F1 vs. Academia, round 1: Sharing Information

For the last four years I have been simultaneously doing a PhD in biomedical engineering and consulting for Formula One teams, principally Ferrari. This has put me in a position to directly compare the academic and commercial ways of working. In this post I will discuss one particularly striking difference between F1 and academia: the speed of sharing information.

For the purposes of our comparison we can think of an F1 team as like a department at a university, and individual functions within an F1 team, such as aerodynamics, or engines, as like individual research groups within a university. This is a fairly good comparison, about the same numbers of people work in each and cutting edge research goes on in both. To get a measure of the speed at which information is shared between groups let's use a kind of echo-time – the time taken between having an idea and seeing that someone else has developed that idea. First, let's see what this time is in the F1 case:

  1. An aerodynamicist has an idea (this does happen occasionally) for a new shape of front-wing endplate (for example), first she does some CFD to see if it works in theory; this will take maybe a couple of days.
  2. If that works then the model makers will make a scale model of it which is put into the wind-tunnel and tested against the old endplates; depending on how good it looked in CFD, maybe a week or two.
  3. If the wind tunnel agrees with CFD (which it never does) about how good the new shape is then some real endplates will get built; this normally takes a couple of weeks but in rare circumstances it has  been known to be rushed through in days, sometimes even making solid metal pieces when hopes are really inflated about a part.

    Ferrari engineer films Mercedes pitstop

    Ferrari's Ruth Buscombe films a Mercedes practice pitstop in Abu Dhabi.

  4. The endplates will be taken to the next race where they will be run in practice as test items, and then in the race if a driver likes them – at this point everyone in other teams can see them and the idea has, in effect, been published – F1 engineers are always examining each others cars for good ideas. From here it's a similar development time for other teams who covet the shiny new endplates to make there own ones, possibly a bit shorter because they have a greater conviction that they will be good than ideas they've come up with themselves.

The total echo-time, from the first aerodynamicist having the idea to seeing that another team has developed (copied) it, is between 6 and 10 weeks, assuming it's an idea worth developing! Now for the academic equivalent:

  1. Post-doc researcher has an idea/discovers something, decides to write a paper about it; timescales vary enormously for paper writing, from three days to three years, let's be generous and say two weeks.
  2. Paper is reviewed by supervisor and revisions are made; let's say another week, although it might take that long before the supervisor even reads it.
  3. Paper is submitted to a journal where it is sent for peer review; this is where the time really starts stacking up, it could take absolutely ages, the mean is probably about three months.

    Peer review process cartoon

    Cartoon by Nick Kim, http://www.lab-initio.com/

  4. Let's assume it's a really great paper with really lazy reviewers and no revisions are necessary (which would necessitate a repeat of steps 2 and 3), next step publication in the journal; depends on the frequency of publication, let's say another 3 months.
  5. Now another researcher might see it, immediately have a fully fledged idea, and sit down to write her own paper in reply; repeat steps 1-4 for the minimum time until the original researcher sees that his idea has been developed.

This academic echo time is 27 weeks, and that would probably set a new record! It would be more realistic to make this estimate about 2.5 years. Even at 27 weeks it's between 3 and 4 times slower than the F1 equivalent – at 2.5 years it's between 13 and 21 times slower! The really baffling thing about this discrepancy is this: F1 teams do not want to share ideas with other teams, in fact efforts are actively made to prevent sharing information, whereas academia has constructed a whole publishing industry specifically to facilitate the sharing of ideas! So what's going on here, why is one so much faster than the other? Here are two candidate factors:

Validation: The F1 team can validate its ideas itself, in CFD, in the wind tunnel, and ultimately on track, whereas the academic has to send his ideas off to be scrutinised by some other academics who aren't paid enough to do it quickly. This is an obvious difference in terms of time that raises an equally obvious question: why are F1 teams able to validate their own ideas while academics are not? There are two issues here, practicality and motivation: practically it's easier to test a mechanical or aerodynamic idea (when you've got a wind tunnel and a car to play with) than it is to test a more abstract idea, especially in biomedicine where the true tests for many ideas would take years themselves or are simply not possible. So the best substitute is used instead of real testing, which is asking some other experienced people if they think it sounds sensible, given the evidence available. The second issue is motivation, we know that an F1 team wants to go faster, so it has no interest in putting parts on its car that don't work – if a part is raced on a car, we know that team really thinks it's good. Not only that but if that team wins we have proof that the parts on their car work. Conversely the academic has an incentive to publish papers, good papers are better than bad papers but a publication is, more often than not, better than no publications. Academics can't be trusted to validate their own work because it's not necessarily in their interest to find fault with it.

