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Laps to laptops: Formula One sells its big data know-how

Mechanics work on the car of Lotus Formula One driver Romain Grosjean of France at the pit ahead of the Singapore F1 Grand Prix in this Sept
Mechanics work on the car of Lotus Formula One driver Romain Grosjean of France at the pit ahead of the Singapore F1 Grand Prix in this Sept

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Wander around the pits at a Formula One car race and you're as likely to bump into a laptop-wielding scientist or engineer as a mechanic with a spanner.

And the lessons they are drawing from sensors on F1 tracks, cars and drivers are finding their way into a surprising range of industries - from drilling oil wells to making toothpaste.

"By chance or whatever we've ended up that F1 is a very strong metaphor for how the world is developing around a more industrialized Internet," says Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronic Systems, part of a group which makes F1 cars. "You take information and you measure things, and from that you try to adapt how things behave and flow, so you can make performance better."

Formula One racing, born after World War II, has long embraced rapid innovation. It can take seven years to get an ordinary car from the drawing board to the showroom: An F1 car may take just five months ... and have new components added to it each race weekend.

"There are very few industries which have a similar ability to evolve at such pace and bring components or products to market at such speed," says Gerard Spensley, AT&T's global accounts director for F1.

But in recent years safety concerns and fears it would bankrupt itself have forced the sport to adopt tighter regulations, reducing speeds and spending. This has shifted emphasis from hardware upgrades to real-time tweaks in efficiency and tactics to prise an extra millisecond or two from car and driver.

To do that, teams capture gigabytes of data from more than 100 sensors on each F1 car, transmitting it back to the pit or direct to their UK headquarters over high-speed cables. Once engineers have analyzed the data they feed advice back to the driver - often within minutes or even seconds.

At last year's Brazilian Grand Prix, for example, the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team's UK factory used AT&T's high bandwidth link to assess the impact of an early collision on driver Sebastian Vettel's car in time to send instructions to trackside engineers ahead of the first pit stop. That gave them time, AT&T's Spensley said, to make alterations that helped reduce the risk of further damage to the car. Vettel finished sixth, retaining his title.

It's this pressure-cooker data analytics which some F1 companies say offers an edge not only to racing motor cars but to other industries grappling with big data. The appeal lies in how F1 teams tackle grabbing information on the fly, figuring out what's important and then converting that quickly into a strategy.

COMPLEXITY

Leading the charge is McLaren, a racing car company founded in 1963 and now half-owned by Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Co. Its applied technologies unit last month set up its Asian headquarters in Singapore.

McLaren, for example, has used its experience grabbing data from fast moving cars to help build a network of antennae, sensors and masts for San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). The network is used to collect video surveillance of the carriages, monitor usage and provide passengers with WiFi.

This is not, says McLaren's van Manen, as easy as it sounds. Data bounces off walls, arrives in the wrong order or drops out entirely. "The complexity is in the detail of dealing with both the high volume of data and the imperfections in the world."

McLaren is now working on similar projects in Europe.

To be sure, F1 is a small industry and McLaren is being driven in part by circumstance to seek new markets. In 2012 the group made a pre-tax loss of 2.5 million pounds ($4.05 million). The global market for big data is expected to be worth $23.7 billion by 2016, most of it driven by big players such as IBM, Cisco Systems Inc and EMC Corp, forecasts Credit Suisse.

BRAND APPEAL

Not all in the industry are convinced there's much mileage in exporting its expertise.

"There is relevance but our analysis of the marketplace is that we're far better concentrating very strongly on automotive and other forms of motor sports," says Paul Newsome of Williams F1, whose hybrid engine technology is being tested on buses.

And even those who partner with F1 acknowledge that part of its appeal is the brand. Paul Marriott of SAP, whose real-time data analytics product HANA is being road-tested by McLaren, says the company also benefits from the glamorous association with F1. A McLaren car sits in the company's Singapore office.

But the partnerships run deeper. McLaren is working with U.S.-based IO Data Centers LLC to make data centers more efficient by modeling likely demand.

"Every plane and car is now driven by software, constantly adjusting every variable. Taking that thinking and applying it to the data center - where every input is constantly monitored and controlled - was how the partnership was spun with McLaren," IO's chief innovation officer Kevin Malik said in an interview at the company's new Singapore data center.

The way McLaren uses predictive analytics to figure out the best time to call a racing car in for a pit-stop is helping Britain's airport controllers anticipate which planes should land on what runway. The software is currently being deployed at London's Heathrow Airport, according to McLaren.

McLaren is also working with an oil and gas company to figure out the optimal path to drill through a honeycomb of wells 10 miles underground. The solution, says McLaren's Geoff McGrath, is a strategy straight out of racing: measure the condition of the car, mine the models using historical data and then advise a course of action - which will change all the time as new events occur.

MANUFACTURING PIT STOPS

No action is too mundane for F1 to capture and analyze. Teams of mechanics practice changing wheels and tires dozens of times a day, each session captured by video monitors and then studied for lessons.

This caught the eye of GlaxoSmithKline Plc, which asked McLaren to help reduce the time spent switching its toothpaste production lines. By standardizing materials, making the machines easier to handle and reviewing teams' performance after every batch, they cut the changeovers from 39 minutes to 15.

"Changeovers in the manufacturing world are very like pit stops in an F1 team," says GSK's global manufacturing and supply chief, Roger Connor.

That said, the success of F1 teams in marketing their expertise to other industries may have less to do with their cutting edge innovation, than with their high profile work.

"It isn't so much the technology and methods that are driving, but that these cases are so interesting that people are starting to pay attention to things like sensors in the vehicle," says Craig Stires, a Singapore-based analyst with IDC. "It creates that interest that radiates into other industries."

Whatever the reason, F1's innovation is causing ripples. Providing high-speed connectivity to F1, for example, has helped companies like AT&T and Tata Communications their services overall.

Normally, setting up a network for a client would take 10 weeks, Tata Communications chief marketing officer Julie Woods-Moss. F1 needs to have it done in three days. "So there's been huge process innovations in the company that now we're starting to see feeding to mainstream customers."

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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