What many Formula 1 fans have always said out of a gut feeling has now been scientifically proven: Ayrton Senna was the fastest driver of the past decades. The Brazilian, who died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, is ahead of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
“It’s nice that we were able to confirm this gut feeling with huge amounts of data and a very sober algorithm,” says Rob Smedley in an interview with Tagesspiegel Background. The Brit has been Director of Data Systems at the Formula One Group, the organizer of the races, since 2020. Previously, he was a data analyst and race engineer for the Williams, Jordan and Ferrari teams for many years.
In his new role, the graduate mechanical engineer and mathematician works closely with Amazon Web Services (AWS). As a technology partner, AWS supports Formula 1, which was sold to US company Liberty Media in 2016 for a relatively modest $4.4 billion. With high-performance computers, artificial intelligence and big data, AWS helps racing teams to develop their cars even faster and more efficiently. And the fans should be able to follow in real time how the teams and their drivers are doing, which wrong decisions cost how much time.
Perhaps the best result of this collaboration: Fastest Driver. Under this heading, the IT nerds evaluated historical data from 1983 to the present for many months in order to choose the fastest driver of modern times. In order to calculate racing luck, weather and accidents, the specialists for machine learning compared the data from the qualifying laps before the race of drivers from the same racing team. Breakaways of more than two seconds apart, for example due to accidents, were deleted.
After aggregating this data, AWS specialists built a network of teammate comparisons with the goal of comparing drivers across teams, seasons, and circuits. For example, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen have never been on the same team. So the driver Daniel Ricciardo served as a link: Ricciardo was an average of 0.18 seconds per lap slower than Verstappen in the 2016 to 2018 seasons for the Red Bull team. But when he drove with Vettel in this team, he was able to distance the Hessian by 0.1 seconds.
As a result, the current world champion Verstappen is in 4th place in the long-term ranking list – 0.280 seconds per lap behind Ayrton Senna. Vettel made it to 10th place with 0.435 seconds.
The fact that drivers like Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg and Charles Leclerc occupy places 5 to 7 does not come as a surprise to Formula 1 fans – but that the hapless Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli still rank ahead of Vettel. “That was also unexpected for me,” says data boss Smedley. “But if you take a closer look at the training sessions, you can see that it’s true. These are very pure results, without any manipulation.” During his time at McLaren, the Finn Kovalainen drove on average only 0.1 seconds slower than the meanwhile seven-time world champion Hamilton.
The disappointing placings of the multiple champions Alain Prost (rank 20), Nigel Mansell (28), Mika Häkkinen (38) and Nelson Piquet (40) show that the sober figures sometimes do not quite reflect reality. The Finn Häkkinen, who snatched the world title from under the nose of Schumacher in 1998 and 1999, is 0.588, a huge deficit for Formula 1 conditions on the high-flyer Senna. And yet, in 161 Formula 1 races, he secured 26 first grid positions, 25 fastest race laps and 20 Grand Prix victories.
“They’re all great riders, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to nail that one hot lap on Saturday afternoon,” says Smedley. Qualifying is “just about raw speed”, while the race is also very much about tactics. And there was, for example, Prost, whom they called “Professor”, a master.
The outstanding drivers in Formula 1 history also excelled in further developing their own cars. Niki Lauda – who drove too early for the Fastest Driver ranking – was praised for his “popometer”. Today the pilots and the teams are supported by high-tech. 300 sensors are installed in every car, they send more than 1.1 million data per second to the pits.
“It gives me a competitive advantage over the others,” says Smedley. The more consistently and cleverly a team uses this mass of data, the faster it can further develop its car. “The competition is so tough, if you don’t use the latest technology, you can’t survive.”
However, the data and the high-performance computers for evaluating them are not only important in order to have a better car than the competition before and during the season. They have also been instrumental in setting the regulations for the 2022 car and speeding up aerodynamic simulations by 70 percent.
Due to the lower contact pressure there are more overtaking maneuvers this season, the championship has become more open. “Now all of a sudden Ferrari is in front, Mercedes for once not, the midfield has moved closer to the top group,” says 48-year-old Formula 1 veteran Smedley.
The fans are happy. They should not only be hooked by the Netflix series about the racing series, but also by completely new insights that AWS makes possible with its data. Liberty Media speaks of “datatainment”.
That means: The viewers get real-time information about the teams’ strategies, pit stops, declining engine performance and dissolving tires. In front of their eyes it is analyzed which driver is a good starter and which braking style he has.
Braking late and brutally is not everything, turning into the curve, driving through the curve and accelerating out are a difficult interaction that can be better understood through data than just through classic slow motion.
The strengths and weaknesses of each car and driver stand out. From this data, AWS calculates the seasonal performance of the pilots. The seven main metrics – qualifying races, race starts, race lap 1, race speed, tire management, driver’s pit stop ability and overtaking – are set on a scale of 0 to 10 to calculate a ‘score’ for fans and teams.
But Formula 1 not only has to remain exciting, it also has to become greener – Rob Smedley agrees. According to the regulations for the 2026 powertrain, the electric proportion will be even greater. The remaining internal combustion engine of the hybrid system runs on synthetic fuel. That’s why Porsche and Audi, possibly also BMW, are showing an interest in (re)entering the premier class of motorsport.
On a slightly smaller scale, Smedley started its own low-cost racing series in 2020: Total Karting uses electric karts. The series is expressly aimed at beginners with little money.