Competition: It sounds too obvious to be worth pointing out, but F1 is a competition – all the teams want exactly the same thing, and so have exactly the same problem. A good idea for one team is a good idea for all other teams too, and getting it on the car one race earlier will have real tangible benefits. Academia is not (supposed to be) a competition but rather a collaboration – research groups actively avoid overlapping domains with research groups at other institutions. Publishing a week earlier won't bring any real benefit, it's very unlikely that someone else is about to publish the same thing, there is not a fortnightly "best published idea" prize worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to the university.

I could go on about this all day, but this is already quite a long post so I'll wrap it up here and open up to discussion. Given the relative benefits to humanity of medical/scientific research vs. motor racing it's alarming to find that the useless and supposedly secretive one provides a much, much faster environment for sharing ideas than the hugely valuable and purportedly open one. If we want to eliminate diseases and make people healthier for longer then we have to bring academic information sharing up to speed.

RaceTrace™ analysis of the Malaysian GP

Mercedes were finally beaten to the chequered flag on Sunday, to the great relief of F1 fans everywhere I'm sure. In this post I'll show you some details in the RaceTrace™ for the Malaysian Grand Prix which hint at how Ferrari managed to win with probably the second fastest car.

If you haven't seen the RaceTrace™ before, it's a chart showing each car as a line starting at the left at lap zero (the start) and progressing to the right as laps are completed. The vertical axis is time and the horizontal axis is distance (number of laps), so the slope of a line is determined by the laptime of the car. To make things a little bit harder to describe, but a lot easier to see, the time axis is not simply time since the start of the race but rather time relative to an imaginary reference car which doesn't make pitstops. To see the difference have a look at the plots below:

Raw lap finishing times for the Malaysian GP.

Fig. 1: Raw lap finishing times for the Malaysian GP. You can't get much from looking at this!

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RaceTrace™ for the Malaysian GP

Fig. 2: A RaceTrace™ – time relative to a constant-paced reference car: much easier to see what's going on here! The steep drop on the left is the safety car period, where everyone slows down a lot.

As you can see, the raw times don't tell you much whereas the time relative to a constant-paced reference car really shows you what happened in the race. Now if we just focus on Ferrari and Mercedes we can get some insight into how Vettel managed to win the race, fig. 3 shows just the two main protagonists, Ferrari and Mercedes:

Ferrari and Mercedes highlighted.

Fig. 3: Ferrari and Mercedes highlighted.

You can see that when the safety car came out the two Mercedes dropped down the order and got stuck in some traffic while Seb drove off into the distance, and you can see that all three front-runners stopped twice after the safety car. You will also notice that the line gets steeper after each pit-stop and the lines at the end are much steeper than at the beginning – this is due to fuel-effect. Every lap the cars use about 1.8kg of fuel, and each kg of mass on the car slows it down by about 0.03s/lap, so every lap the cars get lighter and faster, by about 0.054s/lap at this track. Meanwhile the tyres are getting worn out lap by lap and making the cars slower, this is tyre degradation or tyre deg, or simply deg (engineers are not verbose people on the whole). So if tyre deg is bigger than fuel-effect then the lines for each stint will tend to curve downwards as the car gets slower each lap. If deg and fuel-effect are equal then the lines will be relatively straight and change slope at the pit-stops (as in Vettel's last stint). The thing is, fuel-effect isn't really interesting, it affects all cars to roughly the same extent and it doesn't really contribute to the strategic picture, so we'd like to get rid of it and see the effects of tyre deg on their own. To do this we simply change the reference car to have its own fuel effect; instead of showing time relative to a car doing constant lap times, we show time relative to a car going 0.054s/lap faster every lap. Fig. 4 shows the fuel-corrected version of the RaceTrace™ from fig. 3:

Fuel corrected RaceTrace™ for Malaysia with Ferrari and Mercedes highlighted

Fig. 4: Fuel corrected RaceTrace™ for Malaysia with Ferrari and Mercedes highlighted. You can see more clearly the curvature of the lines as the tyres wear-out through each stint.

