It’s Friday morning, five minutes before the start of the first session of the 2020 season, and the NASA-style Operations Room at Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’s Milton Keynes headquarters might just be the calmest place in Formula One.
While Max Verstappen and Alex Albon are in Spielberg, Austria about to put the RB16 car through its first competitive workout during Free Practice One, 1,500km away in southern England a small team of people are gathering in what is almost certainly the only custom-built space of its kind.
Welcome to the AT&T Operations Room, where Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’s ‘team behind the team’ are about to push go on their remote analysis operation – pulling in every conceivable piece of data from the track, crunching the numbers and studying every frame of video, and sending actionable information back to the Team in Spielberg in real time.
In such a frantic sport, where the passions of the people involved are on such obvious display on the track and at its side, you might expect the Ops Room to be a scene reminiscent of an old stock exchange trading floor.
The reality is that everyone present is quiet, focused and in the zone. The only discernible noise as the clock ticks down to the start of the session is the sound of people snapping on their IRIS Team headsets.
As well as being quiet, it’s also one of the most exclusive areas in the world of F1, and walking through the clinically-clean corridors of the Team’s HQ and into the Ops Room itself is like stepping into a NASA control centre.
Only essential personnel are allowed access, and with social distancing rules in place the number of people working at one time has been reduced.
The rows of seats, banked in the style of a small lecture theatre, face a huge floor-to-ceiling 4K TV, which when installed four years ago was the largest in Europe. As Free Practice (FP1) is about to start, the TV displays 12 different feeds, including onboard footage not only from the Team’s two cars, but also from its rivals.
Each row of the Ops Room is dedicated to a particular specialist team, with Performance Engineers, Aerodynamicists and Race Strategists making up the bulk of personnel during a race weekend.
Car Performance and Aerodynamics occupy the third row, with Strategy taking up the front two. On the second row sits the Race Strategist whose job it is, among other things, to coordinate the Ops Room for a race weekend.
“When you’ve got your headset on, you don’t hear anything else, but there is a lot of chat on the radio, so it feels anything but silent,” one of the strategists explains. “When the drivers are talking, we all tend to keep quiet and listen to make sure we hear if anything is needed.
“Most departments have internal channels which can be divided up. There is a channel for each department, plus a wider channel and an ops room channel as well. It tends to be four or five steps, where each channel involves more and more people.”
Each team member in the room has two screens in front of them displaying the most important data to their role. They also have a communications panel and headset to talk to other members of their particular team.
The only movement is from within each row when occasionally two team members discuss something off the radio. But the rest of the time, the teams are looking at their screens, watching the smart wall or talking on the radio.
The main job of the Ops Room is to be the eyes and ears for the team at the track, who don’t have time to comb through a lot of footage.
It is immediately clear just how crucial a role they play.
“A good example from FP1 was that something came off one of the Renault cars on the pit straight and we spotted it about 20 seconds before the TV cameras showed it,” explains the Ops Room Race Strategist. “Our drivers were on track so we were able to get a message to the Team instantly to warn the drivers so they could avoid it – that’s ideally what we want to do, inform them before something bad happens.”
The Ops Room is a testament to modern technology and what can be achieved if the correct infrastructure is there.
The connection between Milton Keynes and the track is fibre all the way, to give the best speed and stability.
Even when the racing is in Australia, or meant to be, live car data reaches the screens of the Ops Room in 300 milliseconds, which is basically the blink of an eye. For races in Europe, the data arrives in what is essentially real time – this can be crucial for rapid decision making by the Strategy team.
An AT&T Global VPN network is privately installed for the Team at every track, including laying cables to the garage from the local exchange if needed, to ensure fast and reliable connection for the race weekend.
This set up gives the Team a ‘plug and play’ experience of accessing archived data from the factory if they need it, and running Citrix virtual machines to carry out number crunching on-site – even though they may be thousands of miles away.
As the weekend progresses, the room gets less busy to the point where it’s mainly just the strategy team there on race day. “After qualifying, when the cars are in Parc Fermé, we can’t make any more changes, so the design and aero team aren’t in here, which gives the strategy team more space for Sunday.”
Every team in Formula One will have an ops room at their HQ and although they’re shrouded in mystery, we understand that Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’s AT&T Operations Room is one of the only ones that has been custom built.
For all the importance of the room, the people working in it are huge sports fans as well as experts in their individual fields, and one small corner of the smart wall has been known to show something other than Formula One.
“When the World Cup was happening in 2018, we turned on one screen to watch the England game, whilst the French Grand Prix was taking place” commented one of the team. “Just because people had to work the weekend, they shouldn’t have to miss out completely.”
Images: © Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, used with their kind permission. Words by David Rawlings, courtesy of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing