECU is being used to measure things like heart rate, oxygen levels and blood pressure in an ill child. And, inevitably, it is far more capable than the units currently used in hospitals; it can take a heart cardiogram 125 times a minute, instead of once an hour, for example.

This allows doctors to pick up signs of deterioration in a child’s condition much earlier and it detects subtle shifts, which the current system would not register. This is what F1 has arrived at through the desire to know as much as possible in real time about what is happening on the race car.

There are over 120 sensors on an F1 car, recording over 500 parameters which are transmitted live via telemetry, back to the pits and also to the teams’ factories in the UK and Europe. The ECU manages the data and the control systems and is a standardised unit used by all the F1 teams. In the four years since McLaren Electronic Systems started as ECU supplier, no car has retired from a race due to ECU failure, which gives a level of confidence for medical staff, no doubt.

The MoS spoke to Dr Heather Duncan, a consultant paediatrician at BCH, who described the trial as “a transformational breakthrough”; she is hoping to find more funding to continue the trial and encourage other childrens’ ICUs to trial the system.

“Formula 1 engineers do lots of real-time monitoring during races and look at performance and modelling to see when they should change tyres and have pit stops,” she said. “They’re predicting, essentially, which we don’t tend to do in healthcare.

“Although we can always see what is happening at the bedside, we can’t see trends over time. This software lets us do this – and it could improve a child’s chances of survival.

“At the moment it’s intuitive for a racing engineer but less so for clinicians. For example, breathing rate kept coming up as “revs per minute”. So there’s some tweaking to do.”

It’s easy to be cynical about stories like this, but the application of F1 technology to other areas of life is such an important bi-product of the drive for innovation, which makes F1 what it is.

As the team bosses fight each other over how to control costs and what F1 should be all about, they could do with taking account of stories like this one.

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That is true about ECU’s being in cars from way back. But, when people come up with newer ECU’s for example,

the older ones don’t matter. This from someone who worked in electronics and did innovated work with amplifiers, gaming, nuclear testing and automotive. There’s still something to be said about the technology beyond figuring out that it can be transferred.


I hate to put a dampener on what is a heart warming story but I own a garage and specialise in elctronics. I promise you any car built since about 2002, and in some cases far further back than that, has an ECU for the engine management, the ABS or many other functions more than capable of monitoring the vital signs of a human. We are slow compared to even a road engine running at up to 6,500 rpm!

The clever part was seeing how the technology could be transferred, and if I’m cynical, publicised. That said, full marks for doing it!


Hi James,

Sky did a great piece with Brundle examining the ECU. What are your thoughts on Mclaren’s recent business ventures, namely the tie up with GSK, the road-car business (including the latest MSO project)? Within focused commentary on the sport, Mclaren seem to be behind Ferrari, Red Bull and Merc in terms of resources, yet they seem to be so innovative compared to their rivals. Watching the animations makes me realise how many opportunities they are creating – not just for their own brand, but also for those of their sponsors and drivers. Consider, for example, how much more recognisable and likeable Jenson and Lewis will be after this series of animations. I wonder to what extent the monetary value of those opportunities has been calculated for the drivers and what additional leverage it creates for the team in contract negotiations.

I think this whole topic would make a really interesting topic for a summer or close-season article. I’m also really interested to know how Williams stock floatation affects day-to-day operations of the team. Are they still active with the fly-wheel KERS technology?


I think the use of applied technologies is one of their ace cards. They do it really well and you can see other teams coming later to the party.

The GSK tie up is particularly innovative. Not heard much on it lately, but it’s a good idea


Great news, and I really hope it will move on from initial talks…but what about a cost of it?

I don’t think that F1 ECU is anywhere near affordable, even in terms of big hospital.

On top pf the unit itself, there’s additional development/tweaking required…and unfortunately it does cost extra on top of already extremely expencive unit.

I don’t see any hospital in my county (Croatia) as being capable to afford one.

Let alone a hospital in some third world country.

If F1 technology is to be transferred down, to real world, it has to have real world price….otherwise it won’t work.


How do I get in touch with you? Here’s what I get on

: Quota exceeded.


