Look beyond the glamour, the crowds, the horsepower, and the speed. When Formula One cars roar around one of the world’s Grand Prix circuits, it is more than just a contest of driving skill and daring.
It is also a race for technology. And soon artificial intelligence (AI) could take pole position.
For Pierre d’Imbleval, it all comes down to roughly how long it takes for a Grand Prix car to do just one lap. “A lot can happen in those 90 seconds,” says the Chief Information Officer for Renault Sport Formula One Team. “We have around 200 sensors on our car. As soon as it is running on the track, those sensors send data through thousands of channels.”
How is the engine performing? Are the tires gripping? What about the brakes? Acceleration? Vibrations? Telemetry? Fuel? What about the wind, rain, and temperature? Is the driver responding as he should? Should that pitstop be rescheduled? The team’s engineers spend race days transfixed on their laptops, looking at how to get more out of the next lap, and the next, and the next until the checkered flag falls. The right calls could lead to victory. The wrong calls could spell failure, perhaps even disaster.
This is human number crunching and decision making at their most intense. And, d’Imbleval – who joined Renault Sport Formula One Team less than a year ago – thinks it is time for technology to step in.
Bots coded with algorithms can process data many times faster than humans, he explains. “So instead of having so many engineers looking at those thousands of channels, we want something like an AI engine behind the scenes, looking at the combined behavior between channels.”
Not only would faster AI-integrated information boost race performance, it might also mean avoiding a crash or anticipating the failure of a crucial part inside a car’s power unit. And it would free up human crew members to do other tasks. d’Imbleval is planning for trackside AI to be in place next racing season.
“Artificial intelligence would be so important during a race,” he says. “We need help to take the best decisions that have to be taken during each lap time.”
He sees AI as a logical next step in an ambitious digital transformation plan for Renault Sport Formula One Team, which is aiming to be on top of the F1 world three years from now.
‘’Next year, we will target podiums. And then in 2019 and 2020, we want to fight for the championship,” he said ahead of Singapore’s rain-affected night-time Grand Prix on September 17 when Renault Sport Formula One Team’s Jolyon Palmer finished in sixth place while teammate Nico Hulkenberg retired in the pits not long before the end.
d’Imbleval is unapologetically enthralled by the complexities and excitement of racing. He even describes himself as a “petrolhead” – a word he finds hard to translate into his native French.
Nonetheless, he comes from hard-headed corporate background. The team will only succeed, he says, if it runs as a business that functions and delivers on time and on budget. To get there, Renault Sport Formula One Team has turned to longtime technology partner, Microsoft.
An array of Microsoft business solutions has already made its mark. Moving many operations into the cloud and using Microsoft Dynamics 365 solutions have better integrated the administration, coordination, and production of its two main design and manufacturing plants in Viry-Châtillon in France, and Enstone in England.
Renault Sport Formula One Team has four decades of experience in F1. It returned as a full Constructor in 2016 when it took over the Enstone outfit and began the journey of taking it back to the glory of 2005 and 2006 when the team, back then under Renault ownership, secured two consecutive Drivers and Constructors Championships.
Technology has also moved the needle in design and development. Azure Machine Learning helps predict the effects of changing car configurations. The hybrid capabilities of the Microsoft Cloud also come into play when Azure Stream Analytics syncs with Renault’s own supercomputer as it conducts 3D virtual testing of car designs to lessen the need for full-on wind tunnel tests.
Meanwhile, designers and researchers have just started using Microsoft HoloLens to visualize the airflows over a car body or the inner workings of engines and other highly engineered parts. “Our guys are quite passionate about this and anything that gives us a competitive edge,” he says.
Mixed reality might also play a role in repairs and maintenance. Once assembled an F1 car can be difficult to pull apart, particularly on tour. If an internal problem arises, such as an elusive a leak somewhere inside the power unit, the team’s repair crew could use a HoloLens application to liaise with technical experts back at headquarters.
d’Imbleval also sees a role for mixed reality in boosting the sheer spectacle of Grand Prix racing. “You can imagine people in the grandstand each wearing a HoloLens headset and getting information, like what is the driver‘s mood – is he is feeling aggressive or defensive? It will be a completely brand new experience for the fans.”
But with so many innovations here now or soon to arrive, could a point be reached where there is just too much technology in F1? d’Imbleval thinks there are still major strides to be made by tech. But he opposes the concept of robot races without human drivers.
“Where is the sport? To have a sport you need to have human beings with machines … We have to keep in mind that there is a human guy taking risks in a car – and there is a team behind him.
Images supplied by Renault Sport Formula One Team