This fuel-corrected RaceTrace™ shows us the tyre deg much more clearly and we can start to see how much gentler on the tyres Seb is than the Mercedes by how little his trace curves downwards compared to the traces of the Mercs. Bear in mind that the Mercs had fresh tyres coming out of the safety car period and so made three stops in total to Vettel's two. Another thing we can discern from this is that Mercedes pit-stop strategy was not as good as Ferrari's, their second stint was too long. We know this from looking at the slope of the fuel-corrected traces just before each pit-stop: Vettel's line has pretty much the same slope before each pit-stop, meaning the same fuel-corrected lap time before each stop and hence the same amount of deg on each set of tyres. The Mercedes on the other hand have a much more downward slope before the second stop than before the third – this means that they used the second set of tyres a lot more than the third set and that if they had done fewer laps on the second stint and more laps in the third stint they would have reached the chequered flag sooner. Fig. 5 zooms in on the post-safety car stints and highlights the slopes of the three lines at the ends of each stint:

White line highlight slopes of the traces before each pit stop

Fig. 5: White lines highlight slopes of the traces before each pit stop: Vettel's are all the same, indicating optimal strategy for tyre usage, Mercedes are all over the place.

This was a very interesting race, strategically-speaking, we have seen from the RaceTrace™ that Ferrari nailed it and Mercedes got their tyre deg estimates wrong. If they hadn't got stuck in traffic under the safety car it would have been a very close race indeed!

Race-Trace: Chinese GP

There is a great way to visualize a Grand Prix which most people have never seen, even though all the teams use it during and after the race: it's called the Race-Trace or Race-History-Chart, depending on which team you're at, and it's a plot of time ahead/behind against lap number. Fig. 1 shows the Race-Trace for the Chinese GP.

Race-Trace for the 2014 Chinese GP

Fig. 1: Race-Trace for the 2014 Chinese GP

Each car/driver is represented by a line, the x-axis is number of laps completed, the y-axis is time ahead/behind an average laptime. So at the left-hand edge is the start, at the right is the chequered flag. The higher a line is, the further ahead that car is; so the winner is the line on top at the right hand side, in this case Hamilton. The sharp downward steps are where a car makes a pit stop and so loses about 23s relative to the cars around it. The time gap between two drivers on track is shown by the vertical distance between those two lines on the chart. Faster cars have steeper lines, slower cars have shallower, or even downward-sloping, lines.

So what can this Race-Trace tell us? Well, we can obviously see that Hamilton was out-front for the whole race thanks to his superior pace from the outset, pulling away from the field in the first 8 laps and then further extending his lead as other cars pitted. We can see that Alonso undercut Vettel by pitting one lap before him in the first round of pit-stops: when Alonso pitted on lap 11 he was behind Vettel, but because his first lap on new tires was quicker than Vettel's lap on older tires he was able to come out ahead of Vettel after Vettel had made his stop one lap later. Vettel is able to hang on to Alonso for only two laps before suffering a serious loss of pace. Compare Vettel's line in the second stint to those of Alonso, Rosberg, and Ricciardo, it's much flatter. You can see that Rosberg catches Vettel on lap 21 and is stuck behind him for a lap before getting past and pulling away rapidly.

We can also see where Ricciardo catches Vettel on lap 23 and gets stuck behind him for 3 laps. This is the point where Vettel was told to let Ricciardo past and replied with his "Tough luck." comment. A zoomed-in section of the Race-Trace shows this more clearly in Fig. 2.

Vettel-Ricciardo detail

Fig. 2: Detail of Vettel-Ricciardo incident.

The reason that RedBull must have issued that order is because they could see (maybe from watching the Race-Trace live) that Vettel was having a shocking second stint and that Ricciardo was going much faster and in a close fight with Alonso. Ricciardo did finally get past Vettel and went on to finish only 1.3s behind Alonso. What would have happened if Vettel had done what he was told? Would Ricciardo have been on the podium instead of Alonso? Christian Horner thought not, saying "Arguably he [Ricciardo] would have been a second further up the road", not enough to catch Alonso.