Hi James,

I didn’t want to plug this comment in a story where it would be irrelevant but I couldn’t get in touch via email. I’d shared a story and some videos on self driving road cars on your site about a year ago. It was met with some disbelief and skepticism then. Since that time self driving cars have been legally allowed on the streets of Nevada, USA. Now we have a self driving Audi TTS on the race track. Take a look at this:

Self driving cars will slowly but increasingly be adopted throughout the world and will go a long way towards reducing pollution, traffic jams, road accidents and provide inexpensive mobility and

accessibility to millions in developing countries. Here’s a video of Sebastian Thrun, the scientist behind the project:

Who knows, maybe one day the F1 safety car will be self driven. Please take a look at the links above. I’d love to hear your views and also of the F1 community on this.


Thanks, I’ll take a look


BBC has already covered this a few weeks ago. Here’s the video:

The software desperately needs updating!

Then again, in laps and out laps might be used as an index for NHS efficiency!


This is exactly why I love the technology on F1, and it is why it is an excellent place to pioneer new technologies and innovations for road cars and other industries.

If real time monitoring and modelling can help save lives then this is great news.

Maybe Bernie ought to offer a yearly prize to the team who develops technology that is used outside F1


I can Just see Ron Dennis rubbing his hands together and announcing “Mclaren Medical Technologies”

Fantastic story- hope we see more of these transferable uses for F1 Technology in future.

Thanks James

tom in adelaide

Competition fuels innovation. Great story, there’s no more worthy cause than helping children in need.


What’s all the fuzz about road relevance, then? Everyday-life-relevance!


Brilliant stuff — thanks very much for the reportage James! Long may such cross-overs continue…..


WOW. James, you are the real deal. Cants say enough thanks for this information


Racing is life…


Hi James,

Great article. I had a clarification though. Why do you think people would get cynical about such technological applications emanting from F1?

For an F1 fan, this is great news and just the beginning of contributions F1 can make to science and technology and for improving organisational performance and decision making.



I seem to remember a while ago that Ferrari and/or McLaren were involved with a hospitals A&E dept using their pit stop proceedures in the more expedient management of patients when surrounded by a large team of doctors and nurses


I love F1 and the technology crossover with the auto industry, but all that pales in comparison to whats being investigated here, very cool and kudos to you James for covering it.


It is good for the sport.


awesome. simply blown away!

THIS is the feel good F1 story line of the year…


It can’t of course actually take a cardiogram 125 times per second because then each one would be based on a (different) fraction of a heart beat.


But still a great idea.


I believe it said 125 times/min. That would allow for virtually real-time and constant cardiogram monitoring for heartbeats that are <125 beats per minute (anything faster than that, and some beats would not be recorded). Not bad when subtle changes can lead to a more accurate diagnosis.

Rather humourous that breathing rate came up as RPM!


Whoops, comment 7 said per second and I didn’t look back to the article.


This is the type of issue that should get more media. It helps demonstrate that not all human activity associated with racing machinery is anti-social. There are many things that were/are developed for industry/production/space transport that manage to cross boundaries into very socially responsible areas. It is the networking of humans that bring about the crossing of boundaries. Lets promote and encourage more formal and informal networking of health and industry and university personnel with the highly talented people in F1.


Great to hear F1 technology can be adopted and developed to help save lives.


A great story and makes perfect sense when you think about it.

I’m not all that surprised that this has come about, the medical world does tend to put some surpriseng technologies to use. I remember reading several years ago that doctors were using a number of grpahics processors from a Playstation 2 for number crunching in medical research. It does make you wonder what other technologies could be applied in such a way.


Which reminds me of restrictions on exports of an early generation Playstation because their CPU is apparently good enough to be adapted into missiles as guidance system.


I’d heard about this a while ago and thought it was a fantastic idea. There must be so much F1 technology that can be crossed into other fields. Mclaren should be incredibly proud that they can contribute like this. It is almost justifying their incredibly high expenses if they’re going to put the tech into hospitals, they desperately need it!

Also, I love the fact that heart rate comes up as Revs per minute! Brilliant!


I’m surprised similar technology hasn’t been developed in biomedical engineering. That said, it is an exciting application – who said f1 tech needed to filter down only into ordinary cars?


Sensors updating hundreds or thousands of times per minute or second are nothing new, but a device updating cardio readings x times per second doesn’t gain you anything if you don’t use that data. Analysing the data and using it to feed predictive algorithms seems to be the important contribution here.


Wow! This is what the innovation section of the website is about, what an interesting story.

I was in hospital a few weeks ago and was connected to a mobile heart monitor using telemetry to send the information to the cardiology department. I was very impressed, but I could see how the ECU could help massively.

It took about 6 or 7 mins to set up the machine to get me a heart cardiogram; to get one 125 times a second is amazing and very important in an ICU

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