How Formula 1 is embracing AI

This article first appeared on Recharged.

Formula 1 is jumping on the AI bandwagon to up its game in making judgments on track.

The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), motor sport’s governing body, shared their plan to bring artificial intelligence (AI) into the mix to keep a closer eye on track limits in Formula 1. And they’re trying it out first at the Abu Dhabi race this weekend.

A quick guide to track limits

When a driver puts all four wheels over the white line as set out by the race director as the track limit, they exceed track limits, which may result in a penalty.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, they’re rolling out something called ‘Computer Vision.’ It’s like super-smart tech that uses shape analysis to speed up the checks on track limits. The idea is to get these pixels on a video feed to determine whether the drivers are playing by the rules.

Why bother with all this tech wizardry? The FIA thinks it’ll cut down on the number of times they need a human to double-check things. In other words, fewer times someone at the FIA’s Remote Operations Centre (ROC) has to give a final thumbs up or down.

Tim Malyon, the ROC’s head, said, “We’ve kind of thrown a bunch of people at it because, well, that’s what you do when you’ve got thousands of checks to make.”

Formula 1: Enter AI

The plan is to go from a whopping 800 reports down to just 50 after a Grand Prix. That’s a way more manageable workload for the FIA team.

Chris Bentley, the FIA’s Single-Seater Head of Information Systems Strategy, added another detail. They’re using a system called Catapult, which uses receivers to pinpoint car locations accurately. It’s like NFL-level tech, where they can track every player, even in a massive huddle.

“We can use that technology on our live feeds. That will be the same as the new tool, and we will then be able to create the ‘lines of interest’. The AI would then learn as it goes.”

They’re also working on improving how they figure out where the cars are on the track. Malyon continued, “Car positioning is still being developed to improve accuracy.” And they’re beefing up the ROC team from four to eight people next year and doubling the connection bandwidth. That means more eyes on the action, both on-site and remotely.

Austrian GP a watershed moment

The Austrian Grand Prix on July 2 was a watershed moment for the sport, with only four personnel handling an avalanche of 1,200 possible breaches. The result was several penalties being allocated long after the race concluded. Usually, when a driver is given a five-second penalty during a race, they can try to increase the gap between themselves and the cars behind them, neutralising a possible position loss and potential points loss.

One of the crucial lessons from this year’s track restriction troubles in Austria, according to Malyon, was that the best resource for checking breaches was not actually employing technology to warn the FIA of infractions.

The human eye, rather than data from car detecting systems or timing loop analysis, proved more successful.

“We basically concluded that the loops were insufficiently accurate and that, by far, our most accurate solution was having a data analyst looking at the video itself,” he said.

“In fact, that’s an interesting element of the story as currently, through loop positioning, through GPS positioning, etc, the human still wins.”

“We’ve turned off loops now for every circuit unless there’s a chicane because it just gets in the way of what we’re trying to achieve,” Bentley continued. Finally, the rule of thumb is that if it’s too close to call, the driver gets the benefit of the doubt.”

So, how did it go?

Well, during Saturday’s qualifying session, a few track limit infringements were identified and applied immediately. During quali, if a driver exceeds track limits, their lap time is deleted. If they don’t manage to log another lap before time runs out, they are eliminated during a specific stage.

Quick F1 qualification guide

Qualifying usually takes place on Saturday afternoons* and is divided into three stages: Q1, Q2, and Q3, lasting 18 minutes, 15 minutes, and 12 minutes respectively. The five slowest drivers are eliminated in Q1, followed by five more in Q2. This determines the grid positions from 11 to 20 before the top ten grid slots – and pole position – are determined in Q3.

And during the race?

During the race, viewers aren’t made aware of every single track limit infraction. Drivers are given more grace, with two warnings before being shown a black-and-white flag (not the same as the chequered flag waved at the end of the race) for a third. A fourth infringement results in a five-second penalty.

The first issue I was aware of was when Charles Leclerc’s engineer reminded him on lap 46/58 that he had two warnings.

Does that mean it worked? It’s hard to tell from the outside. But as this was the last race of the season, there are a few months to ensure the models are prepared for the 2024 season, which kicks off in February with pre-season testing ahead of the first race in Bahrain on March 2.

*On Sprint weekends quali takes place on Friday afternoons.

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