Formula One's Fast Cars are Powered by a World of Data

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Today’s Formula One cars may seem to be basically what they’ve always been: a chassis with four wheels, controlled by a driver guiding a steering wheel as he races against a cohort of other similar machines and drivers.

But the reality of modern racing is actually more complex, with the car only the tip of a vast data iceberg. Efficient use of that data — which travels between the cars, the track-side engineers, the team factories sometimes a continent away, and computers in data centers around the world — can ultimately determine victory and defeat.

As the series stages its 15th race of the season this weekend, the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, the importance of computer data is as much in evidence through the armies of engineers and technicians set up on site in the team garages as it is in the legions of employees working at the team bases back home.

“That is really what has been the big story in Formula One over the last 15 years,” said Paddy Lowe, technical director of the Mercedes team, which is the reigning world champion and current series leader.

“I have been in this sport 28 years, and when I started there was almost no data, so you relied on the driver to tell you about the car,” he added. “Most experiments were empirical, and far less people were engaged. Because when you don’t have a lot of data, it is more difficult to engage more people anyway.”

Data has pumped up the number of people required to run a car effectively and it has permitted teams to expand the crew of employees involved in a race without sending them to the track. As a cost-control measure established by the series regulator, the International Automobile Federation, teams are allowed to bring only 60 employees to each race. But with today’s connectivity of sound, video and data, fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications systems facilitate the involvement of a much larger work force away from the track.

“Years ago you would come to a track with a small team, because there wasn’t much data to look at — there was a penciled comment on a run sheet maybe,” Lowe said. “So now we have lots of people who can sit at screens who you see in the garage.”

“There would be little point in bringing a team as large as we bring now if there wasn’t any data to look at,” he added. “You couldn’t gather 15 people around a couple of comments written in pencil on a run sheet. You only need one or two blokes to look at that.”

This is where the communications service provider offers a competitive edge. With a series that now races on all continents except Africa and Antarctica, sometimes in remote areas, the teams must rely upon the most robust electronic-data communications systems available.

Mercedes uses the services of Tata Communications, part of an Indian conglomerate that is involved in diverse sectors, including automobiles, airplanes, electricity and beverages.

“That has been all part of transforming the sport from this kind of seat-of-the-pants, finger in the air — somebody who makes a great call because he is some sort of legend apparently — which is how Formula One used to be,” Lowe said. “Now it is a very scientific, objective process with real professional analysis going on.”

Tata, which is a world leader in data and telecommunications, also provides the infrastructure for the Formula One television broadcasts and website. The company owns one of the world’s biggest underseas fiber-optic cable networks, which reaches more than 200 countries, and its telephone communications network services 20 percent of the world’s calls.

This giant network helps ensure that the Mercedes team can seamlessly operate in the same way at any of the Formula One tracks.

The other Formula One teams also employ telecommunications suppliers. Red Bull works with AT&T, for example, and the Williams team uses BT.

“Vastly increased network speed can totally alter the way we work,” said Pat Symonds, technical director of the Williams team. “This includes, for example, the ability to interrogate remotely our CAD system back at base, build new assemblies and then export the required information for use on the racetrack in a matter of minutes.”

Lowe also emphasized the greater importance today of a robust network for a team that has come to rely on working with an extended staff spread out in different places around the world.

“I have had experience of other providers, where they might be great in Germany, but when you go to Brazil it doesn’t function as well because they haven’t got the support network,” he said.

But with Tata, he added, “I’m not aware of any location where we go to where we have had any issues and where we say, ‘Ah this isn’t a great race for the data.”’

“From my point of view,” Lowe said, “it is just seamless and you have full operation at every event, and I’m never aware of actually losing that data link.”

One of Tata’s main strengths is its data-center expertise, with 44 centers around the world.

A Formula One car has hundreds of sensors that send data to a team of technicians who analyze every part of the vehicle for wear and tear as well as for engine, chassis and gearbox tweaks. The team sends suggestions and instructions back to the driver so that he can make changes in car settings. Meanwhile, a team of strategists at the factory back home also analyzes the race via the data, helping make strategic race decisions such as when best to make a pit stop.

“In telecommunications and enterprise telecommunications services, at one level is your fiber connectivity — that is how your data flows across the world, and your data could be voice, it could be video, or it could just be data analytics,” said Mehul Kapadia, managing director of Formula One Business at Tata Communications. “Sitting above that is where the data centers come into play. Because in the end, you need all of those data to actually be stored somewhere. You need to compute on it, you need to process it. So that’s where data centers come into play.”

For the telecommunications providers, the difficult environment of a Formula One race is a great test of their expertise. Tata chooses to work in the elite racing series because, Kapadia said, it is the harshest challenge the company has, a showcase in which to display and develop expertise.

“Our logo is not there on the car, you can’t see our logo in terms of circuit branding,” he said. “For us, this is a capability showcase. It is about truly being able to deliver services. And to be able to talk to customers and say, ‘If we can do this for Formula One, we can do it anywhere.’ We want to learn, as well. It is a great place to learn some techniques.”

This article originally appeared on The New York Times

Ultimately, though, Lowe said, behind it all, the driver is still the final link. What the driver does has not changed in the years since data became an integral part of racing, he said.

“You still need that out-and-out skill that Lewis Hamilton has, and that will never change,” Lowe said, referring to the Mercedes driver, who is the reigning world champion and current leader. “But you augment it with an understanding of how to work the systems, how to gain a benefit from that analysis.”

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