Feature Story

The Monaco Grand Prix: Are Computers or People Driving the Cars?

by Mary Gorges

The use of real-time data and analytics in Formula 1 races.

There’s always plenty of action, and drama, at a Formula 1 car race – especially at the raucous and colorful Monaco Grand Prix. In Monaco just over a week ago, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, in the lead this entire F1 season, lost to fellow Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg with just 10 laps to go late in the race

But the action off the track is often just as, or more fascinating, and can often decide who wins the race. Engineers monitor and analyze a torrent of data coming in from as many as 120 sensors on an F1 car, and make decisions in microseconds that can change the race for a team. The data crunching occurs in the one or two practice runs before a race, and during the race – all in real-time.

Monaco’s is the most dangerous of all F1 tracks, which are actually the narrow, winding streets of the town turned into a racetrack for a couple of days. There are many elevation changes, tight corners, and a tunnel. Drivers are forced to quickly adjust their vision as they emerge from the tunnel’s darkness to daylight again at the fastest part on the track. 

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Dr. Liam Pedersen, a ‘robotocist’ who works at the Nissan Research Center in the Bay area, was at the F1 race in Barcelona this year, and lucky enough to sit near a team’s racing engineers. “What I was so impressed by was the communications between a driver and the engineers as I listened.”

He said there is constant talking back and forth (during a race) on 100 or so metrics including tire pressure, torque, temperature and the down force (vertical pressure) occurring on a car. “I was impressed at the level of technical detail between drivers and engineers.” Now remember, all of this is going on as the driver is speeding close to 220 mph. In Monaco, the race speed max is 175.

The data in an F1 race is so key that Red Bull Chief Race Engineer Adrian Newey got much of the credit when that team won the F1 season three straight years in a row, from 2010 to 2013.  

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Pedersen gives an interesting analogy and says F1 drivers “are almost like astronauts in the way they have this massive backup team behind them.” He worked for NASA before going to Nissan. He explains:  “When an astronaut is on the track, they’re not alone but in constant communication with a team, just like an astronaut in space is in communication with a ground team. (In both cases), there’s a team of engineers monitoring every bit of data and telling the driver, or astronaut, what to do.”

He adds that all the real-time data gathered by engineers at the track is sent back to an even bigger team of engineers in the UK (F1’s ‘mission control’) to do further analysis, who then sends it back to engineers at the track—with all of this happening in microseconds.

Why waste those precious seconds to send data to a UK team? Pedersen says a team can have only a small number of people on the track. And that the decision time using data at the track would take longer than the extra time it takes to transmit it back and forth.

cameraman monaco grand prix

Cameraman Marc Villet at this year's Grand Prix

A mechanic at the track for the Mercedes team, two days before the Monaco race, confirmed many of the Mercedes engineers were hard at work in the UK. “We're talking about hardcore computers. The software and hardware used is all very proprietary.” He said both cellular and satellite networks are used to transmit the data.

In addition to all the data crunching, 33 video cameras are set up around the track to transmit live video to a TV audience of almost 10 million worldwide. This was the 11th Monaco Grand Prix for TV cameraman Marc Villet, who says the ‘ultra motion’ cameras shoot at 500 frames a second – fast enough that a few years ago, his camera caught the video of a bird that almost got his wings clipped by an F1 car. Here’s the video clip on YouTube.

About 500 journalists and photographers from around the world were at the Monaco race, all who relied on a network to send stories and photos. Richard Micoud, communication and media manager for the Automobile Club de Monaco, said there was one WiFi network for photographers, and another for journalists. And the most popular social platform the media used in Monaco? Twitter.

Read now how McLaren, a well-known name in F1 racing, is using its F1 expertise in data and analytics in surgery, a profession where seconds also matter.

We’d love to hear your comments, all the F1 fans and others, with stories on how real-time data is being used in cars today – both in racing and road cars.

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