Move over, drivers: The real star of Formula One is computer data


racing dataDylan Love


The Azerbaijan Grand Prix took place in the capital city of Baku
earlier this year, and the race was marked by significant
behind-the-scenes technical difficulty. A tall truck had
accidentally severed a cable that was carrying live data from the
race to F1 engineers stationed remotely around Europe. With this
cable cut, the race data never reached its destination and the
engineers were in the dark.

“If you lose data, you lose your performance,” says Franz Tost,
principal of the Italian Formula One team Scuderia Toro Rosso.
“We normally have 15 to 17 engineers watching every race from our
operations room in Faenza, Italy. They supply feedback on things
like tire wear and degradation, and monitor what our opponents
are doing as well. But when we were in Baku, they called us to
say, ‘Hey, when do we get data?’”

Formula One is as much about speed as it is about technology. A
savvy driver can make some meaningful in-the-moment adjustments
around brake bias and engine mapping in order to gain speed and
get ahead, but the major improvements happen off the racetrack as
a result of data analysis. At the highest levels of the sport,
human drivers perform so similarly that the biggest remaining
room for improvement is in the cars themselves.

Computer-captured data in Formula One informs all the major
decisions that teams sweat about: when to adjust the car’s wings
or change their size, adjusting tires, changing tire pressure or
compound, or tweaking one of the many aspects of the suspension,
from rake and ride height to sway bars and stiffness. Everything
pertaining to the car’s performance that can be tracked and
measured by computers is, well, tracked and measured by
computers. The things a human driver pays attention to in the car
are minimal by comparison to what computers are collecting.

“A lot of drivers will tell you
they do their racing by feel when it comes to things like shift
points and traction control,” says


, a Formula Three
racing driver and entrepreneur from New Zealand. “So many
important aspects of the car are monitored in real time by a
team’s engineers that the actual readout on the car’s dashboard
is more for reference. A Formula One driver only needs to focus
on driving.”

racing dataDylan Love

It ought to come as no surprise
that one of Scuderia Toro Rosso has a sponsor and technological
partner in data backup company Acronis. The F1 team produces
approximately one terabyte of computer data every race weekend,
and they retain it indefinitely. Data from previous years is a
strong basis for future performance, explains Tost — if you don’t
have data, you’re starting from zero.

That’s why Toro Rosso engineers prepare for a race about three to
four weeks in advance, studying old data previously recorded on
the track, feeding it into a simulator, and combining it with
their latest knowledge and experience of the cars.

“F1 is dictated by information technology nowadays,” says Tost.
“Without computer data, there is no success in F1.”


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