- In the field of car racing, it’s essential for engineers to study data in order to improve a car’s performance.
- At the highest levels of the sport, human drivers perform in near identical ways, leaving the remaining room for improvement in the cars themselves.
- Computer-captured data program Formula One informs all the major decisions when it comes to tweaking a car’s performance speed.
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 Chris Vlok, 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.”
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.”