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Inside McLaren F1’s Mission Control room: How data make race wins possible

Ron Dennis, McLaren Technology Group’s CEO, has incredible presence. Seated in front of the current MP4-31 Formula One car at the company’s hyper-modern Technology Centre in Woking, U.K., he spoke in a calm, steady tone of voice and with absolute authority. “Winning is what it’s all about,” he said.

This was no throwaway phrase. It’s a philosophy found in every minute detail throughout its road cars, race cars, the Centre itself, and even the placement of the trophy cabinets, which are in direct view of the race preparation team, and must be passed by everyone who visits the swish cafeteria. The commitment to breeding and promoting success is almost overwhelming.

However, it soon became clear the drive to win only gets you so far in modern Formula One racing; and perhaps surprisingly, an endless flow of data plays an equally critical role. McLaren has signed a new three-year technology partnership with NTT Communications — a Japanese company best known around the world for operating the NTT DoCoMo mobile network in Japan — to assist in managing that data, and to expedite its journey between the team and almost every department involved in getting a race car onto the starting grid, and past the checkered flag.

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We went inside McLaren’s headquarters and into to its secretive Mission Control room during the live practice session leading up to the 2016 British Grand Prix for a glimpse at how this data is used.

Inside Mission Control

The best analogy for what McLaren’s Mission Control room is like is to think of NASA’s Houston control room seen in movies like Apollo 13. Except unlike those images, Mission Control at McLaren is more serene than a Japanese water garden. Stress, we were told, is not conducive to making a strategy, and even in the aftermath of McLaren driver Fernando Alonso’s horrific crash at Australia, pulses barely quickened.

McLaren’s super computers run 300,000 race simulations per second.

It’s made up of three rows, where automotive engineers, strategists, and aerodynamicists – most with science or math-related degrees – are seated in a five-five-three formation, all giving one-hundred-percent focus on the task in hand. The front row of five monitor the engine and drivetrain, the second row examines suspension and other components, while the final three are all race engineers.

Here, data is king. McLaren’s super computers run 300,000 race simulations per second, matching data taken from the car in real time against predictive models to optimize the strategy. “We simulate everything,” a McLaren representative told Digital Trends, without a hint of over exaggeration.

“A Grand Prix car is an intelligent vehicle with phenomenal processing power,” explained Dennis, describing the task of managing and formatting the data as, “complex beyond comprehension.” There are up to 300 sensors fitted to an F1 car, and data is often processed by a specific part of it — braking force, tire pressure, vibration, and G forces are all monitored and processed by each individual wheel hub, for example.

The importance of data

Practice is when Mission Control is at its busiest. Due to F1 rules, once the race weekend begins in earnest, little can be changed on the car, so Friday practice is when the hard work is done. TV screens show the official televised coverage, while each engineer has two monitors, sometimes with up to 20 individual — and to the layperson, utterly baffling — data feeds on each one. The group as a whole sees even more graphs showing lap times, speeds, running order, and individual driver parameters such as acceleration, braking, gear changes, and even steering angles.

None of them speak to the driver directly — only the driver’s personal race engineer on the pit wall can do that — but they do listen to radio transmissions, and relay information to the team using voice and messaging services. Listening in on the conversations, track conditions are discussed, fuel levels analyzed, and track position managed to ensure the fastest lap is run with the least interference, right at the time when the track is at its best.

NTT CEO Tetsuya Shoji and McLaren Technology Group CEO Ron Dennis.

NTT CEO Tetsuya Shoji and McLaren Technology Group CEO Ron Dennis.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Without precise, instant data, none of this would be possible. An astonishing 100GB of data is collected during the course of a race weekend — that’s 100GB of sensor-derived data, don’t forget, not something giant like a 4K video file — and it needs to be transferred from the track to Mission Control, and to McLaren’s engine partner Honda, at key points during the weekend and in an extremely short amount of time. Sometimes the window is as little as 15 minutes.

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This is where NTT Communications comes in. “Transferring data instantly is an essential element of racing management,” Tetsuya Shoji, NTT’s CEO told us, and like McLaren, the company runs its own simulations to ensure everything works as it should. After all, there’s considerable potential for disaster when networks are put under such immense strain. An NTT Communications representative described the spike during transfer as being like Black Friday sales traffic online: “It’s nothing, nothing, nothing, then everything all in one go.” The data and its safe, secure transfer is so critical, NTT has backup systems in place, should anything go wrong.

Data flows outside Mission Control

By Sunday evening the race is over, but all the data collected continues to live. It moves out of Mission Control’s hands, is fed into predictive models, and married up with existing data sets to create new plans. It’s then used by those building the cars. McLaren adds one new component onto its car every 20 minutes, every day, all year round. “Our ability to process data makes improvements possible,” said Dennis succinctly. It works too. The 2016 McLaren F1 car is 3.5 seconds faster than the 2015 car, thanks in no small part to data management and interpretation.

“Autonomy will change our world in the next ten years.”

It’s not just computer and sensor data that’s important to the McLaren team. It has a rich racing history, and similarly covets the data that comes from that. One way is how it treats classic, retired racing cars. While other teams sell or dismantle them, McLaren has a collection of 600, spanning many generations, stored in a warehouse, and engineers still learn from them today.

All this talk of super computers, data, and insanely fast transfer speeds can make you forget there is a man at the heart of the McLaren racing car. Formula One rules forbid the use of biometric monitoring, so there’s no heart rate, temperature, or brain activity scans here. Instead, the team gets physical data from braking force and steering inputs, then from a rapid fire debriefing session after the race. Apparently, it’s quite normal for a driver to talk continuously for five minutes, covering everything from the car’s performance and feel, to his own physical condition.

Autonomous future

It’s a rare privilege to see how data is used by McLaren, one of the most notoriously secretive teams in F1, and the effect it has on the team’s race efforts. The serenity of Mission Control mirrored the essential, continuous, and uninterrupted flow of data that keeps it alive, and was a stark juxtaposition to the noise and fury of the cars on track.

It may sound like a cliche, but the intelligence that comes from analyzing all this data collected from F1 racing affects the world around us. Right now, McLaren software developed to understand where cars are on the race track is used to land planes at London’s Heathrow airport, and it’s here, using its understanding of how things work, perform, and operate with limited human assistance, where McLaren’s looking next. “Autonomy will change our world in the next ten years,” concluded Dennis, and it’s by mastering the flow of data the change will be possible.