Formula One sells its big data know-how

Wander around the pits at a Formula One car race and you’re as likely to bump into a laptop-wielding scientist or engineer as a mechanic with a spanner.

Crew members of Mercedes Formula One team practice a pit stop with Lewis Hamilton's car at the Buddh International Circuit. ReutersAnd the lessons they are drawing from sensors on F1 tracks, cars and drivers are finding their way into a surprising range of industries – from drilling oil wells to making toothpaste.

“By chance or whatever we’ve ended up that F1 is a very strong metaphor for how the world is developing around a more industrialised Internet,” says Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronic Systems, part of a group which makes F1 cars. “You take information and you measure things, and from that you try to adapt how things behave and flow, so you can make performance better.”

Formula One racing, born after World War II, has long embraced rapid innovation. It can take seven years to get an ordinary car from the drawing board to the showroom: An F1 car may take just five months … and have new components added to it each race weekend. “There are very few industries which have a similar ability to evolve at such pace and bring components or products to market at such speed,” says Gerard Spensley, AT&T’s global accounts director for F1. But in recent years safety concerns and fears it would bankrupt itself have forced the sport to adopt tighter regulations, reducing speeds and spending. This has shifted emphasis from hardware upgrades to real-time tweaks in efficiency and tactics to prise an extra millisecond or two from car and driver.

To do that, teams capture gigabytes of data from more than 100 sensors on each F1 car, transmitting it back to the pit or direct to their UK headquarters over high-speed cables. Once engineers have analysed the data they feed advice back to the driver – often within minutes or even seconds. At last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, for example, the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team’s UK factory used AT&T’s high bandwidth link to assess the impact of an early collision on driver Sebastian Vettel’s car in time to send instructions to trackside engineers ahead of the first pit stop. That gave them time, AT&T’s Spensley said, to make alterations that helped reduce the risk of further damage to the car. Vettel finished sixth, retaining his title.

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