McLaren CIO Stuart Birrell interview - The F1 data race

"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.

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