Formula 1 behind the scenes: It’s still all about speed, speed, speed

6 Jul 2017

Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Image: MrSegui/Shutterstock

Formula 1 isn’t just about high acceleration and braking as late as possible, with data processing now playing a bigger role than ever before.

Data, interpreted as fast as technologically possible, is at the centre of Formula 1. It always has been, and it probably always will be.

That’s why more and more CIOs from the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull are becoming well known.

Future Human

While men driving cars around tracks from Bahrain to Budapest might be the visual, glamorous end-product consumed by enthusiasts, it’s likely that telemetry screens are where the true races lie.

Many teams in Formula 1 use the sport as a branding exercise, to a degree, but the trialling of cutting-edge technologies does eventually result in better, faster, safer and more efficient road cars.

The Bridgestone tyres on your Fiat, for example, probably morphed over time from those massive mounds of rubber keeping Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the front in Magny-Cours in 1997.

Tomorrow’s consumer Pirelli tyres will benefit from this season’s battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes. Image: Shahjehan/Shutterstock

Mercedes in the pits. Image: Shahjehan/Shutterstock

Feel the suspense?

Active suspension was first used on Ayrton Senna’s 1983 Lotus, and it’s common in cars now.

Steel disc brakes, originally coming through Le Mans rather than F1, are another example of how cutting-edge race driving leads to better and better consumer vehicles.

The evolution is never-ending; for example, pursuing data-as-a-service is changing the business model of McLaren, one of Formula 1’s historic giants.

“We might not sell human telemetry or biometric sensors; we might sell performance as a product,” said Craig Charlton, CIO at McLaren Technology Group, recently.

“We do it all the time with our Formula 1 drivers. So why couldn’t we transfer that back … and start driving human performance in a corporate environment?”

Speaking to Diginomica, Charlton noted how much data is lost, or thrown away, by automotive companies nowadays. In Formula 1, it’s probably greater still.

So, one of the key challenges his company faces is knowing what data to look out for, and when.

“Remember, you probably throw away 95pc-plus of the data because it’s irrelevant. What you want to understand is when something is going wrong or something is outside of tolerances.”

Data to the rescue

A few years ago, Red Bull, one of Mercedes’ main rivals, was on the cusp of glory, with Vettel, its driver at the time, needing just a podium position in the final race to win the title.

A clip from behind and a quick spin put the German, now in a damaged car, in last. Disaster, though, was averted as his team of engineers had streams of data to look through and, within about 10 minutes, had devised a strategy to regain control.

This strategy included everything from when to pit – and where each stop would return Vettel in terms of position – to exactly how to rebalance the damaged car.

“To win with such a fine margin and to have an accident like that at the very beginning and for the whole team to come together, it’s the race that films are made of,” said Al Peasland, head of technical partnerships at Infiniti Red Bull Racing, at the time.

Since then, the demand put on race engineers means that even that 10-minute spell would probably be considered antiquated.

Microsoft Dynamics today works with Renault for the same reason, while SAP is a partner with McLaren-Honda.

TIBCO, Formula 1, Mercedes

That’s what TIBCO, a US software company, is hoping today to bring to Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, another titan of Formula 1 and an outfit that, currently, is at the forefront of automotive innovation.

“Each car generates around 3.5TB of data per race weekend,” said Thomas Been, CMO of TIBCO.

“[Teams] need to understand this data very quickly,” he said, with his company providing the software to do just that – in theory.

Impressed, much?

Partnering with Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport for a few months now, TIBCO’s software is working behind the scenes. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport engineers are impressed, according to Been.

However, it will be later in the season – the final race is in November in Abu Dhabi – before TIBCO’s solutions are fully, officially embraced on race days.

“We get the team the data quickly, but the key is engineers understanding this data just as quick,” he said.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport already partners with the likes of Pure Storage and Qualcomm, with data clearly paramount for such deals, but Been is hoping TIBCO can make sense of it all.

The company’s analytics solution, according to Been, allows engineers to see the likes of gear changes and RPM in real time. This information can then be used by engineers to set up specific configurations on race days.

“Then, by the track, the engineers can analyse, immediately, the results from the data,” he said. “They need insights.”

Formula 1 cars stay in the pits for very short periods of time, a minute or so in qualifying, five or six seconds a time during the race.

“That’s the time they have. If the analysis or insights are produced after the car has left the pits, then there is no point to it,” said Been.

Standing out

However, it’s a competitive landscape for TIBCO, with releasing a company’s data capabilities into the wild a challenge that is worlds away from Formula 1.

You can put everything out in the right place, achieving the right goals in far faster times than rivals but, if it goes unnoticed, it’s far from a success.

TIBCO’s partnership with Mercedes Benz Formula 1 means the company features on the helmets of Lewis Hamilton (left) and Valtteri Bottas. Image: Daimler AG/Steve Etherngton

TIBCO’s partnership with Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Formula 1 means that the company features on the helmets of Lewis Hamilton (left) and Valtteri Bottas. Image: Daimler AG/Steve Etherngton

“We are unique in the capabilities that we provide: analysis and action in real time,” he said. “That’s what attracted Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport to us.”

Calling this “one of the best use cases we could ever think of”, Been’s hoping a partnership at this level will propel his company’s data analytics to a new level.

Getting a brand into one of the biggest sports in the world is one thing. Making it stand out, though, is something altogether different.

Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Image: MrSegui/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic