by Mark Chillingworth

McLaren CIO Stuart Birrell interview – The F1 data race

Feb 26, 201511 mins
IT StrategyManufacturing Industry

“Eight hours after the Bahrain Grand Prix, we were completely devoid of Mercedes in the team, and Japan was online with a full data connection ready for testing the following morning,” Stuart Birrell, Group CIO of the McLaren Technology Group says of just one challenge he has faced as business technology leader of one of the most successful teams in Formula One, and a business that pushes the boundaries of technology, engineering and sport.

Famed for its Formula One team, the company has taken legends such as Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Nikki Lauda, Alain Prost, Aryton Senna and Lewis Hamilton to world championship status. But McLaren is more than just an inspiring Formula One team, it is also a world-leading developer of electronics for automotive and motorsport industries, and in recent years it has become a luxury sports car manufacturer rivalling F1 sparring partners Ferrari and supercar leaders Aston Martin and Porsche.

McLaren not only applies its Formula One lessons to the worlds of cars and electronics, it is also pioneering its research, analysis and development skill sets in industries such as pharmaceuticals, media. It also worked closely with the British Olympic team and played a key part in its successful summer of 2012.

Thus in January of this year McLaren announced a business name change to the McLaren Technology Group. Chief executive Ron Dennis said: “Technology drives everything we do – creating the world’s most advanced road cars, working with blue-chip companies to enhance their performance and their products, and/or developing the world’s most robust electronic control systems. Our new name therefore reflects our ever-increasing focus on innovation and the creation of disruptive technologies that will have a positive and far-reaching impact.”

However, he went on to emphasise that: “Formula One racing is and will always be a core area of activity for us. Racing fuels our competitive spirit, it is our crucible of innovation, it enables us to attract the world’s best engineers, scientists and data analysts, and the enormous popularity of Formula One provides a unique global marketing platform. We exist to win, and nothing will ever divert McLaren Racing’s focus away from that ambition.”

This focus led three years ago to McLaren hiring Stuart Birrell as its Group CIO. He had previously played a vital role in the split of Gatwick Airport from owners BAA.

“It’s a tough world when you are not winning. It is a public test in front of 170 million people and F1 is a very harsh environment,” Birrell says of the extreme public focus of running a Formula One team. “You pin your colours to the thing.” In recent years, McLaren has slipped from the very top of the podium as Brawn, Red Bull and in 2014 Mercedes have become the dominant teams. McLaren remains a contender, but becoming a customer of Mercedes engines rather than the official number one team has seen the team fail to win a race in the past two seasons, despite having a first-rate driver such as Jenson Button.

Birrell says the business has grown in spite of its grand prix difficulties. “Automotive hadn’t made a car when I got here, now we are on our third model.”

McLaren works closely with pharmaceutical leaders GSK, which has its own building at the McLaren Technology Centre near Woking. In Formula One, millionths of a second are the difference between winning and losing, and every detail of a car, the race, equipment and team is stripped down to raw data and analysed for any opportunity for improvement. It is this process of self-awareness and analysis that created a synergy between GSK and McLaren. Birrell explains how McLaren remains competitive because it is a leader at identifying a problem, something businesses such as GSK find invaluable.

Data driven

“SAP Hana underpins our ERP and is used in finance, purchase and materials. All of my P&L sits on Hana. The automotive business went live in Q1 of 2015 and we are wall to wall,” he says of the cloud-based SAP platform.

“It is still opening up different ways of thinking about things, so we are looking at the reporting and business decisions in a different way that is more iterative.”

The power of Hana being a cloud tool enables McLaren to operate massive levels of data, which means it can simulate every permutation that could arise come race weekend.

“We run the races live from here,” he says, gesturing across the Sir Norman Foster designed McLaren Technology Centre. “As we have deep analytics, we can use that in the race to support real-time decision making, so it’s about scenario planning as the decision making in the race is which scenario to use.

“The capacity these people have to do multiple things at high speed is incredible,” Birrell enthuses of drivers such as Jenson Button and the engineering teams that support them. “It’s a great team effort. When you are making decisions using incomplete data, you have to do it in a calm environment. You cannot do that in the heat of Abu Dhabi,” he says of the mission control centre in Surrey. “We pull all the data here on a Sunday afternoon and spin up 350 million simulations on a cloud platform during the race so that we can predict the outcome based on many scenarios and ever-changing reality.

“There are 3,000 data parameters that we log for every lap. We can go back 10 years; that is Big Data. So we are looking at history to predict the future. From an engineering view, if you have good real car performance data, wind tunnel data and simulation data, you can start to predict how a component will act on the car before it is made, so a development takes two hours rather than three weeks. And this happens from race to race and it is this level of data that means we make initial decisions on the pit stops strategy on the Thursday before the race.

