By Alan Baldwin
BRACKLEY, England (Reuters) – What might once have been done at the drop of a hat now comes in the blink of an eye for Matt Harris, the Mercedes Formula One team’s head of IT.
This weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, the penultimate round of the season, perfectly illustrates his point.
Harris, who has worked at the Brackley factory since the days of BAR in the 1990s, recalled with wry amusement what setting up communications used to be like at the Sao Paulo circuit a decade or more ago.
“We’d turn up…and you’d basically be 10 teams down the pitlane arguing over who got the ISDN lines because there weren’t enough supplied into the track,” he told Reuters on a recent factory visit.
“You dialed it up and if you didn’t keep it dialed up for the weekend, basically you lost it when somebody else used it.
“You’d barter with a telecoms engineer from Brazil with a hat or a T-shirt…and trying to barter against a Ferrari guy you generally lost because they wanted the Ferrari hat or T-shirt.”
Nowadays information from more than 150 sensors on each of the cars driven by triple world champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg travels from Sao Paulo to the factory, where ranks of engineers crunch the numbers, in a matter of milli-seconds — the blink of an eye.
The big step up for Mercedes, who had already previously migrated from hefty satellite dishes to MPLS private networks, came in 2013 when they partnered with India’s Tata Communications.
The deal tripled the bandwidth and opened up new possibilities via fibre-optic cable for the remote operations that had already become a reality.
Mercedes, like most other big teams, have a control room at the factory that swings into action at race weekends with engineers analysing live data feeds and acting on them.
“There’s a funny story from Michael Schumacher’s days (at Mercedes from 2010-2012). He was sat in the car and one of his race engineers who wasn’t at the track, he was at the factory for personal reasons, started talking,” recalled Harris.
“Michael said: ‘I haven’t seen you all weekend, where are you?’. And he said ‘Back in the factory’. It was so clear and concise, he didn’t realize the difference between somebody at the track and at the factory.
“And to be honest, it didn’t matter to him as long as he got the data he wanted.”
The improved capabilities mean savings for the team, who are strictly limited to how many people they can take to a race, just as Formula One Management benefits from their own global partnership with Tata.
The moving camera in the Interlagos pitlane can now be controlled by an operator sitting at FOM technical headquarters at Biggin Hill in southern England where television packages are put together.
While F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone has spoken of the need to stop the sport becoming ever more an “engineers’ championship”, Harris saw no likelihood of his own workload easing off.
“We will always find ways to get enough data to do what we need to. They will never turn around and say take all the data away because you’d have no cars finishing,” he said.
“I do sort of agree in some ways with not helping the drivers, not spoon-feeding them things. But at the same time…you want the best car out there.”
Harris expected more and more data to be analysed remotely in future.
“For us to transfer equipment around the world, we pay in the region of $270 per kilo,” he said. “The custom-made racks that hold the IT kit — if I take all of the IT kit out, it’s 100 kg. The more IT kit I put in there, the more money I’m spending.
“So why not get the data here, do the computing here on bigger clusters and just give them the results back…I think you will get more and more people here interacting with drivers. The competitive advantage over time is going to be who can react to the data fastest.”
TATA Communications boss Mehul Kapadia diplomatically described Ecclestone’s viewpoint as “multi-faceted” but pointed out that improved connectivity also allowed Formula One to improve the show and exploit new ways of engaging fans beyond simple television coverage.
Tata last year trialled delivering a live 4K feed of Singapore Grand Prix practice via their fibre-optic cable network.
“I believe the data play is making it a more interesting sport for people to consume and for engineering models to happen,” said Kapadia.
“Our behaviour towards sport has changed from being a simple lean back look at the television. The way we engage now is we are looking at gadgets in our hand and data streams and we can’t run away from that fact.
“(Data) could make it amazingly richer as a sport to consume. I think it’s happening already.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)