F1 cars are designed to fit a particular strategy. The set of races, the variety of track types, and climates make it impossible to find a “one size fits all” design for a car to perform flawlessly in each of the races. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) makes sure there is enough variety to ensure a proper show and a level playing field between teams. Teams have to deliver performance in multiple areas: performance to stay ahead of competitors, performance to lead within limits authorized by the FIA regulations, and performance in spite of known or unknown conditions.
The Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport team had to battle a litany of unexpected conditions in the last three races in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. They’ve had a good series of results that came out of the Asian part of the F1 season with a strong lead in the Constructors’ Championship, while Lewis Hamilton is 59 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the Drivers’ Championship. But, they did not have it easy, facing many challenges while battling various performance conditions. Nevertheless, they tirelessly worked on developing their cars to ensure performance in the remaining races of the season, which showed in Suzuka at the Japanese Grand Prix.
In any case with Formula One, you have to prepare for the unexpected. Singapore proved it again this year with the performance of the Mercedes F1 car. Their car, the W08, is not designed for tracks demanding high downforce. Its performance in Monaco and Budapest confirmed this. The theme of the weekend for the Mercedes team was “damage limitation.” However, the intense thunderstorms in the afternoon of the race somehow brought hope to the team. Hamilton loves rain and usually performs in it in an almost supernatural way. No one had ever raced in Singapore under that much rain. It was an unprecedented situation for the whole grid. And to add more unexpected to the unexpected, all cars ahead of Hamilton crashed in the first turn because of the rain. In response, the Mercedes team combined Hamilton’s breakneck pace and the right strategy to keep the lead, even though the Red Bull cars showed strong performance the whole weekend. This plan, fueled by hundreds of hours of simulation and deep analytics capabilities, helped Hamilton once again slalom successfully through a set of tires changes and several outings of the Safety Car.
The Malaysian Grand Prix, in Sepang for the last time, was a good reminder for the Mercedes team that both regulations and the cars are brand new. The team, drivers, and engineers worked hard all weekend to get to the maximum pace the car could deliver. And sometimes in F1, the man transcends the machine, which is precisely what Hamilton did by grabbing an incredible pole position, breaking another record with his 70th pole position. During the race, when the fast pace of the Red Bull cars became evident, Hamilton and the team settled on a strategy to get the best outcome. However, victory is not always the best outcome; strengthening your lead in the championship becomes the best outcome. And that is exactly what the Mercedes team did. When attacked by Max Verstappen, Hamilton provided just the right dose of defense to make it difficult, while avoiding diminishing his championship lead with a crash. The team left Malaysia with a lot of work to do, using the data from the race weekend to prepare for the next races.
The Japanese Grand Prix was a very different weekend for the team. The performance of both drivers was very strong from Friday to Sunday. The team arrived with the best baseline on Friday, and the cancellation of the second practice session because of the rain did not seem to disturb them. Valtteri Bottas had more of a challenge than Hamilton, as he brushed the wall hard and slid out of track a few times. The best evidence of the team’s performance is the surreal pole position lap posted by Hamilton on Saturday. Of course, as for every new pole position, Hamilton breaks a another record. But the video comparing his lap to the previous record from Felipe Massa shows the massive gain of performance of the new car, as well as the smoothness Hamilton had in his driving. Hamilton claims he has never enjoyed driving as much as now and that he’s never driven better, and the video shows that. However, that great lap does not mean the race was an easy job for Hamilton. Bottas did great too on the second time but a five positions penalty had him starting in the sixth position.
Remember how in F1 you need to expect the unexpected? Well, the Ferrari team was a victim of the unexpected again, with Vettel suffering from what was discussed as a “spark plug” issue, forcing him to retire. One could think that this would relieve Hamilton and the Mercedes team, but it didn’t. Their goal was to maximize the championship lead, managing the race to finish first. The race saw multiple Virtual Safety Cars, a procedure invented to avoid crashes such as the one in which Jules Bianchi had three years ago, causing fatal injuries that he later died from. Throughout the race, Hamilton kept Verstappen five seconds behind him. Strategy played a key role, especially for Hamilton and Verstappen, who both changed tires, arrived behind Bottas, who was first because he had not yet pitted. Bottas let Hamilton pass him as he defended against Verstappen. It was a tight race for Hamilton, especially in the last two laps when his car started to vibrate intensely, impacting his performance. Hamilton skillfully leveraged overtaking the lapped cars to stay ahead of Verstappen until the finish line. Hamilton later commented that the strategy for him and his team was to carefully track the temperature of the tires to make sure they were in the right window for maximum performance.
In the background of the performance is the relentless work done by engineers and strategists to build models to understand and deliver performance. Analytics play a key role in this domain. This is why the Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport team has partnered with TIBCO—to fuel their performance with Connected Intelligence.
Read this excellent article by Bill Goodwin to learn more about how the Mercedes team uses big data in their quest for the championship, and learn more about how our partnership with Mercedes gives them the competitive advantage in Formula One.