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November 22, 2011

Mercedes F1 team gets near-unfair advantage with Autonomy

Schumacher, Rosberg team get exclusive use of Autonomy's video analysis

By Jason Stamper

Mercedes Petronas Schumacher Rosberg

Mercedes GP Petronas has unveiled the fruits of a multi-year partnership with Autonomy, a tailored version of the Virage video analysis and indexing system which will help drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg gain a critical advantage over rival teams in the next season.

Autonomy’s Virage system is able to automatically analyse and index large amounts of video footage in order to make it easier to search and understand. It can also be used to spot patterns or trends in video footage – for example it is already used by London Underground, which uses Virage to analyse CCTV feeds and detect passenger movements that might be suggestive of a suicide attempt.

Speaking to reporters at Autonomy’s St. James Square offices in London, Nico Rosberg noted that in Formula One, tenths of seconds can make all the difference. "In F1 everything is about time," Rosberg said. "On a race weekend it may have taken the team several hours to analyse video footage to find out why I am not going around a particular corner as fast as another guy, for example in one instance we discovered that a driver was going straight over the corner whereas I had been going round it because I thought it would damage the bottom of the car."

"That was tenths per lap. A tenth [of a second] per lap is 5 seconds over 50 laps – that was the difference between Hamilton and Alonso in Abu Dhabi," Rosberg added.

Nico Rosberg Mercedes GP Petronas

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes GP Petronas.

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James Vowles, Mercedes GP Petronas chief strategist, said that the importance of data analysis to a Formula One team is huge, with each team guarding their own data, "Like it’s a military operation." Vowles said that teams routinely analyse video footage of their own drivers as well as rival drivers to optimise their next races – this has traditionally been a manual and time-consuming process.

Finding an issue in footage of a practice session may take several hours, which means it is only of use in the next practice session.

But with strict rules about the amount of practices teams are allowed, speed is vital. The Autonomy Virage technology is hoped to enable Mercedes GP Petronas to analyse video feeds in near real-time to spot the key trends that can make even the smallest difference to a lap time. It will not only speed up the process but free up engineers who would have had to spend more time doing manual analysis.

While Autonomy is not describing this as an exclusive deal – other teams could license Virage also – Mercedes GP Petronas’ Vowles noted that it has taken several years of work to adapt the software to the speed and peculiarities of Formula One video and audio feeds to get to the stage it is at now.

Another of Virage’s uses will be to automatically identify on-board footage of rival drivers so that such feeds are easy to find and analyse during practices or races, enabling the team at track-side to pass vital information to Schumacher or Rosberg while they are racing, not hours later.

So vital is such video information considered that Vowles said teams try not to give rival teams too much to go on during practice laps – if a driver finds a particularly good line through a corner they may not take it on every lap lest rival teams copy it, he said. "It’s no surprise that there’s a considerable improvement in lap times between practice and the qualifiers," Vowles said.

But Rosberg added that it’s not possible to throw rival teams off the scent completely. "I can’t do everything only once," he laughed. "I do still need to practice during the practice session."

Related: Who’s fitter: drummers or footballers? Phil Collins vs. Ronaldo!

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