Aside from the glitz and glamour of multi-millionaire race drivers and champagne, Formula 1 is a competitive sport consumed by data. And it is making sense of that data that is critical for F1 teams to thrive.
Analytics is a key fundamental into understanding how a Formula 1 car behaves. An F1 car travelling at 200mph puts heavy pressure on the car, and not least, the driver, and knowledge of those characteristics can lead to the correct decisions being made in order to win.
And so F1 is very much a numbers game based around off-season and in-season car development. As F1 is widely seen as the pinnacle of motorsport, the chance for a team to cement their legacy in the sport is something they cannot refuse.
The rewards are high too – Formula 1 generated $1.7bn in revenue and made $500m profit in 2013, the majority of which goes to the teams competing, and this is even excluding other sources of revenue such as merchandising and sponsorship. This cash pot is certainly enough incentive for F1’s heavyweights to spend anywhere from £100-250m a season to be at the top step of the podium over 19 races across the world.
But how does an F1 team become the best?
Of course, the foundations of a successful outfit are a team of people working in synergy, and a fast car with a driver that can extract as much performance out of it.
In search for that peak performance, cars maximise the amount of time they can spend on the track within the sport’s rules and regulation before a Grand Prix. A commercial car, for example, might take 5-7 years working its way from the drawing board to production; an F1 car may take a mere 5 months.
To understand that performance, analytics intuition is required so engineers and data analysts can make sense of the car’s speed, stability, as well as aerodynamics and tyre degradation around a racetrack. More testing programmes are also completed at the team’s manufacturing base as well as their state-of-the-art wind tunnels.
Teams like McLaren are fuelled by data, and in search of performance perfection, have their cars fitted with 150 sensors monitoring car and driver behaviour around every corner. These sensors track vital stats such as brake wear, tyre life and driver biometrics. In one lap they can transmit 2GB of data, and a full-race distance 3TB. And so to transfer this critical data into one repository McLaren uses SAP HANA, an in-memory database management system which enables its existing systems to process this data some 14,000 times faster than ever before.
The flip side of the coin of the sport is not just simply about interpreting analytical information, but being able to make strategic decisions as a team. F1 teams usually carry a limited number of its management and engineering staff at every race circuit, with analysts and other technical staff left back at their respective headquarters. The communication between the two locations is key, and possibly three parties as engine manufacturers chime into the conversation.
Infiniti Red Bull Racing carry a wealth of data that is constantly analysed in real-time over race weekend. The team relies on its fast and highly secure communications on a reliable high-capacity network to connect its dispersed team and help them collaborate to make informed decisions.
This season they are collaborating with telco service AT&T, using its global MPLS network for a secure private network connection that allows the team to transfer at least 200GB of data between UK headquarters, other facilities and the track during every race.
It is constant innovations like these that make the sport so intriguing. I have watched Formula 1 for nearly 20 years, mainly in awe of drivers such as Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton, but had always been impressed with its ability to be at the forefront of innovation and design by using and manipulating the data that is available to them.
And with this era of Formula 1 being engulfed by such advanced technology, it would be interesting to see how the sport can get audiences more integrated with real-time data. For instance, during race weekends television viewers are able to see heat maps that expose which parts of the cars are exposed to the higehest temperatures, such as racing tyres and the car's engine. And fans can also listen into selective live radio feeds between the race engineer and the driver. Exposure to basic forms of live data gathered by teams via a mobile app may give viewers an indication of why teams make the strategic decisions that they do.
Analytics has consumed the sport in ways like no other. With the ability to harness big data and actionable intelligence, teams can now pass on those trade secrets in industries such as pharmaceuticals and financial, as McLaren has done with GlaxoSmithKline and KPMG. The ingenuities of F1 car technology often filters its way down to the cars you and I drive daily, from fuel efficiency to safety, which shows why the sport is usually in pole position in terms of technology innovation and especially with data.