Formula One is a highly pressured, high-octane sport that captivates 600 million viewers around the globe. As it approaches its 50th anniversary it is continuing to expand, with 22 drivers from 11 teams competing at 19 circuits – and more set to come in the immediate future.
But it is no longer just a sport associated with glamour, champagne and speed. Behind the scenes, technology is playing an increasingly pivotal role.
A number of big names in the technology industry have got involved with Formula One, from services companies such as CSC through to infrastructure firms such as Dell. But one of the most recent additions to the throng of partners is Tata Communications.
Back in February 2012, Tata signed a deal to become the Formula One's official connectivity provider, as well as its choice for web hosting and its content delivery network.
“We looked into the market to see who could provide us with the services we needed. Of all the people we researched, Tata Communications gave us what we wanted,” says Eddie Baker, chief technical consultant for Formula One.
“What we didn’t know was if Tata could deliver. Only a full Formula One season travelling the world, seamlessly connecting 20 different race locations, as well as bringing FormulaOne.com to millions worldwide, could determine that.
“The services were there, race after race, at impressive time scales. It is a huge logistical challenge to ensure we have the same high quality IT connectivity in place at every one of the circuits and that’s what Tata Communications provides for us.
"A lot of effort has gone into that to do it on our time scale and we can now travel anywhere in the world and expect the same resilience and performance.”
Supporting a team
The natural progression for us was to look at what we could do with one of the teams
Mehul Kapadia, managing director of the Formula One Business, Tata Communications
The overall partnership with Formula One was going well but Tata wanted to get deeper into the sport and partner with a specific team. In April 2013, it announced a new deal with Mercedes AMG Petronas to become its official managed connectivity supplier.
“Having done that with Formula One and having built that capability across the globe, the natural progression for us was to look at what we could do with one of the teams and there is no better match than Mercedes AMG Petronas,” says Mehul Kapadia, managing director of the Formula One Business at Tata Communications.
“They are at the cutting edge of innovation and what they have done in the past year has shown a dramatic shift in performance. So we are happy to have become the managed connectivity supplier for them. It put us in a great place where, as a partner, we can evolve new ways and means by which we can not just improve how operations can be done but also how can we support the car going faster.”
Mercedes AMG Petronas has its headquarters at Brackley in Northamptonshire, a stone’s throw from Silverstone, home to the British grand prix. The site has hundreds of staff dedicated to painstaking work with tight deadlines to ensure the team’s two cars – driven by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – are ready for races that can be as close together as a week.
Accessing an extensive network
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But the partnership with Tata Communications has enabled the HQ to become an integral part of every race day, whether the meet is at Silverstone or on the other side of the world.
Linking the site up with Tata Communications’ extensive network – it encompasses 500,000km of subsea cabling and over 200,000km of terrestrial network fibre – gives the team real-time feeds from the pit to Brackley. This data enables the engineers to find new ways of speeding up the car, tweaking and refining every element they can to get the best time out of its drivers and their vehicles – effectively doubling the number of staff working on the cars, even if they are thousands of miles away.
Stood outside the race support room on the site, Evan Short, trackside electronics leader at Mercedes AMS Petronas, explains how the room springs to life on Sunday afternoons during race season.
“At the weekend this is a hub of activity,” he says. “Up to 24 people come in, connected to the intercoms, the video feeds, the data streams and we try, to the best of our abilities, to reproduce the effect of being at the track.
“It is desirable to have as many people as possible working on the car, analysing the data and feedback, but we can’t bring them to every event. So, rather than bring someone to Delhi or to Abu Dhabi, we will have them based here.”
“They are connected to live data streams on the car so they are seeing the same set of data here as we are seeing at the track, they are connected to the intercom stream, so nine audio streams of the drivers, the crew, all the strategy discussions they are hearing but also actively involved in and we are very much counting on their support during the race."
When it comes to video streams – Formula One does not allow the teams to have their own video streams, so they have to use broadcaster footage from around the globe – Short says the people at their base have even more insight than those at the track.
“They see the video streams as we do but perhaps even more so as, at the track, we are very focused on what is going on in that moment,” he says. “Back here they can feed in high-definition video streams from broadcasters all over the world and picking up little bits of information of what is going on with the other cars and feeding that back to the track.
“From a competitive perspective, having that link to a wider field of information is critical for us.”
Remote analysis with a virtual car
From a competitive perspective, having that link to a wider field of information is critical for us
Evan Short, trackside electronics leader, Mercedes AMS Petronas
As well as the actual data coming from transmitters on the car, Mercedes has been able to set up virtual versions of the cars in the Brackley factory. The data of the car is fed to them and gives them even more time and options to analyse performance and find improvements, even mid-race.
“The bottleneck of data coming back to us and being analysed is in fact between the car and the pits, because that is the data that has to go through the extreme environment of a Formula One car,” he says. “Because we are limited both by that bandwidth, around 2Mbps, and actually what we can process on the car – the power of that processing unit on the car is fixed for all teams – that becomes a limitation.
“We can now have virtual versions of the car back here in the factory, so all that data coming off the car runs into a virtual ACU and that is performing calculations that we can’t perform on the car.”
The system is so seamless that Short admits he couldn’t always tell where the data was coming from when it turned up on his screen.
“We are in a situation where there is a copy of the car sitting back here running more complex calculations and then feeds that back into the data stream, so when I am sitting at my desk at the track I am seeing data from the factory in the exactly same way that it is coming off the car,” he added.
“I don’t know if it is coming off the car or coming from the factory. The only difference I will notice is the lag in the transmission – being a few milliseconds behind the car – but as the connection has improved, that has become almost unnoticeable.”
Short admits the team had tried not to rely on a strong network in previous years, revealing the best data link they used to have was “some guy yelling down the phone at us”.
“The guys back here have more of an opportunity to take a look at a more global view of the race and what is going on with all the cars around us,” he says. “We try and be independent of the link and in previous years I would have said we were, but we have now got to the point where we depend on the link and not having that connection back to the race would affect our performance.
“It is a very cost-effective way of throwing engineering power at the team on race day. We are now at the point where I can’t tell the difference between data from the factory and data from the track.”
Currently each race weekend creates between 50GB and 70GB of data and this is only set to grow, meaning Tata will have its work cut out in future years of the partnership.
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Kapadia says: “We have to install these networks in a very short period of time and make sure they are ready to go on the trucks to the next location.”
“Problems do occur, it is a natural thing, but the show has to happen and that is the bottom line. It is not about an SLA – we have to be spotless and that is what we have been focusing on.”
Short agrees the whole sport had been revolutionised by data in recent years and now the network is key to making sure teams take full advantage of it.
“The use of data in Formula One and the growth in that has been exponential over the past few years,” he explains. “I remember times when we had no telemetry systems on the car, we had to wait for a car to come in to offload any data and then we would then have one bloke sit down and look it for 10 minutes.
“That rapidly disappeared and it has ramped up to the point now where we are looking at different things but doing them in different places. Rather than having to do all of that analysis at the track, we can do it now in Brackley and our other bases.”
With new regulations each year, more data streaming from the cars than ever and increasingly hostile environments hosting grand prix, there is no doubt Tata Communications will be feeling the pressure as the partnership matures. But when it pays off, Mercedes AMG Petronas will be sure to share the podium and champagne with the tech guys that made it happen.