“That was the bit that fascinated me when I joined, the ability to make decisions on scenarios already considered, so that the real-time decision making is working out what scenario to use.”

One lesser understood outcome of this attention to detail is that over the course of the year there is a 300-millisecond difference between the top 10 cars, which makes a massive difference to the grid position and therefore the race.

“We have pioneered a lot of the data and analytics. You can connect it all up, but it is a ‘so what question’,” Birrell says of how F1 has raced ahead with what is today called the Internet of Things. Sensors on parts of the racing cars reporting back to the teams and creating huge data sets is nothing new to F1, but just as CIOs in a variety of sectors are discovering currently, just because you can connect something, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will gain competitive advantage. McLaren as a business is a world leader thought of asking itself why connect an item and what advantages can be extracted from that connection? Not only does its resounding success in F1 show this, the achievements of Team GB in the 2012 Olympic Games also benefited from the McLaren information methods.

“The Olympic work was about instrumenting the human being and measuring physical effort or deformations of a foot, and how you can then get values from that information. It was very successful and we have a great relationship with Team GB,” he explains. During the London Olympics rivals, such as the French, accused the mega successful GB track cycling team of having magic wheels such was the advantage of the British cyclists.

“It’s very lucrative the Internet of Things and Big Data, but they are pointless as terms and they annoy me. It’s about taking some business intelligence so that your operations guys can use it and generate business value,” he argues. Birrell and McLaren have benefited from the growth in Internet of Things technology and the resulting decrease in technology costs.

For the 2014 racing season, radical changes to the rules regarding F1 engines meant that if the telemetry fails, the cars stopped.

Sales rep

“We all have to help with the sponsorship. It’s fascinating and a great way to learn the business as you see the partnerships in marketing. So in discussions with vendors I have to turn salesman, as when people come to see us to sell an application, the tables turn.” Look at the 2015 car and SAP is a major sponsor, as are Intralinks and fuel company Mobil.

Birrell has a remit across the entire organisation, and describes McLaren before his arrival as three separate businesses “that had each grown up as independent garage that valued their independence”.

“It took time to stabilise the business model and then to standardise the architecture, but doing that has taken a lot of cost out,” he says of the past three years. “I do a 12- to 18-month plan and that pace is not just for the racing world, it is for the road cars too as their business is growing so rapidly because of the pace of technology development.”

The marketing arm of McLaren wanted a secure way to collaborate on real business documents. With intellectual property a crucial issue for an engineering organisation such as McLaren there was a conservative attitude towards collaboration tools; but Birrell is part of the growing wave of transformational CIOs that see the role as being a broker. The result has been the introduction of Intralinks across the organisation which enables staff to collaborate securely.

“There were two days of input from IT to ensure the use of standard hosting, approved development, other than that, let them get on with it and it is working very, very well. It’s about working with them to help them be self-serving and ensuring that collaboration is robust yet easy,” he says. Birrell has a team of 70.

“Recruitment is tougher than you’d think. We are a manufacturing organisation and we are competing with financial services in London. But the people here really want to be here,” Birrell explains of the surprising recruitment challenge he faces.

Touring the architecturally stunning McLaren Technology Centre it is striking how frank Birrell and the McLaren team are about the challenges of the past two seasons, in which McLaren have not secured a single grand prix victory.

“Racing is going through a culture change as the world has moved on and we have to relearn what made us successful. Having to relearn change is an immense challenge,” Birrell says. One of his peers, while demonstrating the team’s wind tunnel, is equally blunt about how the team has had to undergo a culture change in the way its aerodynamics section works. Aerodynamics has been a fundamental weakness in recent McLaren cars, while rivals such as fizzy drink team Red Bull have excelled aerodynamically.

From the shadows

“If I say no, they will find a way as they are smart people,” Birrell says of the opportunity for Shadow IT to be rife in a team of race, electrical, technological and mechanical engineers. “So it’s about education and training them on the products they use. They are engineers they want everything to be easy.

“I don’t control all the technology in a place like this. With smart people, it is about how you bring them together,” he says, but that wasn’t always the case. “IT treated them like toddlers.”

He adds that: “It’s not shadow IT, it’s a core part of the business as these guys cannot innovate without playing in IT, which is generating real value to the business. So I’m getting my guys to be coaches rather than a department of No.

“The whole IT team has been on a business engagement course as they have to be a consultant and coach. Even the deep infrastructure guys, who traditionally are in the back office, are business facing and have be able to interact with a broad mix of engineers and scientists,” he says of the need for everyone in technology to collaborate with everyone in the business. “It is a completely different model to what I have used before.

The next culture challenge for McLaren will be to relearn its working relationships with Honda and to once more become a winning team capable of unseating newly crowned world champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. Both of whom learnt how to win in relationships with McLaren.