Formula 1 has long been on the cutting edge of technology.
It can be seen on display in Austin now as the city prepares to host the United States Grand Prix Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas.
Teams of engineers there are studying car components daily while making adjustments to aerodynamics and other technical parts of the car. Lights from large computer cartridges and the racing cars’ steering wheels flash inside of team garages as they transmit data.
But as teams prepare for Sunday, the only race during the Formula 1 season hosted in the United States, team personnel say the technology they work with now is far more advanced than even a few years ago.
Formula 1 has evolved vastly, with the biggest advancement, team members say, being in the development of data analytics technology.
While analytics has been a part of Formula 1 for years, it has only recently reached a potential that teams had hoped for, according to Geoff Willis, director of engineering process for the Mercedes Formula 1 team.
Willis said the sport’s ongoing evolution in analytics is not only innovative in the sports business, but can also show other industries what possibilities exist within the technology.
“You go back a decade, it was largely an experimental business. We made racing cars and tested them in racing circuits,” he said. “Due to a number of things such as the restriction of testing and the changes in technology, we have moved more and more of that technology into the virtual world.”
Where that data evolution begins, Willis said, is in the improvement of sensor technology on Formula 1 cars.
In the past decade, the amount of sensors present on a Formula 1 car has expanded tenfold to now transmitting more than 500 channels of information, Willis said.
Sensors measure various aspects of the car such as tire pressure and floor pressure. Speed, fuel level, tire wear and many other metrics are also measured in cars. As sensors have become faster and more precise, they have provided the first step in enhanced analytics.
That evolution, however, would be useless if teams could not gather the larger datasets faster and with greater capability, Willis said.
That’s why evolution in data storage and transmission has equally been as important, he said.
Major companies just 10 years ago were still using hard disk drives for data storage. But as flash storage developed, businesses began storing data more efficiently.
In Formula 1, data transmission and storage has expanded dramatically in the past few years as teams have expanded their technical staffs and formed relationships with data companies.
The changes have been driven by businesses such as Pure Storage, a Mountain View, Calif.-based transmission and storage firm that the Mercedes team partnered with last year.
Pure Storage, for example, has developed technology it says minimizes the amount of data that needs to be stored in a data location two times more efficiently than what other data storage services have provided, which means it can more easily handle the larger troves of data the newer car sensors are producing. Most important: it transmits data in real-time, which hasn’t been possible in the past.
“Before, that (service time) was a lot longer,” said Yousuf Khan, chief information officer at Pure Storage. “It would take several minutes.”
This matters greatly to the sport because teams are consistently trying to save time. The faster data is measured and examined, the quicker teams can make adjustments before, during and after races, team members said. It often leads to faster cars, better racing result and a more competitive sport.
Since Formula 1 teams measure analytics more than most companies and other sports, the business has consistently been a leader in the use and development of these tools, with teams now showing how far data transmission and storage can be pushed.
But with greater data than ever, teams also have to protect it more, said Franz Tost, principal at the Scuderia Toro Rosso team.
In recent years, Toro Rosso has invested in data protection through software company Acronis.
Acronis and similar companies accross the Formula 1 business provide cloud software that enables teams to share vast amounts of data across their network, which can often include international boundaries.
Acronis, for example, includes technology that places time limits on the availability of data, restrictions to who can access data, limits to how data can be shared and other capabilities. The data is protected from other teams, but also from anyone outside of the sport, according to Acronis president John Zanni.
Teams are now examining how they can better predict results, Zanni also said.
Formula 1 has become good at measuring what has happened and making adjustments to the past, but as analytics evolve within the sport, team members believe they will develop tools that more accurately measure future performance, with their innovation being important to how data collecting and analytics evolves as an industry.
“If you, because of a statistic, can calculate what will happen, then you have a big advantage,” Tost said. “The data protection is so important because you can protect, you can study the data and you can make a statistic. Because of this statistic, you can imagine what will be the next problem or step. This is a big advantage from the performance sector. And it will become easier.”
Top photo illustration: Team members from the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team perform a pit stop for driver Lewis Hamilton. Photo by the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team.