AMD's Opteron has zoomed in to win a 530-processor supercomputer contract with Formula One's Sauber Petronas. The Swiss racing team has installed the £2.2 million system to help optimise the aerodynamics of its cars, working alongside the full-scale wind tunnel that it built a year ago at its base near Zurich.

"In the last 10 years, aerodynamics has played a critical role in Formula One - it's perhaps 70 percent of the performance of the car," said team principal Peter Sauber. He said that the supercomputer would be used to develop car body designs prior to wind-tunnel testing.

Built by local manufacturer Dalco, the supercomputer has 256 dual-processor nodes, with a number of spares and control processors, all running Linux plus computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software from Fluent. Sauber Petronas has named the machine Albert, after Zurich's best known ex-student, one Mr A. Einstein.

It is a tightly-coupled cluster with high-speed node interconnects and a terabyte of RAM, and is highly dense - its processors occupy just eight racks, with two more for control and comms. However, at 88kW, Albert consumes so much power that it has had to be installed in special water-cooled racking from APC.

CFD on a supercomputer can do things that even the wind tunnel cannot, says Sauber's head of CFD Torbjorn Larsson. For example, the wind tunnel can test a full-size F1 car, but the computer can simulate two cars, showing how the airflow varies during overtaking.

"You have to model the whole car - all the components interact so you can't design a front wing in isolation, say," he says. "The wind tunnel is very fast and accurate, but it's expensive and it's heuristic, so you don't necessarily understand why things work. CFD offers that possibility, plus you can simulate anything, for example the effects of exhaust temperature or braking heat on the airflow."

AMD already sponsors top team Ferrari, and while Sauber finished sixth in this year's F1 constructors championship, the two do have quite a bit in common - Sauber uses Ferrari engines and recently extended its deal with Ferrari to cover the 2005 season.

Larsson said that Albert replaces an SGI Onyx, which it should outperform 30-fold: "We needed a lot of benchmarking before deciding, we found Opteron was the clear winner," thanks in part to it having lower latency to memory than Itanium. He added that Sauber did look at SGI's newer Itanium-based Altix supercomputer, "but it is extremely expensive for 512 processors."

Albert's peak performance of two teraflops should put it into the latest Top 500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers, he said.