AUSTIN, Texas — The race is on in Formula One. Not just to the checkered flag, but to see which team can marshall the best technology.
In its 70th year, the preeminent auto-racing circuit has become a tech arms race.
At the U.S. Grand Prix here this past weekend, the Internet of Things, big data, virtual reality, machine learning, 3-D printing, flash storage, predictive analytics and design play integral roles in the success (or failure) of the 22 drivers that compete in 21 races globally each year.
The slightest advancement, or tweak, can mean the difference between first place and 10th place — often the difference of one second. And that's key considering that running an F1 team can cost upwards of $500 million a year.
The car of Mercedes team member Nico Rosberg. (Photo: Jon Swartz, for USA TODAY)
The technology surge has also impacted the future look and feel of consumer models from Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Renault Sport Formula One Team and McLaren Honda, each of which incorporate changes ranging from hybrid engines to aerodynamic design from its racing operations within a few years.
Even the steering wheel, which costs up to $35,000 on an F1 car, has evolved for the everyday commuter, with a series of buttons for changing radio stations, monitoring fuel efficiency and navigating streets.
"It's the most technologically-advanced sport on the planet," says Jonathan Martin, chief marketing officer of Pure Storage, which is relaying dizzying amounts of data between Mercedes' pit here and its racing headquarters in Brackley, United Kingdom. F1 is a "microcosm of the (tech) industry."
Behind the scenes, the Mercedes-Benz team pit crew resembles NASA Control. (Photo: Jon Swartz, for USA TODAY)
Advances in car technology mirror what's happening in Silicon Valley, where Tesla Motors and Google are developing self-driving cars with sophisticated braking systems, and among the major automakers, who are rapidly transforming their machines into over-sized computing devices.
There is a need for tech efficiency in addition to speed.
Regulations in the sport change every few years, prompting the 11 competing teams to redesign, engineer and manufacture various car parts. Next year, for the first time in more than 50 years, the rules will maker for faster speeds on the track with bigger, wider tires.
The drivers, to be sure, are as good as ever. But the tech underlying their cars has changed the dynamic of a sport that is wildly popular in Europe, Asia and South America.
The Pure Pit Wall app lets consumers view the predicted 1-2-3 results of a race just 14 laps into a race. (Photo: Jon Swartz, for USA TODAY)
Perhaps nowhere is the convergence of tech and auto racing more clear than when each car completed one of the 56 laps in Sunday's race, won by Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.
Each time an F1 car buzzed by its pit at more than 200 mph, it transmitted 12,000 data feeds from its 350 sensors on the racing car. The data dump was shared and instantly analyzed to assess factors such as brake pressure, car balance and tire performance.
Inside the garage of the three-time defending champion Mercedes team of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, 60 people monitor their cars' performance while navigating a phalanx of cables, super-charged PCs and thousands of car parts within a confined space. "This is the guts of the operation behind all the shiny stuff," says Geoff Willis, technology director for Mercedes.
At times, it all looks like NASA Control, with more than 20 computer screens meticulously monitored for every imaginable vital sign emanating from the high-performance cars.
Paddy Lowe, executive technical director of Mercedes, has been part of six Formula One-winning teams in his nearly 30 years in the sport. During that time, he's seen an evolution in design and innovation that now makes anything conceivable. "We've reached the point where we have more complex cars in the most elegant packaging," he says. "The cars look so much better now."
A decade ago, a racing team might tweak eight things, Pure Storage's Martin says. Today, it's 1,200, he says.
"There's been an explosion of shapes and biological-looking pieces," Willis says.
Geoff Willis is technical director of Mercedes. (Photo: Jon Swartz, for USA TODAY)
Sometimes, the technology is downright scary in its efficiency.
A new app called Pure Pit Wall has the ability to accurately predict the top three finishers after just 14 laps, based on real-time analytics from the cars.
"It blows your mind," says Martin, shaking his head.