Remote control
Racecar Engineering|December 2021
Called variously ‘virtual garages’, ‘mission control’ or ‘race support rooms’ is the future of race engineering sitting in the warm back at HQ?
DIETER RENCKEN
Once Formula 1 took the decision to resume action in July 2020 after a Covid-induced threemonth break, one of the crucial criteria was the number of travelling staff per team permitted paddock access via tightly controlled ‘bubbles’. The decision largely hinged on restrictions imposed by authorities in the region the sport targeted for its return, namely Austria’s Styrian province, home to the Red Bull Ring.

A limit of 80 staff per team was imposed, half the number a well-heeled team would usually take to grands prix, of which around 60 are required to directly operate two cars, with the balance providing engineering, logistics, media, marketing and hospitality services. Although the last three activities were downsized considerably, it soon became clear some of the performance-related functions would need to be executed remotely.

Fortunately, Formula 1 had form in this area, having developed hi-tech data transfer channels over the past two decades. This enabled it to be the first global sport to return to action once restrictions were lifted, initially by way of ‘ghost’ races staged behind locked gates.

Without remote technologies, those first races would have been considerably more complex to stage, let alone so soon.

As is so often the case in Formula 1, though, the remote garages, which directly connect trackside teams to their factories via data links, have their roots not in foresight but in circumstance, in this case the enforced absence of Ross Brawn from the 2002 Japanese Grand Prix – reportedly due to a slipped disc – during his Ferrari technical directorship. Brawn, now managing director of F1, mandated Ferrari’s IT department provide access to trackside data to enable him to direct the weekend’s proceedings from a ‘virtual pit wall perch’ in his home in Surrey, UK. Significantly, the team noticed little difference.

‘When he talks to us, it’s so clear it sounds as if he’s here at the circuit,’ said Ferrari driver, Rubens Barrichello, of ‘Virtual Ross’ during that weekend’s press call. ‘[Brawn] was also not at Monza on the Friday of [that year’s] Italian Grand Prix, but it was as if he was there. He talked to us and we could hear him just as normal.’

That slipped disc sowed the seed for the logical next step. And when F1 restricted the number of passes per team and imposed curfews, it just provided further impetus for remote garages, variously known as ‘virtual garages’, ‘mission control’ or ‘race support rooms’. However, there was also another trigger.

‘When we had constraints from regulations that limited how many engineers we could take to the race track, we started to think about what we could do to not lose [data] we had in terms of analysis on reliability and on performance,’ explains Laurent Mekies, Ferrari’s racing director. ‘That’s how the ideas of remote garages were born.’

Size matters

As is usually the case in F1, successful implementation of any new concept, combined with personnel migration between teams soon sees copycat editions up and down the pit lane. Within a year, all major teams had their own versions in place, albeit to varying effects and of differing sizes. That said, the more funding teams had, the more sophisticated their technologies, and the greater their virtual head counts.

‘We’re now in our fifth iteration of the race support room [RSR],’ explains Dominique Riefstahl, Mercedes F1 race support team leader. ‘It started off with a tiny cupboard behind one of the meeting rooms, where literally you had two people sat in there, primarily trying to run simulations and doing analysis on both cars.

‘Over the years it’s grown in size, from two people to about 10 people, then 20. These days, there’s 30 of us in there. Obviously, the need for growth is that there is an ever-increasing amount of data available, and there are ever more eyes available for it. At the same time, the numbers of people at the track reduced. As a result, you tend to find some roles are now happening in the RSR as opposed to the track.’

However, in an ironic twist, remote garages came close to extinction in 2018 after Brawn proposed they be banned on cost grounds and to level the playing field under F1’s incoming ‘new era’ regulations, due for introduction in 2022 after being pushed out a year as a result of Covid. Team bosses pushed back robustly.

‘What cost?’ Otmar Szafnauer of Racing Point (now Aston Martin) questioned. ‘We have the virtual garage already, and so does everyone else. That cost is sunk. Getting rid of it is only going to cost everyone.

‘We also have sponsorship for it. We’d lose that, too. So you’ve got to ask yourself if there is no cost benefit in getting rid of the virtual garage, are they asking us to get rid of it because we compete with [F1] on sponsorship?’

Mercedes F1 CEO, Toto Wolff, was equally critical: ‘I think it’s a very bad idea because we’ve invested in virtual garages,’ the Austrian argued. ‘It’s a great selling proposition for partners and sponsors. There’s not only engineers in our virtual garage back at Brackley. We have sponsors there, we’re trying to have cooperations with hi-tech companies and this is the part they are most interested in.

‘As far as I know, many teams have managed to commercialise the race support structures back in the factories and, of course, it gives you an advantage if you’ve got more brains working on solutions and problems. For us it’s become a point of sale.’

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