Spa-Francorchamps: Every Octet Counts

Spa-Francorchamps did not disappoint. Spa-Francorchamps never disappoints. For the first race after the mid- season break, the level of excitement was high. It’s hard to believe we still have half a season to go. The competition has been so close that it feels like the season is almost over.

This is the time in the season when constructors introduce updates to their cars to close the gap, stay with the flow, or strengthen their competitive advantage. The interesting fact is that, they can only assess the progress they’ve made by comparing themselves to other teams. Constructors don’t have many opportunities left to introduce updates because there’s little time left in the season and the upcoming race schedule is crazy. So now, after having not been allowed to test at all during the summer break, teams need to make their updates and assess their impact very quickly. These adjustments require F1 teams to immediately adapt to new contexts and unfamiliar situations—theirs as well as the other teams’.

Teams leverage data and analytics when they make these updates to the cars. Analytics allows them to assess if the simulations they ran are close to reality and if they were based on the right assumptions. They achieve this assessment by comparing the model they have been working on  to the actual data captured from the car. When the team is confident the working model and the captured data match or are close to matching, they can work on optimizing the car setup for improved performance where it’s needed.

Comparing historical data at the track with measurements made over the weekend is critical in the search for additional performance. This data is validated during free practice sessions and the results are used to differentiate the team from the competition. Insights around performance are constantly gathered and fed into the strategy, as the understanding of the behavior of the car and the driver grows.

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Spa-Francorchamps is one of the fastest F1 tracks. It’s always one of the driver’s favorites, with the turn at Eau Rouge, testing their courage at every lap. They have to turn at 190mph, while on a steep incline of 18 percent, which generates a compression of 1.7Gs. Can you imagine the extreme sensation the driver must feel at that much pressure and speed? It makes for a great show.

Some of this year’s highlights were the two times that three cars came abreast, fighting in the straight leading to Les Combes. These incredible scenes reminded me of the crazy overtake Mika Hakkinen (Valtteri Bottas’ manager!) did on Michael Schumacher in 2000. It’s exciting to see F1 come back to such antics.

Even though the first free practice session was hit by a downpour, typical of the weather in the Ardennes Mountains, this year’s race was not interrupted by rain. More rain might have been better as it could have diminished the level of aggression of some drivers, including Sergio Perez who rammed into his Force India teammate. Twice. The second shove forced the safety car to come out. That brought the advantage that Lewis Hamilton had built since the green lights back to zero.

Few drivers may have had as much to gain or lose as Hamilton did when he arrived in Belgium this year. His next pole would equal Schumacher’s record of 68, and the race on Sunday, his 200th. He could not afford an average performance and his level of motivation was evident. He came in for blood and for the win. This motivation led to palpable emotion when he qualified first on Saturday. Not only did he equal Schumacher’s pole position title, but he also did so on one of Schumacher’s favorite tracks, not far from Kerpen where he was born and grew up. He was also in the best position to reduce the gap with Sebastian Vettel.

Now, there are F1 races (such as Monaco) where starting in pole position is as close a guarantee of victory as it gets. Spa-Francorchamps is not one of them. From the moment the lights went green, Vettel put pressure on Hamilton. Vettel’s Ferrari had good performance on both types of tires.  Hamilton worked hard to build a gap throughout the entire race. But, the collision between the two Force India cars three-fourths into the race canceled his efforts.

When the safety car got away, Vettel was incredibly close to Hamilton all through Eau Rouge, then Le Raidillon. One would think Hamilton was under maximum pressure as Vettel could get the better position through drafting. It turns out to make up for a small mistake, Hamilton was in control the whole time. When the race resumed, Hamilton was not in the right power setting, which almost gave an edge to Vettel. Realizing his mistake, Hamilton decided to drive at 90 percent power, forcing Vettel to get too close where he could not overtake. Doing so canceled his ability to pass in the straight. Staying ahead was critical, and Hamilton combined his race intelligence with his intimate knowledge of the car to make the most of this tricky situation. He kept the lead. And, Lewis was not alone; his team was with him.

The carefully crafted strategy paid off at exactly the right moment. Mercedes-AMG made a radical choice of tires, choosing the soft compound for the last part of the race. Such a decision could easily backfire, as the soft compound does not always perform as well as the supersoft compound tires, especially when in the lead. But what the Mercedes-AMG strategists discovered, through the data, was that the supersoft tires performance was only optimal for a short number of laps, unlike the soft. This insight is what made them confident in a choice that made even Toto Wolff, their leader, very uncomfortable. And it’s precisely how Hamilton, supported by the grand strategy designed by James Vowles and his team, won his 200th race on one of his favorite tracks. By combining his incredible driving skills and race instinct, with the setups and strategy his team had discovered based on the data gathered by TIBCO at this and previous races, Hamilton took home the gold.

To achieve this level of performance, Formula 1 teams need an analytics solution that:

  • Connects and processes a vast variety of sources to combine perspectives and look for patterns in the data across many different dimensions
  • Consists of beyond simple models that create complex visualizations representing actual variables for performance that can then be applied to various contexts to establish a competitive advantage
  • Rapidly produces insights to help with decisions to validate and then optimize the vehicle configuration to ensure qualification and race performance.

Learn more about the partnership between Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport and TIBCO Software.