Running a contemporary Formula 1 car is one of humankind’s most sophisticated systems engineering challenges. Mercedes Formula 1 explains how electronics, systems engineering and data work in F1 and the relevance of each part of the team system.

Evan Short, Team Leader of Trackside Electronics Systems at Mercedes F1, says, ‘We generate data from a variety of sources. Primarily it’s from sensors on the car itself, and those can be anything from measurements of physical quantities, like temperatures, pressures, torques, and speeds, right through to things like the operation of the system like the internal state of all sorts of things on the car, like the gearbox.

‘Those sensors are physically connected, either through an analog system to the electronic control unit (ECU) on the car that runs the whole car or through a series of CAN network busses around the car that brings information back to that central unit.

Taking the total amount of data generated over the weekend by the car, including video and all sorts of ancillary information, it’s close to a terabyte or even a bit more per car. But if you look at the really exciting bits of data which are the live data streams generated by the car while it’s running, we’re looking at about 30 megabytes per lap of live data and two or three times more once the car is in the pits and we offload the data from it.’

‘Track time and F1 is a very limited resource. We cannot go out and repeat a test if something goes wrong, so the pressure is on to get it right the first time. This applies to the time we spend on track, the time we spend in the wind tunnel, and even the simulations we do, so getting that data right the first time is absolutely critical. We have to balance the requirements of gathering the data for the engineers against what the drivers need during a free practice session because they are also trying to learn about the car, learn about the track and set themselves up for qualifying.

‘Once we’ve gathered up the data on the car, everything is synchronised, so we know exactly what’s happening at a precise time on each one of those sensors. The data is then encrypted and transmitted to the pits through our telemetry system. The telemetry system is common across all the F1 teams, so there’s quite a big infrastructure around the racetrack to ensure we get 100% coverage. That system is common to all the teams, a unique example of cooperation between the F1 teams. We used to set up our own masts, radios, and telemetry systems, and we decided in the end that that wasn’t the competition we were in. We want to be racing each other on track. There’s no point in having a race between the people setting up the antennas.’

‘If we compare data from the car to the sort of thing we use every day, the amount of video information and data that we get off the car might only be equivalent to two or three people streaming high-definition video from their phones. But what’s different is that every bit matters.

‘So every bit of information in our data stream represents a temperature, pressure, speed, or torque monitored closely by someone sitting back in the factory. The electronics team has a wide gamut of tasks. We’re looking at things starting from the design of the electrical systems on the car. We have folks back in the factory doing the design of the looms and design of the overall system and, of course, the design of the controls that operate complex systems on the car, like the hydraulics. In the end, the good work produced in the car’s design and production comes to us at the track.

‘The trackside engineering group is a much smaller team that operates at the pointy end of car operation. We’re trying to make the car run as reliably and safely as possible. So that includes folks like our technicians who physically build the cars and are wiring up the sensors and electronic parts of the cars. It also includes our systems engineers, who calibrate the complex systems on the car and keep an eye on its health while running. Additionally, control system engineers looking at the driver interface, the gearbox’s operation, the race tuning and performance, starts, all sorts of other bits, and specialists in areas like the radio systems are included.’

Christine Steven, Mercedes’ Lead Electronics Development Engineer, explains, ‘There are over 250 sensors on the car during an average race weekend, and these can be divided into three main categories: control, instrumentation, and monitoring. All of this delivers pressure temperature, inertial, and displacement data. These sensors are embedded into all systems on the car, and their size varies according to their function and type.

‘For example, the FIA-mandated TPMS system measures tyre pressures installed inside the wheels. In addition, we have small thermal imaging sensors mounted on the wings and floors to measure the surface temperature and degradation of the front and rear tires, respectively.

‘The data rate depends on the sensor type and category, which can range anywhere from one Hertz to one kilohertz and can be increased significantly if necessary. For example, vibration data can be sampled up to 200 kilo-samples per second through intensive signal processing to filter the data down to sensible logging rates.

‘F1 continues to push the limits of motorsport and deliver cutting-edge technology. It has become crucial to provide reliable and accurate data to ensure success. As the car evolves, so too do the sensing requirements to such an extent that existing technology does not suffice. Therefore, the electronics department has had to develop bespoke sensors and data acquisition systems in-house to provide valuable information that engineers can use to improve the car’s performance and directly impact the team’s success.’

Trackside Control Systems Engineer, Chris Nelson, added, ‘Most of us trackside and the vast majority of other Formula 1 teams use software called Atlas made by McLaren Applied. During practice or a qualifying session, the drivers are keen to see their performance and compare it to their teammate’s. So, going through that data with the performance engineer is a vital part of practice sessions, and in particular, the qualifying session when there’s a short time in between runs to try and understand where the critical areas of time losses are and where they can gain performance on the next run.

‘The drivers are keen to understand all this data even away and out of the car. Typically, on a Friday evening, they will review their data to understand their performance and get an overall feel for what the car is doing to back up their observations and feelings from within the cockpit.

‘The engineering groups around the drivers go through quite a bit of data with them to help them understand what’s happening in terms of the car performance compared to expectations with the setups that we’re running, how the tires are behaving and degrading during a long run to practice for the race, and other areas such how they’re operating various systems.

‘From my point of view, as a control systems engineer, I’m primarily going through things like practice start performance with the driver, looking at the gear shift points to see how accurate they are compared to the optimum, assessing any switch changes and button functionality and also the steering wheel dash display. I can use the data to go through what the driver sees, and if they want to see things in a slightly different way, we can look at that, test it on the data, and I can go through it with them, making sure they’re happy with a change, and we can validate all of that before it then goes into the car.

‘So with sensors all over the car, we receive data from all aspects of the vehicle behaviour, driver inputs, and driver performance. For example, we can see exactly what the driver is doing in terms of breaking inputs, throttle steering angle, what buttons and switches he’s changing on the steering wheel, and also overall car performance, including aerodynamic performance from aero sensors measuring pressure, the performance of the power unit and the drive line, including temperatures, pressures and all sorts of information. We can then use it to understand what the driver’s doing, what the car is doing, and how it behaves in the different ambient conditions and corners around the track. So, it’s useful information to understand what’s happening out on track.’

Manager of Trackside and Technical Support, Daniel Boddy, notes, ‘We have a number of areas in the factory where the data is either generated, ready for the race weekend or post-processed after the sessions. This includes places like our dyno or simulator, aerodynamics, and the wind tunnel, but also individuals or smaller departments may post-process information specific to their area.

‘The trackside electronics team will hand over the data from the on-car systems to the Formula 1 paddock team. We receive that data in the garage, and then we pass that back through our systems to the factory. The live data, such as on car telemetry or voice or video calls in a European event, are processed within 10 to 15 milliseconds, almost instantaneous. However, as we move into the flyaway events, that can range depending on the actual distance from the circuit. Somewhere like Australia or Japan, the latency is around 300 to 400 milliseconds.

‘We also have our offloaded car data and more extensive video and media files. These take a lot longer due to the file size. We have an agreement with our engineering teams to prioritise and get it back to our factories as quickly as possible. This is expected before the car goes out for the next run. For example, during the 2022 Mexico GP weekend, we produced around 11 terabytes of actual data, transferring backward and forwards between the two factories and the event.’


Stewart is a degreed engineer, professional technical researcher and engineering journalist with proven experience in producing some of the most comprehensive technical content ever published on some of the most high-profile motorsport technology ever made. He brings his knowledge and experience to Racecar Engineering to enable readers to explore a diverse range of contemporary motorsport technology and engineering phenomena in a plethora of racing disciplines.