Wander around the pits at a Formula One car race and you're as likely to bump into a laptop-wielding scientist or engineer as a mechanic with a spanner.
And the lessons they are drawing from sensors on F1 tracks, cars and drivers are finding their way into a surprising range of industries - from drilling oil wells to making toothpaste.
Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronic Systems, explained: “By chance or whatever we've ended up that F1 is a very strong metaphor for how the world is developing around a more industrialised internet.
“You take information and you measure things, and from that you try to adapt how things behave and flow, so you can make performance better.”
PACE OF CHANGE
Formula One racing, born after World War II, has long embraced rapid innovation. It can take seven years to get an ordinary car from the drawing board to the showroom: An F1 car may take just five months - and have new components added to it each race weekend.
AT&T global accounts director for F1Gerard Spensley said: “There are very few industries with a similar ability to evolve at such pace and bring components or products to market at such speed.
But in recent years safety concerns and fears it would bankrupt itself have forced the sport to adopt tighter regulations, reducing speeds and spending. This has shifted emphasis from hardware upgrades to real-time tweaks in efficiency and tactics to prise an extra millisecond or two from car and driver.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
To do that, teams capture gigabytes of data from more than 100 sensors on each F1 car, transmitting it back to the pit or direct to their UK headquarters over high-speed cables. Once engineers have analysed the data they feed advice back to the driver - often within minutes or even seconds.
At the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, for example, Red Bull’s UK factory used AT&T's high bandwidth link to assess the impact of an early collision on driver Sebastian Vettel's car in time to send instructions to trackside engineers ahead of the first pit stop. That gave them time, to make alterations that helped reduce the risk of further damage to the car.
Vettel finished sixth, retaining his title.
It's this pressure-cooker data analytics which some F1 companies say offers an edge not only to racing motor cars but to other industries grappling with big data. The appeal lies in how F1 teams tackle grabbing information on the fly, figuring out what's important and then converting that quickly into a strategy.
Leading the charge is McLaren, which has used its experience grabbing data from fast moving cars to help build a network of antennae, sensors and masts for San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit. The network is used to collect video surveillance of the carriages, monitor usage and provide passengers with WiFi.
“This is not,” said McLaren's van Manen, “as easy as it sounds - data bounces off walls, arrives in the wrong order or drops out entirely.
“The complexity is in the detail of dealing with both the high volume of data and the imperfections in the world.”
McLaren is now working on similar projects in Europe.
To be sure, F1 is a small industry and McLaren is being driven in part by circumstance to seek new markets. In 2012 the group made a pre-tax loss of £2.5 million (R40 million). The global market for big data is expected to be worth $23.7 billion (R233 billion) by 2016, most of it driven by big players such as IBM , Cisco and EMC.
But not all in the industry are convinced there's much mileage in exporting its expertise.
Paul Newsome of Williams, whose hybrid engine technology is being tested on buses, said: “There is relevance but our analysis of the marketplace is that we're far better concentrating very strongly on automotive and other forms of motorsport.”
And even those who partner with F1 acknowledge that part of its appeal is the brand.
Paul Marriott of SAP, whose real-time data analytics product HANA is being road-tested by McLaren, says the company also benefits from the glamorous association with F1.
But the partnerships run deeper.
McLaren is working with US-based IO Data Centres make data centres more efficient by modelling likely demand.
IO's chief innovation officer Kevin Malik said: “Every plane and car is now driven by software, constantly adjusting every variable. Taking that thinking and applying it to the data centre - where every input is constantly monitored and controlled - was how the partnership was spun with McLaren.”
The way McLaren uses predictive analytics to figure out the best time to call a racing car in for a pit-stop is helping Britain's airport controllers anticipate which planes should land on what runway. The software is currently being deployed at London's Heathrow Airport.
McLaren is also working with an oil and gas company to figure out the optimal path to drill through a honeycomb of wells 16 000 metres underground. The solution, says McLaren's Geoff McGrath, is a strategy straight out of racing: measure the condition of the car, mine the models using historical data and then advise a course of action - which will change all the time as new events occur.
MANUFACTURING PIT STOPS
No action is too mundane for F1 to capture and analyse. Teams of mechanics practice changing wheels and tyres dozens of times a day, each session captured by video monitors and then studied for lessons.
This caught the eye of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which asked McLaren to help reduce the time spent switching its toothpaste production lines. By standardising materials, making the machines easier to handle and reviewing teams' performance after every batch, they cut the changeovers from 39 minutes to 15.
GSK global manufacturing and supply chief Roger Connor said: “Changeovers in the manufacturing world are very like pit stops in an F1 team.”
“It creates that interest that radiates into other industries.”
That said, the success of F1 teams in marketing their expertise to other industries may have less to do with their cutting edge innovation, than with their high profile work.
Analyst Craig Stires commented: “It isn't so much the technology and methods that are driving, but that these cases are so interesting that people are starting to pay attention to things such as sensors in the vehicle.
Whatever the reason, F1's innovation is causing ripples. Providing high-speed connectivity to F1, for example, has helped companies such as AT&T and Tata Communications improve their service.
Tata Communications chief marketing officer Julie Woods-Moss said that setting up a network for a client would normally take 10 week - F1 needs to have it done in three days.
“There have been huge process innovations in the company that we're now starting to see feeding to mainstream customers.” - Reuters