If we suppose that instead of holding up Ricciardo, Vettel had been ordered to let his teammate past before Ricciardo caught him (and he'd obeyed) then we can fill in those three laps with normal, unimpeded lap-times and see from the Race-Trace what would have happened. Fig. 3 shows a hypothetical trace for the case where Ricciardo wasn't impeded by Vettel (green line with purple dots):

Vettel-Ricciardo detail

Fig. 3: Hypothetical race if Ricciardo had not been help up.

As you can see, it looks like he would have caught Alonso. Whether or not he'd have got past him in the last few laps is questionable, but it would have been exciting to watch! It certainly wouldn't have done Vettel any harm to do what he was told, and it could have got his teammate a podium finish.

F1 Fuel Saving in 2014

F1 this year is going to be very different from any previous season. The technical regulations open the doors to turbos connected to electric motors, 120kW KERS motors, 4MJ batteries, and wastegates. The ways in which the 2014 power unit can be used are myriad and it will be very difficult for the TV commentary teams to understand the implications themselves, let alone explain them to viewers! However, there are some things we can work from very basic information available online.

Aside from all of the turbo, MGU-H, battery stuff that makes it more complicated for us to understand, there are two parts of the 2014 rules which are very straightforward, from the technical regulations:

5.1.4 Fuel mass flow must not exceed 100kg/h.

And from the sporting regulations:

29.5 No car is permitted to consume more than 100kg of fuel, from the time at which the signal to start the race is given to the time each car crosses the Line after the end-of-race...

First off, let's observe that if fuel flow is limited to 100kg/h, then we know the fuel flow of every car at full throttle (100kg/h!). Let's take an extreme example and look at Monza, the high speed circuit of F1. The race in 2012 was won by Lewis Hamilton in a total time of  1:19:41.22. Monza is 53laps, so that's an average laptime of 90.21s. Depending on which website you get your F1 stats from, a lap of Monza is about 75% full throttle. The remaining 25% is divided into braking (at zero throttle) and accelerating from zero to full throttle. If we say that the split between braking and part throttle acceleration is even, and that the average throttle in the part throttle regions is 50%, then we can approximately represent all the time that's not full throttle by saying that a quarter of that time is full throttle, and three quarters of it is zero throttle. Adding this throttle usage to the 75% full throttle portion we get to 81.3% of the lap at full throttle as an approximation including the part throttle regions. Now, we should translate the FIA's fuel rate into a proper unit:

100kg/h / 3600s/h = 0.0278kg/s

If we multiply our three numbers so far together, we should get fuel use per lap:

90.21s/lap x 81.3% x 0.0278kg/s = 2.039kg/lap

Which is 2.039kg/lap x 53laps/race = 108.06kg/race. Which was fine in 2012, but it's over budget for 2014 by a little over 8kg! So, clearly you can't just smash round the track at full throttle like you did in the good old bad old use-as-much-fuel-as-you-like days. The question is, what's the best way of saving fuel without losing time? As any well informed motorsport fan knows, the most laptime-efficient way to say fuel is to completely lift off the throttle at the end of each straight and coast for a bit before hitting the brakes for the next corner, called 'lift-off', or 'lift and coast'. The reason is that saving fuel at the start of a straight means that you accelerate less and therefore go slower for the whole straight, whereas lifting at the end of the straight doesn't make you slower further down the track because you were about to brake anyway. How much lift-off are we talking about here? Well, if we lift-off at the ends of the straights then we're swapping time spent at full  fuel-flow for time spent at zero fuel-flow, so we save 0.0278kg/s during lift-off. To save our 8.06kg per race we need:

8.06kg / 0.0278kg/s = 289.9s/race

289.9s/race / 53laps/race = 5.47s/lap of lift-off!

