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Behind the Scenes at Formula 1: Fast Data Fueling Fast Drivers

Photographer: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Viewers of the 2014 British Grand Prix got to witness home favorite Lewis Hamilton hauling himself back into contention for the Formula 1 title, as well as the riveting 15-lap battle for fifth place between Infiniti Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Ferarri's Fernando Alonso.

But unseen by the audience of last weekend's race was something equally impressive for its speed, at least if you're a data geek.

Take a walk behind the scenes at an F1 race and it feels like you've stumbled upon the world's largest, most technologically advanced circus, where the communication systems are demanding an ever-growing spotlight. Each team's trackside area is lined with stacks of computers, where analysts busily tinker with software to optimize performance.

Infiniti Red Bull Racing, the team that has dominated the constructors championship for the past four years, has partnered with AT&T to ensure that the data sent by the hundred or so sensors fitted to its cars are received in real time by its trackside staff, as well as the 20 or so engineers at its headquarters in Milton Keynes, England.

In the buildup to a race, staff at Infiniti Red Bull's U.K. headquarters collect and analyze the data, before holding teleconferences with the drivers and trackside team to devise the race strategy. When the action gets under way, the team uses the information gathered to quickly adapt to dynamic race conditions and gain whatever edge it can over its rivals.

"We've sent twice the amount of data over the network in each of the last three years," Red Bull Technology's Alan Peasland says. "The speed of the network is now around 2.5 times faster than it was last year."

Such data has made the difference between success and failure.

In the 2013 Italian Grand Prix, AT&T's technology found a 1.5-second window of opportunity to bring Mark Webber in for a pit stop. During the same race, Webber's car suffered damage to the front wing. With real-time monitoring, Red Bull's team was able to assess the severity of the damage and the impact on car performance. As a result, Red Bull opted to keep Webber on the track rather than carry out a nose-change pit stop. The result of both decisions helped him finish in 3rd place, on the podium.

More than 200 gigabytes of data are transferred during each race weekend, according to AT&T. The amount of information transferred between the track and Milton Keynes is increasing year over year.

The technology doesn't come easy. For each of the 19 F1 races globally this season, AT&T sends three engineers to set up the network two weeks before the race itself, before dismantling it and starting all over again.

But that may be a small price for the exposure it gets in return. Formula 1 drew about 500 million TV viewers during the 2012 season. And with races held in developed nations such as Japan, as well as Brazil, Malaysia and other emerging economies, the events offer communication companies global visibility. In addition to the sponsorship, AT&T says its partnership with Infiniti Red Bull gives the company a way to test its network in a demanding, fast-paced environment.

"You've got drivers hurtling round the track at ever increasing speeds and you've got connectivity measuring what they're doing in real time - it's all about speed," AT&T's vice president of U.K. and Ireland Dave Langhorn says.

The next stop for the Formula 1 circus is Hockenheim, Germany this weekend.

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