Drivers and mechanics and the billionaires who back them may appear to be the force behind Formula One racing, but a day spent trackside at the Montreal’s F1 race quickly reveals how engineers and data rule.
Roam the grounds of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and engineers are everywhere: In the Mercedes AMG Petronas garage, two chemical engineers are testing and tweaking fuel formulae to maximize speed and efficiency for star driver Lewis Hamilton. Mechanical engineers analyze vehicle performance and computer engineers transmit vehicle data in real time to another small army of engineers at the Mercedes racing headquarters in the United Kingdom.
There is not a speck of grease visible to an F1 neophyte who might expect a Formula One garage to look like, well, a garage. Instead, data screens line the walls, gathering information from more 200 sensors on each vehicle. The space looks more like a hospital intensive care unit than a home for grease monkeys.
Much of the information is top-secret, as the teams analyze information for every possible advantage. No photographs are allowed. Telecom company Tata Communications transmits Mercedes data along encrypted lines to the company’s racing headquarters in the UK to keep it out of the hands of archrivals like Ferrari. Tata officials like to brag their data is faster than anyone’s.
Adjustments are made between training runs and, if necessary, in the middle of the race. Jacques Villeneuve, a former F1 champion, says the reliance on engineering and data analysis can be a bit much.
“It’s gotten a little overboard in how it controls strategy. Lap after lap, the engineer tells the driver through the radio how to drive, what to do, where to save fuel, it’s not even left to the driver to make decisions,” he said. “It’s a bit wrong. If you just banned radio communication, it would be fine.”
While data rules the pits, it is even more vital to the economic heart of F1 racing. The team that has turned racing into a multi-billion-dollar global sports empire is a small army of in-house Formula One Management engineers and technicians toiling quietly in front of screens two hundred metres from the track. These men and women capture millions of data points and turn them into an all-media experience fed at massive profit to millions of fans spanning the globe.
While the teams jealously hoard some data points, others are shared for all to see, by F1 rules, in the hopes of bringing more eyeballs to TV broadcasts, mobile apps and every other platform imaginable.
Infrared tire sensors show in blazing colour when rubber is running red hot, putting the driver at risk of blowout and adding to drama for viewers. Onboard cameras on every car give track-level view of every bump and pass. The cameras are not just an option on the vehicles, they’re mandatory. FOM carefully controls every aspect of F1 racing, and the entire system is built to attract eyeballs, and therefore, money.
“They don’t leave pit row without a camera, any more than they’d leave pit row without a wheel,” said Pete Samara, the head of research and development at FOM, and the tech boss of the Montreal race.
Viewer experience, after all, is what makes everybody rich, from the drivers to F1 honcho Bernie Ecclestone. “This is what has built the sport, and in the end reaching fans is what we’re trying to do,” said Mr. Samara, who himself is an electrical engineer.
For Mr. Samara, Montreal’s race started Tuesday, when three 747 jumbo jets carrying 100 tonnes of gear landed at Mirabel airport. About half of that cargo comprises of cars, equipment, hospitality tents, and mobile headquarters for the racing teams.
The other half is Mr. Samara’s gear, including cameras, electronic turnstiles, stop lights, timing equipment, 35 kilometres of fibre-optic cable, and a giant, climate-controlled tent that transforms into data centre and fully equipped television production suite.
Each work station is built right into airliner cargo crates so that 24 hours after the race, they will be back on a plane headed for the next destination. The walls of the broadcast and data centre are covers for the crates.
Each pod is organized according to data logic: Raw race information is captured from cars and by sensors embedded in the track and fed by wifi and radio-frequency transmitters to computers and engineers. On the data goes to other technicians who oversee the transformation into useable bytes for the internet, mobile devices and TV-friendly graphics.
This is how an F1 fan anywhere in the world can know to the second where, exactly, Fernando Alonso is situated on the 4.4-kilometre Montreal track, how fast he is going, and where he ranks among drivers.
Next is a full-scale TV studio taking in video from trackside, taking in images from 35 cameras around the track and dozens more on the cars and on helicopters. Sound is mixed, replays picked out and a director picks from four dozen screens and enough all-digital technology to make a TV network tech boss blush.
All of it is controlled by F1, until it is fed to the globe-encircling data pipeline run by Tata Communications, a burgeoning telecom giant built on the remains of Teleglobe, a onetime Canadian crown corporation. That pipe leads across the St. Lawrence River to Tata’s Montreal offices, and then to New York and the UK, where a global roster of clients and TV rights-holders can tap in.
Tata is an Indian-based global industrial giant. Michel Guyot, the Montreal-based executive who runs the voice portion of the data business, admits the F1 business, including hosting the website for races, is a major marketing boon for the company. “If we can pipe immense amounts of data and run web serving for F1, we can do it for anybody,” he said. “Of course, the flipside is if you have an outage during a race, you’re dead. But that hasn’t happened and we’re confident it won’t.”
With reporting from Sean Gordon in Montreal