No, your eyes do not deceive you (I encourage you to check my maths): this season, at Monza, drivers could have to lift-off the throttle at the ends of straights for an average of nearly 5 1/2 seconds per lap! If we distribute this time mainly over the four longer 'straights' (the Curva Grande is effectively a straight) and a little on the two shorter sections leading into each Lesmo then we might get something like this for an average lift-off schedule:

1.24s on the main straight into the first chicane
1.02s after Curva Grande into the second chicane
0.54s before the first Lesmo
0.54s before the second Lesmo
1.02s into Ascari
1.02s into Parabolica

As you can see, it's not exactly going to be the traditional 'last of the late brakers' scenario into the first chicane, or into any of the corners for that matter. Even if we're overestimating the amount of lift-off by a factor of two, we're still talking about half a second at the end of each long straight.

Of course drivers and teams might decide that lifting-off at the end of the main straight is too costly in strategic terms because it's a prime spot to overtake, or be overtaken. In which case they may not lift there, but they will then have to lift even more elsewhere to save the extra fuel.

There will be races where fuel saving is not an issue, Monaco for example is so slow that it's likely that no fuel saving will be necessary. Monza is an extreme example of a high-speed track where the fuel limit will have a big effect. The other factor that would eliminate the need for fuel saving is the safety car. F1 cars use (relatively) so little fuel when behind the safety car that as few as 4 laps behind a safety car could save enough fuel to complete the race without lifting-off any more.

I can't wait to see how this season plays out, and what strategic effects these radical fuel saving regulations will have.

America's Cup: The F1 of Sailing

When Ben Ainslie said that the America's Cup was "the Formula One of sailing" he was more right than he may have realised. Recent rumours that Oracle Team USA's boat had an automatic foil control system fitted to it half way through the regatta are raising speculation about a possible legal challenge by Team New Zealand on technical grounds. Rule circumvention by clever engineers has been at the heart of F1 for decades, and now it's making a front page appearance in sailing. Without passing judgement on the legality of Oracle's system, here I have a look at the differences between the mature F1 technical regulations and the AC72 class rule which is, of course, a first edition.

For clarity, the suspicion is that the Oracle system modulates the angles of the foils using hydraulic power produced by sailors grinding winches, but is controlled by a computer fed with information from various sensors on the boat. It may turn out that it is actually a passive mechanical system.

If the America's Cup is the Formula One of sailing, then perhaps the AC can take something from the rules of F1 regarding automatic control of things like foils. The F1 technical regulations have been preventing automatic control in several areas for a while, so they're far more developed in this area than the Racing Rules of Sailing, or even the AC72 class rule. For example, the F1 rule that prevents computer controlled ABS (Anti-skid Braking System) is 11.1.4:

Any change to, or modulation of, the brake system whilst the car is moving must be made by the driver's direct physical input, may not be pre-set and must be under his complete control at all times.

The key phrase here is 'under his complete control at all times', which means that you can't have something that plays around with the brakes without going via the driver's head. You can have things which present information to the driver, but you can't control the brakes independently of the driver. Note that the rule doesn't go into detail about what specific devices are allowed and what mechanisms can or cannot be involved, it just says that the driver is the only control device allowed.

The AC72 class rule has a more round-about way of trying to achieve the same thing, firstly, it says that stored energy (batteries etc.) is not allowed, except for several things, including:

[19.2] (e) for electrical operation of
(i) hydraulic valves. These operations shall only provide the input for the
position of the valve;

So from that it seems that having electrically operated valves is fine, BUT, read the rest of 19.2 and you find the bit where they tried to prevent computer control of things:

The operation for (i) [valves] and (ii) [clutches] above, shall not receive external input from any source other than manual input. Any data acquisition system, associated sensors or electronics shall be physically separate and completely isolated from any electrical operation referred to in (i) and (ii) with the exception of the voltage supply.

The problem with rules as specific as this is that it's relatively easy to get around them: the rule specifically bans computer control of valves that are operated by stored energy. It doesn't ban computer control of valves which are driven directly from a dynamo on a winch, for example. In fact it doesn't ban computer control of anything that's not operated using stored energy, as those things don't even fall into rule 19.

If the AC wants to be the F1 of sailing, then the technical regs need to be written like the F1 technical regs - ban general concepts, like automatic control, rather than the specific instances that the rule writers happen to have thought of. If you collect the kind of engineers that Larry can afford, then you can run rings around regulations like the AC72 class rule.