by Divina Paredes;Byron Connolly

How Lotus F1 team taps big data to overtake rivals

Sep 28, 2015
Big DataInnovation

When a squealing Formula 1 race car whizzes by, whether live or on screen, Thomas Mayer sees beyond the glamour of the sleek image before him.

Instead, he sees a ‘data driven performance machine’ and thinks further how he and his team can improve the car’s performance.

Mayer is chief operating officer at Lotus F1 Team, one of the standout teams in the global Formula 1 championship events.

Formula 1 racing is not only a motor sport, it’s also a business and to succeed in the game, teams need passion and just as importantly, very good resources, Mayer told attendees at this month’s ANZ CIO Forum.

“It is a global platform for marketing, it is big and iconic – no other sport has this huge spread in Europe.”

The team competes in 20 events on five continents. Two billion people watch the race, with up to 750 million live views. Formula 1 revenues reach US$2 billion each year, and this is forecast to rise by $3 billion next year.

“It is a growing market which has a glamorous reputation. The big difference in the business is behind the scenes,” he said.

When it comes to competing on the track, the Lotus F1 Team’s mindset is not to outspend, but to outthink the competition, Mayer told attendees.

“The product we are building is very exotic, you can’t buy in the shop – we are always thinking about how we can do things differently and better than other [teams],” he said.

Two years ago, Lotus F1 Team worked with EMC to transform its tech infrastructure on the track and at its headquarters in the United Kingdom. The project included the creation of a private cloud and technologies to help the team build agility, speed and accuracy, said Mayer.

The F1 racing team uses the same materials for production and software that is used by organisations in the aerospace and defence industries. Lotus F1 Team’s cars, however, are built for high performance.

And like machines built by these industries, Lotus F1 Team’s cars are very much driven by data.

Each car has hundreds of sensors which feed data – about 2000 different statistics – to engineers on the track and at the team’s Whiteways Technical Centre in Oxfordshire in the UK. This information provides insights into the performance of individual parts on the cars in real-time.

“We are crunching a lot of numbers,” said Mayer. “We are very much dependent on the data. It is the lifeblood of our business.”

Lotus F1 Team essentially needs to run a supercomputer to design a car, crunching data to create the right configuration of parts for each vehicle.

“We are testing something like 60 different parts each week. Each time we iterate, we find something. For us, iteration and the speed of innovation is what counts.

“The more we iterate, the more we find innovation. “We engineer, we reinvent, we adapt,” he said.

Formula 1 motor racing has changed dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s when teams would use their ‘sixth sense’ or intuition about what might work during championship races.

“Today, data and software are providing ‘institutionalised intuition.’ This is how we thrive,” said Mayer. “This is a very public sport. Whenever we go, we present a new product. There are two billion people watching. If you fail, two billion are watching and will criticise you afterwards.”

“The more we iterate, the more we find innovation. “We engineer, we reinvent, we adapt.” – Thomas Mayer, COO, Lotus F1 Team

In the context of the IT industry, Mayer says, it’s about using the Internet of Things. In Lotus F1 Team’s case, data is being analysed from cars, computers and from tracks during races around the globe.

“How we collect and aggregate data that leads to transformation. We are able to apply [big data] models to stuff we don’t control,” he said.

“For instance, all teams are provided the same brand of tyres, but taking care of them is the team’s responsibility. So being able to apply algorithms over a tyre model, how you analyse the track driving style of the driver [and how this style] is influencing the grip of the tyre. It lets you deal in a very different way how you manage the tyres,” he said.

“It is a very powerful, very different way of thinking. We’re always asking, ‘how can we apply data?’”

Lotus F1 Team has also created a ‘virtual car’ where it can simulate how racing conditions, such as the weather, will influence the car’s performance on race day.

“We can change the parameters of the car, make the suspension more stiff, for instance. We then put the driver into the simulator, let him drive, and if I can see that [a parameter change] will affect performance of a part – only then do we produce [the real car],” he said. “This saves us a lot of development time and money and is a very different approach for the engineer.

“We are always thinking about how we can do things faster and with less cost because we are limited in terms of the money we have available,” he said.

Big data insights can also be applied to other parts of the business.

“The biggest piece we are involved now is machine learning,” Mayer said. “Clearly we can see big benefits for the business, we are now able to see patterns, connections and correlations [from a financial perspective] that we have never seen before.”

“We are just at the beginning of this journey, what we can see is data can be really your friend. If you are using data to drive transformation, data can help you, big time.”

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