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Game-changing data: How mathematics took over sports

Mehul Kapadia, Managing Director of F1 Business, Tata Communications | Sept. 8, 2015
The stakes are high for developers of new technologies which make the process of using data and calculating the necessary sums more sophisticated and efficient.

On the face of it mathematics and sports appear poles apart. Traditional stereotyping would tell you that the maths whizz-kid doesn't tend to hang out with the football players in the school playground. Sport is considered an art form rather than a science. Decision-making is emotional or experiential rather than logical or evidentiary. Development and improvement relies on practice, technique and teamwork.

In team sports, decisions on recruiting new players are based on an educated eye for talent rather than number crunching, research and analysis. If you look more closely, however, the gulf between maths and sports is not the gaping chasm it appears at first sight — and not least because the generalisation that mathematicians can't play or add value to sport is completely unfounded.

Mathematics and mathematicians are increasing the speed and quality of human decision-making across a number of sports, but let's start with the most obvious example — Formula One racing. On race day, it's all about numbers. Engineers will perform hundreds of calculations to formulate the best race strategy based on variables such as tyre pressure and tread; fuel load; race and lap distance; car and driver weight. Before taking to the track, the driver, car and fuel load must be a minimum of 702 kilograms — with cars losing on average 2.5 kilograms in fuel each lap. How the fuelling and weight strategy is managed can be the difference between winning and losing.

The fastest pit stop of all time was recorded at 1.923 seconds by Red Bull Racing in 2013. However, with the 60km/h speed limit of the pit lane, realistically the average pit stop costs 15-20 seconds. The in-race changes you make to the car must claw that time back — and preferably go even further — so it is vital that teams pit their drivers at the right time and make the right changes. In order to do this, the only way is maths.

Making sense of the numbers
The mathematics of an F1 race is both fluid and dynamic. In layman's terms, the numbers are changing all the time. F1 telemetry systems are constantly collecting data on all manner of racing variables: oil and water levels, clutch fluid pressure, G-force and engine revs per minute to name a few. These are communicated back to engineers in the pits and at control centres using a range of radio and wireless technologies. Furthermore, there are numbers from outside the car to consider: temperature, air pressure and moisture, for example. The numbers collected from both car and climate all form discernible parts of one big equation, the sum of which will inform what lap the driver is pitted and what tweaks will be made to the car.


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