How do you enable Fernando Alonso to race at speeds upwards of 200 mph lap after lap, and how is the technology which makes it possible being applied outside Formula 1?
McLaren Applied Technologies Principal Data Scientist Karl Surmacz joined an expert panel at the Science Museum in London, to give his take on the science of the sport and reveal its engineering wizardry which is making a difference to people's lives.
Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your work?
McLaren is made up of three companies. We have Racing which – as the name suggests – goes racing; Automotive which builds road cars; and Applied Technologies which designs and builds data-driven products and solutions using the technology, expertise and knowhow we’ve acquired during our time in Formula 1 and automotive.
I’ve been with McLaren for 11 years. Half of that time was with the race team as a race strategist, so I have plenty of Formula 1 experience. I helped to advise when to make pitstops, change tyres and how to navigate a race weekend without any slip-ups.
I now head up a team of simulation engineers and data scientists at McLaren Applied Technologies. We develop mathematical models that underpin the products and solutions created by the company for the health, automotive, motorsport and public transport sectors.
Q: What is the most important factor in Formula 1 – the performance of the car or the performance of the driver?
The car is undoubtedly important and it can often be the case that the driver who isn’t the fastest, wins when they have the best car.
However, there is a blurring when car and driver meet in terms of a car’s development process; from conception, to building the car and then iterating on it as you go along, with the driver playing a crucial part in this.
We rely on driver feedback to help steer the direction that car development goes in. For example, whether a driver feels an upgrade has worked or whether they feel they are experiencing improved performance from the car, and drivability hasn’t been compromised.
Regarding the performance of the driver themselves, out of all the drivers I have had the privilege of working with, the best ones genuinely believe they are the best and they have this unwavering self-belief.
A great driver sets themselves apart when they still get a good result despite having to contend with a car that doesn’t have the optimal setup, or conditions conspiring against them.
Q: We’ve seen many technologies come and go in Formula 1, such as launch control, traction control, active suspension, and anti-lock brakes. For people driving on the roads these technologies are often marketed as essential safety items. If this technology exists and it’s good for safety, why not bring it back into Formula 1?
There have been so many different areas of innovation in Formula 1 over the years, such as aerodynamics, mechanical design, engine performance, and control unit software. These sorts of things ebb and flow in and out of fashion.
One of the reasons for this is due to what innovations people are really interested in and really capture the imagination of the public.
Certain parts of a Formula 1 car that aren’t crucial to the public are standardised and that stops teams throwing endless amounts of money at them.
McLaren Applied Technologies supplies the electronic control unit to every Formula 1 team on the grid for instance. Innovation in electronic control units is something that is not visible to the public and is probably something quite hard to communicate.
Q: With the current generation of Formula 1 car and all the complexity that comes with it, what stresses and strains does this put on drivers and team members?
One of the biggest changes that I worked through during my time in Formula 1 was the ban on refuelling from 2010 and the impact that had on the team.
Pitstops went from a relatively leisurely activity while waiting for the refuelling to finish, to an absolute mad dash to get the tyres on as quickly as possible. That brought a whole new load of stresses and strains on the mechanics.
And it’s important to remember it’s the mechanics who are relied upon to build the car, take it apart, and if the car has been in an accident or shunt they are the ones who have to put it back together in double-quick time. It meant they had to become a mixture of athlete and mechanic.
Q: What innovations in Formula 1 technology are being implemented outside the sport?
Innovations in Formula 1 have been borne out of necessity because we’ve had to solve problems, and McLaren Applied Technologies applies these innovations in other industries.
I’ve already talked about electronic control units, for example. We cannot send information back to the car from the garage through telemetry once the car is on the track. This means any processing, algorithms or modelling we want to do to inform decision-making have to take place on the car itself.
This has seen Formula 1 lead the way in terms of doing processing as close to the edge as possible, and that’s something that is now prevalent outside the sport.
Mobile phones now have huge amounts of processing power so you don’t need to send data from your phone to the cloud for it to do clever stuff.
The same technology helps us in healthcare. When McLaren Applied Technologies develop wearable health devices, a lot of the “heavy lifting” processing can be done on the device so it doesn’t have to send lots of data and consume the battery.
The other big thing is acquisition of data in real time. Systems engineers and race engineers in Formula 1 are very impatient when it comes to data. They want to see data as the event is unfolding and the car is racing around the track.
In my previous role in the race team I used to watch races unfold from Mission Control in Woking. You would see things happening in the telemetry data before you saw it happening on the television.
That’s real-time and the philosophy of using real-time data to make decisions is something McLaren Applied Technologies adopts in public transport when it comes to condition monitoring of vehicles, for example.
There was an instance where we hosted visitors from a company and showed them how we do race strategy and decision-making. We explained to them that a race is a giant process or operation.
We try to get the best outcome from this operation given the materials available to us and the best way to do that is to understand what’s going on in real-time, monitor it and understand it to make better decisions.
The visitors responded by asking how we could monitor their business activities, such as marketing campaigns and logistical operations, to help them make better decisions in real time rather than ruing how things could have been done differently once it’s too late.
Q: What is the most interesting technical challenge in Formula 1?
One of the most interesting technical challenges in Formula 1 is taking many sources of data – wind tunnel, CFD, the track, simulation – and understanding how all those data sources correlate with each other, or don’t when things aren’t going so well.
It’s also about recognising the limitations of each data source, such as the approximations in CFD.
Trying to understand the relationships between all the different data sets is a fascinating challenge and where a lot of the foundation of performance comes from.
Q: Do you see foresee a time when we will have an electric Formula 1?
Formula 1 is an advert for good science and engineering, and the move towards electrification is in keeping with that. The alternative to not pursuing electrification would see the series become a bit of a relic and an old-fashioned past-time.
Formula 1 and its teams also need to think about the sustainability of their operations. McLaren thinks a lot about its own corporate sustainability and Formula 1 teams can lead the way in this area.
Q: What will the move to 18-inch wheels in 2021 mean for Formula 1 cars?
Achieving a successful transition to 18-inch wheels will see Formula 1 teams’ simulation and modelling capabilities come into their own, as well as the teams’ ability to interpret and manage data quickly.
There’s around a two-year lead time for a new car design and a lot of the early phase of that lead time is spent in the vehicle modelling world, offline simulation, driver-in-the-loop simulation, and being able to iterate on designs and test them out to see what works and what doesn’t.
Q: If you could change one thing about Formula 1, what would it be?
Although Formula 1 has come a long way in this regard in recent years, I would like to see the fan experience made better.
I think Formula 1 historically has been quite a closed-shop when it comes to fans. Everyone, including the teams, has a role to play in changing this.
Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of aspiring engineers?
Pursue what really interests you.
There is a temptation to say: “I’m really interested in this particular aspect of engineering or science, but I feel that another aspect is probably a better bet or a safer career choice.”
If you follow your interest and have a passion for it, then that will breed success.
Regarding a career in motorsport, there are a lot of Formula 1 teams, but there are lots of other series and teams. There are plenty of ways to get started too, whether that’s volunteering or work experience.
From a data science and software engineering perspective, the technology landscape has evolved in such a way that there has been an explosion in open source technology.
There are cutting-edge software and data science tools that are available to the whole world now, along with great tutorials and courses explaining how to use them.
These fields are so accessible now that I encourage people to be curious and get involved.
Images by Science Museum Group.