How McLaren reached pole position as a data champion

Too few companies are true data champions. McLaren is an exception. Read on to be inspired, and replicate their success off the track.

By Edward Green, head of commercial technology at McLaren Racing

To be a Formula One winner you need mind-blowing supercars, incredibly skilled drivers, world-class engineers, and lots of precise data to inform your strategy. Granted, not many firms are F1 contenders, but the general principle applies across the board: We all need data-powered products, people and cultures.

Because the technology landscape is changing all the time, achieving this triumvirate requires constant reinvention. When McLaren Racing launched in 1963, the data landscape looked very different to what it does now. That year saw the removable hard drive launch, with a whopping 2.6Mb of storage. Our 750-employee-strong team now collects 1.5Tb of data—the equivalent of over 600,000 such drives—in a single weekend from one of our Formula one cars.

This data-driven approach keeps delivering successes for McLaren, including our September 2021 victory at the Italian Grand Prix. McLaren racers Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris finished first and second.

Spinning up data feeds

I recently learned that 12% of businesses globally are classed as data champions. What sets them apart is a commitment to data-driven technology AND a data-ready culture. That struck a chord with me. To win in the data era, you need to partner with technology holistically. It’s how we do things at McLaren.

For instance, we don’t just look at how we can collect data from the touchpoints that we have. We create net new ones, by marshaling bleeding-edge technology, and our brightest minds.

As such we were the first to launch an esports edition (McLaren Shadow), in which players shadow real-world drivers and help simulate races. And we were the first team to put sensors on cars, expanding from 24 of them 30 years ago to over 300 today.

When every byte counts

There’s a saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff”. When it comes to data and motorsport, the inverse is true.

Every marginal gain counts in F1. A 0.1% speed gain on a corner can make all the difference so, every gram of weight that the team can remove from its car parts is crucial. That means wringing every last insight out of the available data.

Teams cannot track-test cars constantly, so wind tunnel tests and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations are crucial for testing design ideas. The 2021 season saw new regulations that capped wind tunnel test runs and CFD hours available to teams. As a top performer, McLaren’s constraints were among the toughest, making efficient use of technology vital.

For us, testing data is just the beginning. We also gather real-time telemetry from our connected cars during races at a velocity of 100,000 data points every second. My team combines this with everything from external weather data to competitor performance intelligence. We then pair all of this with three decades of historical data, mining everything for new insights.

This data is distilled to produce insights that can be used in split-second decisions on the track. Enhanced by artificial intelligence-powered ‘human in the loop’ technology, we can decide when to handle critical in-race maintenance for instance. Of course, all of this wouldn’t be possible with a flimsy or unreliable IT backbone. If we’re in the middle of a race, a “computer says no” cessation could cost us everything. Being able to scale dynamically according to computational requirements is a prerequisite. So, we’ve built a platform that can handle data at remarkable velocity and volume.

The technology delivery mechanism is also an important part of the platform. My team is considering an as-a-service (AAS) model for some of our servers and storage. The management benefits are very compelling. We may be a global brand, but our IT department is relatively small. We punch above our weight by leaning on our service providers and their expertise.

Driving a data culture

We’ve realized a core tenet of being a data champion is about more than just shifting bytes. A data-driven culture is key. Which is why I encourage my entire team to be curious about data. The IT team may only have a dozen people, but everyone in the racing team is a technologist.

And we invite them to make data-driven recommendations all the time. No idea is too small for a team that is constantly prototyping. Someone who queries data in a random way could spark a revelation that saves us the next tenth of a second.

Inquisitive minds are just one side of a data-driven culture. The other is a consistent scientific approach. Data champions use clear testing methods that deliver reliable results. Our test plans are as important as our ideas.

Based on our experience, I’d urge firms to do more simulating and modeling. You really need to get under the data’s bonnet and test it over and over.

True data champions constantly refine their use of data to retain and advance their competitive edge, and McLaren is no exception. As we push the boundaries of engineering into new areas, including vehicle electrification, every new idea—and every calculation that supports it—counts. This is data-driven decision-making, pushed into high gear.