How data and eSports could shape the future of F1
F1 is the most advanced sport in the world, but when it comes to fan engagement, it’s not exactly cutting-edge. For the past 20 years, F1 has struggled to bring the excitement, noise, tactics and general essence of the ultimate motorsport to fans, but things are changing.
Last week, the F1 Live in London event saw roads around Trafalgar Square used as drag strips for new and old F1 cars, while workshops and drivers introduced excited crowds to the fastest sport in the world. It was all educating fans about F1, and it marked a huge change in thinking for the sport.
However, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. At the same event, I talked to F1’s MD of motorsports, Ross Brawn, and Tata Communications’ MD of F1 business, Mehul Kapadia, about the role technology plays in making F1 more engaging, and how it will be used in everything from making races more exciting to connecting with fans in a much better way.
Like most sports, F1’s perception can be improved using a three-pronged approach: by improving the sport itself; improving the experience for those who see it; and, finally, working on how it’s distributed. Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at how both Tata Communications and F1’s management is using data and technology to help do all three of those things.
In the past 20 years, Formula 1 has attracted lots of criticism for a predictable races, and a complete lack of overtaking. Granted, F1’s rule-makers haven’t exactly stood still, and new rules have been introduced over the years to improve safety and to make races more competitive.
In 1998, cars were made narrower and grooved tyres were introduced, making cars less grippy and hopefully increasing the possibility of overtaking. In 2009, KERS was introduced to offer a tactical boost to aid overtaking, and aerodynamics were simplified too. Two years later, in 2011, the FIA also introduced the drag-reduction system.
Called DRS for short, these systems are still in F1, and allow chasing cars to open a flap that increases their top speed – so they can gain on their prey. However there are two catches: they have to be within one second of the car in front at a selected part of the track, and they’re only allowed to use DRS in one or more DRS zones – usually straights.
Above: Ross Brawn
In 2016, the rules have changed again. DRS is still around, but now the cars are wider and feature larger tyres, meaning they have more mechanical grip – and don’t have to rely on straight downforce. This means the turbulent air that drivers get from a car in front plays less of a role in reducing grip than before.
Tracks have been changed to aid overtaking, too, and in the past 20 years tracks such as Malaysia and Bahrain have been built with wide corners, vast straights and big braking zones – all designed to aid overtaking. But even in 2017 fans still think races could be more interesting.
Using data to change the sport
In the past, these rules were determined by the teams and F1’s governing body, the FIA – but at last week’s F1 live event, F1’s MD of motorsports, Ross Brawn, told me will F1 also be using a data-driven approach. “Formula 1 is a massively data rich environment and it’s a sport which is almost unique in the level of technology that exists. And it’s a sport which fortuitously we’ve got masses of historical data [on],” says Brawn.
“Proximity of those cars is a factor in making a great race,” he adds. “At the moment we’re trying to understand what makes a good race. It’s not just overtaking – you can have a great race where there’s no overtaking. If you’ve got two cars, fighting each other for the majority of the race, there might not be an overtake, but there’s a great race.”
With so much data around, Brawn and his team are now able to, albeit very slowly, work out which rules and regulations gave the best races and why. From wet weather, to the tyres used, F1 is now hoping to learn from its rich history, and make future races better as a result.
“We’re mining all the information that exists in F1 to start to build a vision of what makes great racing, what makes great on-track action, which tracks consistently produce great races and so on,” he adds.
“That’s what’s going on behind the scenes for us to improve and understand the racing the sport, [to] give the fans more of the core product they enjoy.”
This means races such as last weekend’s British GP will be analysed, and although Lewis Hamilton led all the way, exciting aspects of the race such as Botta’s charge from 9th to 2nd could be looked at – and may influence rules in the future. Of course, it’s likely that this data will be used in combination with the opinions of the F1 body and its teams, but it’s still a fascinating development.
Many F1 fans, myself included, have always looked to the past for great examples of racing, but now by using this historical data, F1 will find out which tracks, types of corner and cars delivered the most unforgettable races, and make sure the new regulations repeat that magic.
Brawn says he’s also also keen to get eSports involved: “We’ll certainly be taking a very serious look at eRacing and engaging with the race itself,” he says – echoing what Tata Communications told me last year.
“How do we create the environment where we’ve got a live racing going on, and the fans are racing their own cars in events? So the events that go on in that race, like when the safety car is called and so on, [the eRacers] have to react to them.”
What’s more, Brawn also says that the eRacing community could be used to test some of F1’s proposed rule changes, and that makes a lot of sense. Sure, you don’t get the same G forces of the sensation of speed, but the skills used in eRacing are pretty similar, and even the software used in eRacing is pretty similar to what F1 drivers train with.
“If we change the aerodynamic properties of the cars, and that’s fed into the community, does that create a better race or not?” he says. “It’s not that far from simulation. In fact, a lot of the F1 teams use software that’s been generated through the games industry to give a more realistic environment for their driver simulators.”
The future of F1
Data has been huge part of F1 ever since the 1980s, when technology became an integral part of the sport. And although it seems crazy to think about it, it’s fitting to use all that data and timing to determine the future of the sport.
Data can merely point to suggestions, but by using eRacers – actual humans – to test new changes, F1 will be able to get a more accurate idea of how good the rules are. Yes, it’s probably a long way off, but it’s nevertheless exciting for those who want to see F1 really improving the spectacle.