Then and Now – Telemetry in F1

In the Chinese Grand Prix Nico Rosberg had to drive with the handicap of his cars telemetry having failed.  Todd, Paul and Mark discussed this briefly during Podcast 364 with Todd stating that Ayrton had to drive in this way.  I thought I would examine a bit about the history of telemetry in F1 to explore this a little further and see if I can shed some light on just what difficulty it would have presented Rosberg and Mercedes.

When the Formula 1 World Championship started in 1950 there was no such thing as telemetry.  Information about what the car was doing had to be described by the driver to his engineers, and together they made adjustments hoping to make the car go faster.   There was a significant advantage for drivers who were also good engineers, as they not only felt what the car was doing, they also knew what changes needed to be made to the car to improve the lap-time.  Sir Jack Brabham won the world drivers title three times because he was not only a good driver but also a brilliant engineer.  He is the only person to have won the title in a car of his own manufacture.  It could also work the other way, the Mercedes chief engineer in the 1930’s and 1950’s, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, was also a very good driver.  Although he never raced, he was able to test the grand prix cars setting times as fast as Moss and Fangio.

This situation continued until the mid 1980’s, when technology enabled some data to be transmitted from the car to the pits in bursts as the car passed along the pit straight.  In the 1988 season there are contemporary reports from the French Grand Prix that the fuel readouts in the McLarens were showing that the cars were using less fuel than the Honda telemetry was telling them.   Ron Dennis was prepared to allow his drivers to race flat out, even if it meant they ran out of fuel if it taught them to be more conservative in the future.  It seems Ayrton did have issues with telemetry just as Rosberg has today.

By the early 1990’s things had developed to the stage where continuous transmission was possible around most tracks.  Certain places like Monaco still presented a problem, but this was overcome by storing the data on the car and retransmitting it again when communications resumed.   Not only were cars transmitting data to the pits, but increasingly engineers in the pits were making adjustments to the cars remotely while the cars were running, changing engine maps, diff settings etc. all to enable the driver to concentrate just on driving the car as fast as possible.

This did have some other side effects for the driver, everything he did on the track was known before he returned to the pits, and also how and where he was quicker was available to his team mate to study and learn from.  No doubt this increased the difficulties in some teams when the relationship between the drivers broke down so that this data was no longer shared inside the team.  There were also instances when a driver’s complaints about issues with the car turned out to be not quite as severe as expressed just after getting out of the cockpit.

I recall Nigel Mansell commenting that he had to bravely fight against a failing gearbox for the second half of one particular race, but through his skill and determination he managed to get the car to the chequered flag.  Patrick Head when asked about the incident stated that while there was one occasion when the gear didn’t select first time, it went in the next time costing a tenth or two, the rest of the race the gearbox behaved perfectly.  It goes to show how sensitive drivers are to even the slightest change in performance, and how their recollection of facts may not be entirely reliable which is one of the benefits of the telemetry.

Into the early 2000’s, and the FIA was increasingly concerned about the amount of control those in the pits (and also back in the factory) had over the car.  So for the 2003 season two way telemetry was banned, the only information that could be transmitted from pits to the car was the radio.  Data could still be transmitted from the car to the pits, and onward back to the factory.  So with tens of engineers now studying the performance of the car from the hundreds of sensors recording data every few milliseconds, all adjustments have to be made by the driver, which is why the steering wheels have gone from a wheel with maybe two buttons on it (for the radio and additional boost), to a control panel with multiple dials buttons and displays which co-incidentally also controls the direction of the front wheels.

Of course there are occasions when a team’s telemetry is exposed to the whole paddock through foolish action of an individual.   Lewis Hamilton’s tweeting of the telemetry comparing his qualifying lap to Jenson Button’s gave away rather more information than he was expecting.

So how much will Rosberg have suffered through not having the telemetry working during the Chinese Grand Prix?  Arguably the start was not as good as it would have been because the clutch settings are adjusted by each team following the getaway on the formation lap, and during the race he was being asked to give the fuel read-out as he was going through turn 1, when perhaps he may have preferred to give the readings when going down the long back straight.  However it may not have fundamentally changed the result, as unlike in Bahrain, Hamilton looked the faster of the two Mercedes drivers all weekend.

There is a tendency today with so much data recorded for teams to spend all their time studying the data, hoping to find the extra time within the traces shown on the graphs.  Gary Anderson has commented several times in recent months how few team members he sees actually watching the cars go around the circuit, they are all in the garage looking at computer monitors.  His comment is that your data can tell you part of the story about how your car is behaving, but nothing at all about how your competitors are performing.   Sometimes there is no substitute for going out and having a look  at how the cars are taking a particular corner.  Or perhaps it is time for the engineers to once again get behind the wheel and take their creations for a test drive to fully understand the problem?


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