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How data helps Oracle Red Bull Racing's Hannah Schmitz make crucial race day decisions

It takes more than a good car to win a race. Here's how strategic decisions based on data can impact the outcome.

It takes a lot to win a Formula 1 race: a lot of talent, a lot of technology, and a lot of data.

Data is at the core of the job of Hannah Schmitz, principal strategy engineer for Oracle Red Bull Racing, where she's worked for nearly 13 years. Her task: collect a mountain of information about historical races, competing teams, track conditions, and even the physical properties of the various types of tires that drivers are permitted to use. Based on this data, Hannah and her team can devise a strategy for the upcoming race. "My job is working out how we can win the race," says Schmitz.

The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile enacts an intricate set of ever-changing regulations such as cost caps, tire usage, engine and aerodynamics limitations, and so on. That's backed up by a lengthy season that spans 23 races held on much different tracks and in wildly varying environmental conditions located on six different continents. For example, in June 2022, the teams will face a double header, racing in Azerbaijan one week and Canada the next. The variables involved are complex, and, as Schmitz notes, they're subject to change throughout the race.

Please read: Podcast: How AI keeps Formula E race cars running at peak efficiency

While race engineers and performance engineers concern themselves with data from the car—top speed, suspension loads, and the like—Schmitz has a more elevated and potentially complex focus. "For strategy, the main things are tires, pace, and overtaking," she says. All of these issues are interconnected.

In any given race, Schmitz's analysis will start with a deep dive into how Red Bull Racing and its competitors are faring and in particular how fast the tires are degrading on track. If the tires have low degradation or overtaking another driver is especially difficult, pit stops may be fewer. If overtaking seems easier, then Schmitz may recommend an extra pit stop or two, to refresh the tires on the car. There is a direct correlation between the freshness of the tires and the pace of the car, but pulling over for fresh tires means explicitly giving up time—and almost certainly getting passed by someone else. Will fresh tires give your car enough of a boost to retake the lead later? Is there enough time left in the race?

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Schmitz has a range of tools at her disposal to optimize all of this, working out an evolving model that ties tire degradation—which can be influenced by specific track conditions, temperature, and the speed of the race—to lap times. But then the race gets underway and, as Schmitz puts it, the initial model is usually left in the dust. "It might be that everyone's lap times are getting slower more quickly than predicted or the tires are performing worse than we expected," she says. "So that might push us into doing an extra stop or switching to a different type of tire. We are always updating the model during the race."

At the 2021 race in Bahrain, Red Bull Racing's model initially called for one pit stop, but concerns about heavy tire degradation soon put a second pit stop on the cards. By the end of the race, the model had evolved again and the one stop was still competitive, leaving a straight fight on track between the leaders. "There's a lot of game theory in these strategies," says Schmitz, "as you're trying to work out what you think other cars are going to do."

Schmitz earned international recognition at the 2019 race in Brazil after her strategy work earned her a coveted spot on the podium. Her decision to send driver Max Verstappen to the pit, handing the lead over to Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, was controversial because it all but guaranteed Hamilton would respond by not pulling into the pit. It would be a close call, but Schmitz's models showed that with fresh tires, Verstappen should be able to just pass Hamilton before the end of the race, which he did, ultimately winning the event. "It was definitely the right call," she says," but at the time you're thinking, 'Oh, I hope this works out.'"

Sounding the horn for diversity

Schmitz, who just returned to work following maternity leave, has been a vocal and visible advocate for diversity in a sport that has been largely dominated by men. "Ever since I decided I wanted to be an engineer, it has been male dominated," says Schmitz, who attended the University of Cambridge and was recruited by Red Bull Racing directly from college. "At university, it was probably 50 women out of 300 or so students. Actually, that's probably a bit generous. Everything was male dominated from the stage that I made the decision to study engineering."

Schmitz notes that the racing industry is starting to see an increase of women in design and technical departments, but when it comes to traveling with the team, women remain an uncommon sight. "I'm the only woman in a technical role that travels with the team, so you really notice it at the track," she says. "But now that I'm here, I feel 100 percent respected." Just as in any industry, she stresses that the key to getting ahead has always been proving herself over and over again, developing the trust of her colleagues, and, for Schmitz, having a strong mentor to guide her through those formative early years on the job.

As for Schmitz's biggest racing lesson? "It isn't always the fastest car that wins the race," she says. "It's probably easiest for the fastest car to win the race, but there are things you can do with strategy to try and make that not happen."

And all you need to get there is a whole lot of data.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.