Digital business lessons from the world of Formula One

Image courtesy of Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One
Credit: Image courtesy of MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS Formula One

In addition to the blistering excitement of race day, the world of Formula One is well known for its technology innovation and advancements that later find their way into the consumer auto industry. Examples include a multitude of innovations related to engines, transmission, braking and safety.

With all the interest in digital transformation in the business world, what can the world of Formula One, where results are measured in thousandths of a second, teach us about emerging technologies and how to manage, combine and optimize them to deliver competitive advantage?

According to Matt Harris, head of IT at the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team, there are a number of business objectives his team has to address. Firstly, the goal of IT is to support and improve the business as a whole. The Formula One team doesn’t sell anything since the “product” in this case goes around the track. IT therefore focuses on providing and operating the core, car-enabling technologies for race performance as well as for the team’s website and worldwide fan base.

The use of social, mobile, analytics and cloud therefore comes into play in a diverse set of scenarios. In terms of the fan base, the team supports over 10.5 million Facebook fans and over 1.2 million Twitter followers. Mobility, analytics and cloud all play a role across both the racing and fan base aspects of the operation as the organization generates about 6TB a day as a business and an additional ½ TB on race weekends.

It’s all about the analytics

One of the key enabling technologies from a racing perspective is data analytics. According to Harris, the team collects more data now within a single race weekend than they did across every race weekend from 1998 to 2006 combined. Given approximately 16 to 19 races per Formula One racing season, this equates to over 150 times the data volume being collected compared to prior years.

Whether it’s tire temperature, degradation or many other factors, the team is always looking for the next way to measure and improve. This often means collecting higher resolution data while striving to make sensors lighter and more accurate. With an average of 200 sensors used on each of their F1 W06 Hybrid cars during the Grand Prix event, sensor weight is measured in fractions of grams. During practice sessions on Fridays, there can be even more sensors on the car as the team collects data about aerodynamics and other factors that can aid learning and optimization of race day performance.

Much like the corporate world, collecting and analyzing data in Formula One is always a compromise in terms of how much you can consume, what to evaluate and how quickly you can act on your insights. The FIA, the sport’s regulatory body, imposes rules concerning use of telemetry data and also how many team members can actually go to the track, while use of sensors is limited in many areas so teams can’t use trick software coding to cheat the rules. In addition, teams are now restricted to up to 60 staff at the track -- down from over 100 in prior years -- so that means a limited number of eyes to look at the data.

Interestingly, when it comes to monitoring the drivers’ vital signs, the team uses a more analog approach with verbal communications between driver and pit lane as opposed to a large number of automated sensors. So it’s a case of applying technology where it can lend the most impact as opposed to trying to measure and digitize everything possible.

One of the most recent innovations related to the team’s use of telemetry has been the ability to download racecar telemetry data via Wi-Fi using 5 GHz spectrum through their partnership with Qualcomm. This enables the team to "make better use of limited practice sessions and spend more time testing the configuration of the vehicle." The move to higher frequency 5 GHz spectrum enables much faster data transfer including data from thermal imaging tire cameras.

Seeking the next technology enablers

So what are the additional technology enablers that the team uses beyond social, mobile, analytics and cloud? How is the team applying enablers such as the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing and machine learning?

IoT clearly comes into play around the team’s use of sensors. The emphasis, as described earlier, is not only around data collection to improve speed, efficiency and vehicle safety, but around optimizing the physical characteristics of the sensors and their positioning in the race car environment. This is a valuable lesson for the corporate world in terms of thinking strategically about what IoT sensors you need, where to position them and how the data can drive real-time outcomes.

According to Harris, the team has been at the leading edge of 3D printing for around 15 years now, if not more. This is in stark contrast to today’s corporate organizations who, for the most part, are just starting to explore and deploy the technology. On the race cars themselves, the team has been using 3D printing for about 5 to 6 years for some of the less critical components such as non-load-bearing items.

Machine learning and predictive analytics is an area in which Harris wants to continue to improve in the years ahead. The team is interested in what new computer-generated insights can be provided to human analysts in order to constantly explore new perspectives and ideas.

When it comes to other automotive innovations, Harris expects to see efficiency technologies such as energy recovery systems migrate through to road cars much as innovations in car safety migrated through to road cars in prior years. Of course, some of the current innovations in road cars, such as self-driving capabilities and certain safety systems, purposefully won’t migrate in the other direction because Formula One also places a premium on the human element in terms of driver skill and ability. 

Achieving world-leading performance

This year, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team wrapped up the first and second place slots in the Drivers’ Championship with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg respectively, and the overall Constructors’ Championship.

An interesting takeaway from their IT strategy is perhaps that to achieve world-leading performance for the business, you don’t necessarily have to be a world leader on the bleeding edge of every single technology enabler. It’s more a case of being -- or striving to become -- a world leader and innovator in the areas that matter, and being a fast follower in the rest.

This should be encouraging news for corporate IT departments looking to get a digital business edge from today’s latest tech trends. Pick the mix of technology enablers you need to succeed, place your bets, and deploy your resources appropriately.

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