How Williams used data to get back to the front of the F1 grid

Felipe Massa in the Williams FW38 Mercedes, leading Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, and the rest of the field on the opening lap in Melbourne. Photo: Sam Bloxham/Williams F1

When Formula One driver Felipe Massa placed sixth in Shanghai at the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday, some of the most critical advice the Williams Martini Racing received as they pushed for the podium came from the Philippines, London and India thanks to sophisticated real time data analytics from team partner Avanade.

In order to make split second decisions based on data from both the cars, as well as rival teams, Williams racing is now sharing real time information beyond the 42 people trackside to data analysts around the world.

The names Williams is synonymous with Formula One racing. It’s nearly 40 years since Sir Frank Williams took on the world’s best at the top end of motorsports, setting the standard through the ’80s and ’90s by winning nine Constructor’s Championships in just 18 years – a feat only surpassed in 2000 by today’s dominant F1 player, Ferrari.

The world’s greats, including Australia’s Alan Jones, along with the likes of Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Jacques Villeneuve have all been behind the wheel at Williams.

Drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1

But the last decade has not been as kind to Sir Frank and his team on the race track. The nadir was reached between 2011 and 2013, when Williams posted an 8th and two 9th placings in the Constructor’s Championships from 12 teams.

In 2013, Sir Frank embarked on a massive shakeup of his business, changing the leadership team, including the CEO, in the hope it would drag Williams Martini Racing back up the ladder.

When Graeme Hackland joined Williams as IT director in January 2014, he was already a 18-season veteran of F1.

Sir Frank’s brief to Hackland was simple: get Williams back to the front of the grid.

Avanade’s chief technology innovation officer Chris Miller, and Williams IT director Graeme Hackland trackside in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Thomsen

One of the first things Hackland did was turn to Avanade, the US-based Accenture/Microsoft joint venture data analytics company.

“It was a digital step other teams had made 4-5 years ago, so I knew we had some work to do,” Hackland told Business Insider.

“Avanade have effectively doubled the size of the IT group at Williams. That’s a huge amount of resource to apply to some challenging problems.”

An F1 car generates an astonishing amount of data.

“Formula One cars are a great example of a connected device and have been since the ’70s when we first started capturing data from them,” Hackland said.

There are 1000 different channels of data coming off a car and the growth in information in the internet age has been phenomenal.

“When I came in in ’97, you could get all the data from both cars on a floppy disk,” he said.

“Now we’re generating 60 to 80 gig worth of data from each car over the whole race weekend just in telemetry, then we’ve got all the video and stuff on top of that, so that’s the kind of growth we’ve seen.”

The challenge for Williams was turning that information into something useful, which is why Hackland enlisted Avanade to help digitise the racing team and make sense of the information.

“The more time that we can free up for the creative people to spend on designing the car, racing the car, the better,” he said.

“Our strategists were spending 70% of every lap manipulating data, 30% analysing it. We’ve now reduced that to 10% of the time is manipulating data, and the rest of the time – it’s being creative.”

Up until Avanade’s arrival everyone had been working on spreadsheets.

Williams Martini Racing chief technical officer Pat Symonds said the team had a mind-boggling 750,000 spreadsheets lying around the place. The problem was not only that everyone wasn’t on the same page as a result, they were each working on their own pages.

“When you’ve got 750,000 spreadsheets, you’ve going to have five people working on five different spreadsheets trying to do the same thing but they’ll all be a little bit different,” Symonds said.

“So now we’re getting a lot more coherent in the way we work and moving much more to single source of the truth for everything we do.”

While the focus has been on making the cars go faster, it’s also filtered through to other parts of the business, which has a budget of around £100 million ($200 million) per season, such as travel requisitions and employment.

Digital non-conformance reports for parts were launched in Melbourne last month.

Symonds admits it’s been a big cultural shift.

“People were used to having to do everything themselves, now with Avanade there, we’ve got some experts doing it, which is so much more efficient,” he said.

“We’re getting to the point now where we’ve got the tools we need to do our job.”

Felipe Massa, Williams FW38 Mercedes. Photo: Andy Hone/Williams

The results are also showing on the track. When you realise Williams spends half the amount of money of the Mercedes team, and just a third of Ferrari’s budget, staying competitive for a fraction of the cost is a remarkable achievement.

After three races in 2016, lead driver Felipe Massa is 6th on the World Drivers’ Championship standings with a 5th, 8th and 6th, with Valtteri Bottas in 10th place among 24 drivers. Williams sits in 4th place on the Constructors’ Championship, one of just three teams to have both cars finish each race.

This year, Mercedes appears to have the jump, winning every race so far this season thanks to Nico Rosberg, with the team’s other driver, Lewis Hamilton, delivering a second and third.

For Williams, the fight is now for improvements of one-hundreds or one-thousandths of a second, Hackland says.

“There were some big things we had to do when I first go here, but now we’re talking about much smaller, much finer margins,” he said.

“The difference between us and our competitors is less than a second, so we’re trying some very small things.”

The Williams team is 500-plus people and Avanade has between 15-25 people working on the projects specifically for the race team.

Chris Miller, Avanade’s chief technology innovation officer, says F1 is a very technologically advanced, data driven sport.

“We’ve got a backlog of 70 projects we’re chunking off 10 at a time and I’m sure by the time we get to the next 10 it will be more than 70, based on performance and that singular objective of how can we get the car around the track faster,” he said.

Williams and Avanade are “both data-driven companies looking at how we can leverage data”.

“And every two weeks you have a very clear manifestation of ‘are we getting better’,” he said.

“For us it’s great opportunity to really demonstrate how technology can make a material difference to the performance of an organisation in a really visible, measurable way.”

Valtteri Bottas pits the Williams FW38 Mercedes. Photo: Steven Tee/Williams