Friday, December 8, 2023

Formula One hits more bumps in Las Vegas, but sport says its high-tech future is bright

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Formula One gambled on Las Vegas, and the first roll of the dice came up snake eyes.

The first practice session late Thursday for the inaugural $500 million Vegas Grand Prix was canceled after only two laps when Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. ran over a loose manhole cover on the Strip that tore up his car and damaged several others. After a 2½-hour delay for repairs, F1 conducted free practice 2 from 2:30 to 4 Friday morning.

The embarrassing start to the third F1 event in the United States came less than a month after the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin. Yet the Sky Sports production, picked up by ESPN, did not miss a beat, detailing the mishap and fallout into the wee hours. Qualilifying was late Friday, with the race to go on Saturday at 11 p.m. Central.

At Circuit of the Americas last month, Formula One and partner Lenovo took the American-Statesman and a select group of reporters behind the scenes to show what it takes to produce the broadcast and run the race.

“It’s a massive undertaking, and one that has to be transported around the world for 23 races over five continents,” said Chris Roberts, Formula One’s director of IT.

“We are transmitting 500 to 600 terabytes of information over the course of a race weekend. It travels at the rate of 130 milliseconds (0.13 seconds) back to our headquarters in the United Kingdom. We have servers at the track running 80 virtual machines and more than double that back in the UK. We lay 60 kilometers of fiber around the track for every event.”

Why we love F1’s fancy technology

When Formula One, which has roughly 750 employees, went looking for a partner to pull off that kind of magic on a worldwide scale, it hooked up with Lenovo, the multitech company of 77,000 with U.S. headquarters in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Lenovo provides IT support, hardware and software.

“We’re active in 180 countries, and with Formula One’s global footprint, we can showcase how agile we can be. Everything needs to move at speed — for them and for us,” said Gerald Youngblood, Lenovo’s CMO North America and an Austin resident. “The F1 fan is technically savvy. A high percentage of IT and technology decision-makers follow this sport.”

More: Circuit of the Americas plans fixes to track after F1 drivers grumble

F1 viewers are smitten with the high-tech gadgets tied to three-time world champion Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes machines and everyone else on the grid.

There are on-board cameras, helmet cams, overhead cameras carried by zip lines and helicopters, 26 special track cameras, and 150 microphones around the layout. Each car has 300 sensors that generate 1.1 million data points per second.

Roberts said his group has 400 pieces of hardware around the circuit, 50 antennas to facilitate two-way data transfer, 150 people on the ground and another 200 in London for race weekends.

“Around 600 gigs of raw data comes off the cars, including things like telemetry and timing,” he said.  “We’re transmitting over 10 gigabytes back to the UK over diverse fiber-optic routes, and you won’t see a dropped pixel if you’re watching at home.”

Adjusting on the fly: a F1 hallmark

 Roberts said what attracted Formula One to Lenovo was its versatility and willingness to listen and dig into problems together rather than peddling a company’s solutions.

 USGP fans in Austin saw a kiss-activated trophy, unique in sports. After Verstappen won and kissed it, the trophy glowed in the Dutch national color of orange,

 “Yeah, this also is a fun playground for our engineering team,” Youngblood said.

What’s next? Oh, that’s easy. Virtual reality. Augmented reality. At COTA’s Paddack Club there was a F1 VR game using ThinkReality VRX headsets for fans to try out.

“When you’re home, you want to make people feel like they’re at the track. When at the track, you want to give them a more data-rich environment,” Roberts said. “We’re working with Lenovo on how that might happen.

“We’re always looking for cutting edge. VR? Three-dimensional? A 360 experience to make people feel even closer to the action? We’re not there yet, but it’s a conversation we’re having.”

So that 3D look at a loose water-valve cover on the Strip is coming down the road.

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