How To Upgrade The Electronics On A Vintage Formula One Car

Gif: High Performance Academy (YouTube)

Think about old PC games you used to play back in 1997. You wouldn’t be able to boot that up now, and you especially wouldn’t be able to use your modern computer to operate the exact same game. It’s a pretty similar standard when it comes to F1 cars. If you want to play that game, something needs to change.

When you see mid-’90s Formula One cars hitting the track for memorial events like Goodwood, don’t take for granted that all these cars used wildly outdated electronics systems to actually, y’know, run. Turns out, upgrading those systems is tougher than you can think.

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High Performance Academy sat down for a pretty interesting interview with Milan of PerSysTec to give viewers a more accurate idea of what it takes to modernize an F1 car’s old operating systems so that it can actually get started and run vintage events. Milan used the 1997 Williams FW19 that secured a 1-2 in the overall drivers’ championship as the example:

It’s a fascinating watch. You have to upgrade the electronics in order to maintain the car, since the old laptops that were used to get the car started back in the day aren’t supported by Microsoft or any other PC company—meaning that there wouldn’t be any real way to get the thing going without an upgrade.

Sure, I guess you could try to develop a software that would respond to the old tech. But the parts are tough to find nowadays, and it would require pretty niche, specialist knowledge to operate, whereas upgrading the car to a modern spec enables anyone who understands modern tech to work it. Ask McLaren how easy that was with its F1 road cars.

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Back in the day, the Williams would have used a Magneti Marelli electronics system. Now, it’s outfitted with the kind of modern Cosworth system used by LMP1 cars in the World Endurance Championship. That means we know that system works at high performance, and we also know there are people who know how to maintain and use that kind of system.

I think most interestingly, the original Williams-built vehicle control management system—the little box that powers the entire chassis—is still used in the car because Williams is still able to supply and maintain it. There are people at the Williams factory who can still calibrate that box to ensure, say, hydraulic functionality. And, yes, that VCM box is actually able to communicate easily with the new Cosworth system that’s been implemented! Cool, eh?

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The video gets into a lot of really fascinating technical examples about how the overall system works (like how the whole process dictating a single upshift of the car works), and it’s definitely worth a watch—especially for people who had no idea how much work has to go into getting a heritage car ready to roll.

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About the author

Elizabeth Blackstock

Staff writer. Motorsport fanatic. Proud owner of a 2013 Mazda 2.