Formula 1 fans were treated to a very entertaining race in Korea on Sunday. Did you catch the race? There was plenty of incident,. but once again Sebastian Vettel lined up in pole position and was in front from start to finish. It was another masterful drive from the German.
In fact Vettel’s dominance in recent seasons invites the usual questions about whether it’s the car or the driver who should take the lion’s share of credit. Vettel is certainly a brilliant driver who is that crucial tenth of a second quicker than his Red Bull Racing team mate Mark Webber. And the quality of the car is clearly important.
But there is another crucial factor behind this success: big data. And there is a fascinating story here about how Red Bull has used big data to steal a march on everyone else in Formula 1. It’s a story that demonstrates the power of what is now one of the most exciting and disruptive forces in society today – make sure you don’t miss out!
It’s all down to a few men in a room in Milton Keynes
The Red Bull team is most visible during pit-stops. The mechanics can remove all four wheels, replace them and even adjust the front wing in 2.5 seconds. Occasionally, human or mechanical error conspires to spoil this carefully choreographed display of teamwork and the race can be lost. Wheel nuts won’t come off or go on, sometimes a tyre gets left in the garage. It can make for dramatic television.
But there is another aspect to teamwork that we don’t see on TV. Without it, Vettel’s race would be a lot more difficult, and I’m sure he would have had less success. Red Bull’s cars take to the track laden with around a hundred sensors. Everything conceivable is monitored: pressures, loadings, temperatures, parts wear, fuel use. Some of this telemetry analyses driver performance such as braking and acceleration at specific points on the track; information that will help Vettel improve and go even faster.
But a lot of the 100 gigabytes of data that are transmitted by the car each race concern the status of the car itself. Occasionally we hear Vettel’s race engineer advising him to try and cool his brakes or “look after” his right front tyre. Even though top drivers are super-sensitive and can “feel” minute details about their car’s performance, data from the sensors provides objective information to the team. They no longer have to rely entirely on a driver’s experience and intuition when the race is underway.
This real time data is so large and complex that it can’t be processed by the guys you see sitting in front of screens at the pit wall during the race. That’s where Vettel’s race engineer relays instructions from; but the heavy lifting is done elsewhere. While the race is underway in Korea , the telemetry is analysed in real time by up to 24 specialists sitting in a data room in Milton Keynes. It might not be as glamorous as hanging out in the paddock at Monaco, but it’s very effective.
A good example of their work was the final race last year in Brazil where Vettel narrowly won the championship. It was a wet weather race with plenty of incidents, one of which involved Vettel damaging his car in a crash with Bruno Senna which sent him to the back of the field. The normal response would have been to return to the pits so the mechanics could inspect the damage and replace broken parts. Because of Red Bull’s real time data analysis capability, the team were able to keep him out on the track and assess the car’s performance and safety while still racing. They decided he could stay out and he went on to finish sixth; which was just enough to clinch the drivers’ championship.
A new industrial revolution is underway
I have written a lot recently about the investment opportunities in internet communication and big data. In fact, my latest issue of Red Hot Penny Shares makes two new recommendations in exactly these industries. These are real themes and they are happening today. Red Bull is harnessing them to transform the way in which a top Formula 1 team goes racing. Formula 1 is at the cutting edge of new technology adoption but where it leads, the mainstream soon follows. Just last week we saw Monsanto announce it would invest a billion dollars a year in data generation.
Even at Red Bull Racing though, it’s not ultra high-tech everywhere you look. Many say the most important individual in the team isn’t Vettel but Adrian Newey. He is the celebrated designer of many top F1 cars over the years including the recent Red Bulls. His main design tool remains a pencil and an A4 notepad on which he sketches his ideas. It’s reassuring to think that there is one key element of Formula 1 where human ingenuity and equipment costing less than a pound still have a role to play!
• This article is taken from our free twice-weekly small-cap investment email, The Penny Sleuth. Sign up to The Penny Sleuth here.
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