How McLaren uses high-tech to make race-deciding strategy calls

It may seem hard to believe, but when the McLaren Formula 1 Team brings Lando Norris or Daniel Ricciardo in for a fresh set of tyres during a race, the call has not just been made at the track – it has been supported by a team of 40 engineers sat in ‘Mission Control’ at McLaren’s UK base, thousands of miles away.

How McLaren uses high-tech to make race-deciding strategy calls

This team is connected directly to the circuit thanks to some incredible technology from McLaren’s partner Cisco. They receive data from the car in as little as 18 milliseconds – that’s literally less than the blink of an eye – then analyse it to feed crucial strategy calls back to the track.

“Mission Control is a bit like Apollo 13, just no waistcoats and cigars,” begins Ed Green, McLaren’s Head of Commercial Technology. “Everyone is looking at race critical data and a lot of the decision making comes from there, sent directly to pit wall.

“If there's a race with lots of safety cars, for example, that safety car window can be really small. Do you stay out? Do you come in? Which tyres do you go for? What tyre pressures do you have? What temperature? Who comes in first? And you've got three seconds to make that decision.

“If we were to lose the link to Mission Control, it's like walking around the garage by candlelight. You can see where you're going, but you've not got everything you need. With Mission Control, it’s like putting floodlights on at a football pitch. Suddenly you can see everything.”

Communication between car and team has become increasingly complex as technology has developed. From the basic pit board, it progressed to pits-to-car radio then telemetry was introduced to send data back from the car every time it passed the pits.

That then developed into live telemetry, and the connection from car to team expanded to a wider group of engineers in the garage. Now, only recently, technology has achieved such fast and high capacity networking that it enables live data flow and communications all the way back to base.

That has opened the door to something incredible. Mission Control not only adds huge capability for data analysis to improve car set-up and strategy decisions, but it has allowed McLaren to flex the expertise of those working each day, without sending everyone to the track.

“On Friday and Saturday, it's all about aero, tyres, reliability engineering, making sure we've got the cars set up for the best place possible for the race,” explains Green. “Come Sunday, it's about strategy, execution and insights. So we've got flexibility on who we bring in for each aspect.

“All the simulations are taking place in the background and we are constantly serving up information and writing it to many different systems. Cisco sits at the core of enabling everyone to access that information across our network.”

McLaren Garage

McLaren Garage

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Inside the garage

It may sound less exciting than aerodynamics or hybrid engines, but the networking infrastructure is just as crucial on a Grand Prix weekend as any part of the car. In fact, it’s arguably just as important as the drivers themselves. Not that the IT guys would tell them that!

It all starts at the back of the garage, where the IT rig – basically a miniature data centre containing telemetry servers, storage, routers and all the Cisco networking gear – sits quietly buzzing away, sending data to all the right places and allowing everyone to communicate.

The rig uses Cisco switches to create a local network covering the engineering offices, the central engineering island in the garage and from there to the pit wall. The rig is also directly connected all the way to Mission Control, using a complex high capacity network.

“As the data comes off the car, we've got to get it from the car to the engineering island, on to the IT rig and then distributed in the garage and out to Mission Control as quickly as possible,” says Green. “That’s an awful lot of information in about as near real time as you can get.

“All the voice communications to the car are done by radio, but it is IP based around the garage and back to Mission Control. We also use Cisco switch gear to network them all together, so the team back at base is truly plugged in.

“Then there are cameras in the garage and cameras in Mission Control and we link the two across our network – so if you're sat in Mission Control, you can see what's happening in the garage and if you’re in the garage you can see who's in Mission Control.”

Often engineers are so focused on analysing the data that they need an external alert to spot on track incidents, and Green explains: “We built lights into the garage and into Mission Control so that if there is a safety car, for example, the whole area will pulse and glow a different colour.”

One of the other challenges – and this may sound surprising – is the speed of data transfer. At its fastest, the 18 milliseconds delay causes little issue. However, when racing on the other side of the world, in Australia, it can take up to 400 milliseconds for information to reach Mission Control.

“That isn’t a lot in any other world, but in Formula 1 it equates to a huge distance on the track,” says Green. “A lot of what we do is thinking about if we're milliseconds behind, how we adjust our timing systems back at Mission Control so we are playing at the same speed.”


Photo by: McLaren

Constant Innovation

F1’s new budget cap means that every bit of spend is now analysed to determine what gets the biggest ‘bang for buck.’ This goes across the board, and McLaren is constantly working with Cisco to explore how new innovations can bring better efficiencies.

In the world of IT, it is all about finding solutions that are more robust, faster, can manage more data and, ultimately, make the job easier for those either at the track or back at base to do their job. Because that all plays out in better results on race day.

“When I arrived at McLaren, we were maxing out our data capacity,” recalls Green. “We pump through terabytes of information, so we turned to Cisco and asked them what's coming next in the portfolio and looked at new ways to increase the capacity.

“We use the Catalyst 9000 range as that allows us to pass more data through the business and get better visibility of it. If someone has a problem seeing something, is losing audio quality or can’t see video, we get full visibility across our network, so we can see where those events are happening.

“At the track, we have full Cisco Wi-Fi coverage to give us good scale and good capacity. So, whilst engineers tend to be wired in for telemetry, when people are roaming around the garage, they're operating on Wi-Fi. The same is true in Paddock Club and team hospitality.

“We’ve also done some really cool stuff around collaboration. Webex Hologram was a really interesting experience. We did a demo and the person appeared as if he was sat on the opposite side of the table to me. It was surreal. He reached out to fist bump and it felt weird that he wasn’t there!

“It didn’t feel like a gimmick, it felt like a bit of a step forward. I could well imagine that on a race weekend, when we’re rapidly prototyping parts for the car, or even to see the aero flow-vis over the car as it comes back in, those sort of things could be really interesting.

“Wi-Fi 6E is another interesting innovation. The additional channels and bandwidth available with it, hopefully means people can start to do high throughput tasks in a more mobile fashion. So you might find people moving around a bit more, collaborating in different ways.

“We are very cautious, in some senses, about making change but there's also a huge appetite to see what's coming next. In a sport where you are dealing with hundredths of milliseconds, you look for any advantage you can to help you go faster.”

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL36, makes a pitstop

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL36, makes a pitstop

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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