KNUTSON: Liberty Media Enhances The F-1 Experience

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Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — One can’t argue with Bernie Ecclestone’s business model.

Formula One seemed like a big and important show during the 1970s and it was.

But then Ecclestone took over and turned it into the really big business and worldwide show it is today.

Along the way he became a billionaire and he made it possible for assorted drivers and team owners to become millionaires. It was even possible for some freelance journalists like yours truly to eek out a living on the F-1 trail.

One of the most important things the vaticinator Ecclestone did was recognize the burgeoning importance of televising F-1 and he set about packaging the whole show. He even offered the teams the chance to buy a slice of the business. But as usual, they were too wound up in their own affairs and they turned him down — a decision that cost them many millions of dollars over the years.

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Decades later, Ecclestone’s business model had grown stale. For one thing, he failed to recognize or understand the new phenomena of social media. The show on TV needed to be spiced up as well.

When F-1’s new commercial owners — U.S.-based Liberty Media — took over two years ago, it vowed to make changes. Restrictions on the teams and drivers using social media inside the track grounds were eased immediately. And now the TV show is also being improved.

F-1 teams have access to masses of data during a race and they monitor it via computer screens on the pit wall, in the pit garages and back at their factory bases. Using all sorts of computer models, the teams can react in seconds to make strategy calls as things change out on the track. And now fans will be able to be part of that as artificial intelligence will be used to explain what’s happening on the track and what could happen during the remainder of the race.

The Formula One Group has formed a partnership with Amazon Web Services that will use its Sagemaker tool to provide new graphics on the TV screen this season. The system was trialed during several races in 2018.

“We’re digging deeper to show you where the performance is coming from,” F-1’s motorsports director Ross Brawn said during a presentation of the new system. “When a car is faster, why is it faster? For next season (2019) we’re expanding F-1 Insights for our viewers. By further integrating the telemetry data, such as the car position, the tire condition, even the weather, we can use Sagemaker to predict car performance, pit stops and race strategy. There will be some exciting new AI integrations into next year’s F-1 TV broadcast.”

Brawn showed several examples of how it works. One involved pit stops.

“It’s the major strategic element of the race and one stop is mandatory,” he explained. “Stopping at the right time, fitting the right tire, can win or lose a race. We’re going to take all the data and give the fans insight into why they stopped and when they stopped — did the team and driver make the right call?”

Another was from the Mexican Grand Prix, showing the probability of Sebastian Vettel overtaking Lewis Hamilton go from 44 percent up to 100 percent as the Ferrari closed on the Mercedes.

“Now, using machine learning and using live data and historical data, we can use predictions of what’s going to happen,” Brawn said. “What’s great about this is the teams don’t have all this data. We as Formula One know the data from both cars and we can make this comparison, that’s never been done before.”

More graphics showed various performance parameters of Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault such as tire wear.

“We know that someone is in trouble, his rear tires are overheating,” Brawn said, “but we can look at the history of the tires and how they’ve worked and where he is in the race. Machine learning can help provide us a proper analysis of the situation. We can bring that information to the fans and help them understand whether he’s in trouble or whether he can manage the situation. These are insights the teams always had but now we’re going to bring them out to the fans and show them what’s happening.”

The days of fans being content to simply watch race cars drone around on TV while being given little other data or information are gone.

Liberty Media promised to improve the show and this is a good example of that happening.