Data and analytics are becoming increasingly critical for Formula One racing teams. But for the underlying data storage systems, reliability and simplicity is king for current champions Mercedes.
Yesterday Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas won the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne and along with teammate and race runner up Lewis Hamilton gave Mercedes its best ever start to a season.
The English manufacturer has dominated the last half decade of Formula One but its command of the sport will be tested by the deliberate standardisation of more of the race car technology. A trend introduced by the F1 governing body as a safety measure but eventually broadened in the name of levelling the playing field, especially for the smaller manufacturers.
Now Mercedes, like its competition, is looking for more advantages off the track. Data and analytics, especially on aerodynamics, are quickly emerging as a point of difference for teams.
The Mercedes race cars whipped around the Melbourne track over the weekend with around 200 sensors on board. Those sensors create around 1 terabyte of new data during each race. Mercedes expects the amount to be closer to two terabytes by the final race this year in Abu Dhabi, thanks largely to new race car ECUs which will remove a previous data collection and transfer chokepoint.
To leverage the incoming data Mercedes runs over 100 virtual machines in a trackside data centre to support its applications and processes. After every race, data logs are sent to the Mercedes headquarters in England for further analysis.
The information allows the trackside team to make strategic decisions and even some engineering tweaks in the lead up to and during the race.
But providing the onsite digital infrastructure to capture, store and augment the data is challenging, especially with the limited size and environmental challenges of the small garages where, along with the data, multimillion dollar F1 race cars are stored, built and repaired.
“It’s not a data centre you are going to walk into. It’s a garage with some IT in it,” Mercedes IT Operations Manager Chris Green told Which-50 over a video call in Melbourne.
Green was in the Mercedes headquarters in England providing remote support to the race team in Melbourne. Formula One limits the number of team members that can be providing trackside support to 60 but Mercedes also uses a remote team of around 50 more people.
The England base mirrors the trackside IT setup but also scales it up, using larger arrays. The remote team works the same hours as the race team, adjusting their sleep patterns around a week in advance.
Quick as a flash
Green says when it comes to the trackside data and IT infrastructure reliability and simplicity is critical. Mercedes bought its first trackside flash array around five years ago from vendor Pure Storage and has since steadily upgrade all its drives to flash.
“The reliability that comes from less moving parts, the fact that it can run at higher temperatures, less power supplies to go wrong. All of that adds to that reliability,” Green says of the switch to flash drives.
“Reliability is key at the track because the moment you lose that core piece of infrastructure all of the IT services collapse around it.”
“If the [virtual machine] that sits at the heart of that goes down you’re blind to that race car.
If the whole infrastructure goes down you’re blind to both race cars.”
A serious data failure would also prevent teams from communicating with their racers as auto communication is now reliant on software.
“You’re pretty much completely blind to anything going on at the race track if the data goes.”
Mercedes also sees IT simplicity as an advantage. Green says it runs a non-tiered system for data management that keeps things relatively simple. Other teams don’t, but Green argues that is invites unnecessary complexity.
“I don’t need to worry about different storage technologies for different solutions. I’ve just got all of my workloads on one platform and I can just get on with worrying about the application stack that sits on that rather than necessarily the complexities of storage that sit underneath it,” Green said.
“If it’s simple then it will be more reliable. I need less people to do it.”
Reliability and simplicity were the major draw-cards of the Pure Storage solution when Mercedes went to market in 2015 looking to upgrade its data systems. All the vendors Mercedes considered had close to equal capability, Green says, but Pure’s solution dependability and simplicity.