Culture, Data & Analytics, Human Performance, Performance, Technology | Nov 19, 2018
Formula E's Head of Technology Eric Ernst takes us through the challenge of continually innovating in the electtric racing series.

It did not take long for Eric Ernst to get to work. In March the Swiss became Head of Technology at Formula E, having moved from his position as Stopover IT Manager in the Volvo Ocean Race. One of his first official duties was to attend the Uruguay ePrix at Punta del Este as a guest. However, few if any of the other guests got their hands dirty that day.

By John Portch

“Me being me, I went straight to work,” Ernst admits with a wry smile. “I started looking at what we could possibly do to improve, to better work the problems. It’s impressive where these guys have taken this from four years ago to where it is now.”

Formula E is about to embark on its fifth season which, with the advent of Gen 2 cars and battery capacity that will last a full race, promises to be its most exciting. Ernst has been brought into ensure that the championship remains at the forefront of innovation in motorsport. “My job is to consider now that everything works how can we make it stable? How can we improve it and innovate on top of that?”

Ernst was just seven months into his role at this point but could not have joined at a more exciting stage. “If you see the Gen 2 car it’s going to put us in a totally different place in motorsport. The car looks amazing, has amazing performance and it’s going to be really interesting with some of the things we’re doing like ‘attack mode’.”

The focus for the Leaders Performance Institute was Ernst’s role in making all of this happen.

You’ve not been long in your role but what have you been surprised by along the way?

EE: I think if anyone told me this is what you were going to be doing for the next seven months I probably wouldn’t have believed them. It’s a unique job and a unique environment. I had some expectations but obviously being brand new to motorsports coming from sailing, I’d drawn out a plan of how a couple of things are but they are completely different. That’s what I’ve done, I’ve adapted. It’s been a journey. Things that I thought would be straightforward are really hard and things that I thought would be impossible have already been done. So I go into work every day with a clean sheet of paper and say, OK, let’s see what the challenges are today. It’s really nice because it gives me the opportunity to explore brand new things, things that I probably would never have thought of doing within the technology or power field or in event technology at all.

Perhaps for the uninitiated you can talk a little more about your new ‘attack mode’.

EE: Because we don’t have a car swap any more we want to put in a strategic element and we don’t want to do pit stops or tyre changes – everybody else does that and our tyres actually last for a full day. So we have a mode where a driver has to go over a certain zone of the track where he actually loses time and probably gets taken over while he does that, but going over that spot his car gets a boost of 20Kw for an additional four minutes. So he has a lot more power than the guys in front of him and he can then use that in the sections of the track where you can actually overtake other people. This puts the strategic element at a totally new level because teams are struggling to do proper simulations on how does this work, how many strategies to we need to achieve to go from behind or from an early using the attack mode to a late using the attack mode. They can’t use the simulations like they do in pit stops in F1 because there’s so many factors that play into it; how’s the field evolved? Has the guy in front of me used attacked mode? Is he defending? What’s his power outage? Is he running his battery on a high mode or a low mode?

It’s going to be an entertaining season.

EE: It’s going to be very entertaining, thanks to attack mode; and every race is 45 minutes plus one lap, so we’re not counting laps any more, which is another strategic thing that we’ve implemented that makes racing very interesting. There’s enough of a strategic element for the drivers and the teams to play with. The new car and the new venues we’re going to, it’s hard to say who’s going to win the championship and who’s going to come out on top; we’ve got brand new teams coming in, big teams like BMW has just launched their car, Nissan is coming and replacing Renault; there’s some really big names and some really high goals coming into this championship, putting their knowledge into this and lifting up the entire performance, the entire pit lane.

What is the thinking and the process behind how data is collected and analysed?

EE: From a technological point of view, you use information or you use the digital approach to create a platform for fans to share their passion with the team or to create a channel to their driver or their athletes. One social media level we’re doing it really well by trying to bring the drivers really close to their fans and their spectators and open up a channel to shareholders where they can talk to our fans. From a data and analytical point of view, as an organisation, we’re interested to see how cars perform on the tracks; you know obviously these cars can go really quickly but this is not Nurburgring where the curves are built to take 300kmph cars; we’re going around corners in Paris that were designed for 50kmph. For us, it’s about getting that data and looking at how we can build tracks in urban areas that these cars can still drive around in a spectacular way. So how do we develop the championship? Then there’s definitely a path to take the data and see how the cars perform at an energy level, so how well are the drivers managing their battery power, what are the reference points that they use, how does it change with different temperatures or weather influences, how does it change when the field is really packed or when it splits apart.

How does motorsport compare with sailing?

EE: We ran it in a similar way. The problem with sailing is that sailing is really hard to commercialise and there’s a lot less money involved. If you look at the big sailing events like the America’s Cup or the Volvo Ocean Race, it’s really hard to get a commercial model where you can sign up a sponsor for multiple years because the continuation is either there’s a long gap in between races; the Volvo Ocean Race between editions. The America’s Cup as you might know, whoever wins it gains a lot of rights to do it in whatever way they want to do it. So if you commit to a defending sponsor or a sponsor commits to you, that journey can be over really quickly because if you have the right to defend or challenge for the cup, it could be going to a market you’re not interested in as a sponsor. So it’s really hard to catch the money in sailing so they have to keep the structure really tight and you have to be a lot more efficient than what we were doing in motorsports. In motorsport, the races themselves are closer together; next season we have a race every two and a half weeks. In sailing you have more time to get equipment from one place to another, to get people organised. The less time you have, the more you need to actually use the money to get something; so there’s definitely a lot more money involved in motorsports and just getting everything done from a structure point of view, I would say. It’s very similar and at a different level in terms of size.

Were there lessons you’ve been able to take across?

EE: Definitely. Some of the things we learnt in sailing I’m definitely implementing in motorsports and that’s the approach. We do use roles within our company to guide integrators to help us build certain things. So I don’t want to have 30 people in my department that work six or seven months on the championship and then I have them six months in the office under-occupied or I have to let them go and re-hire them again. I think that approach of getting partners in to help us build the championship, us running the design and the philosophy and culture of how we want to do it. I think that’s totally the right way to do it. Other events are doing it as well. It’s not rocket science. Another thing we learnt from sailing is that is where for us, technology and media, communication and marketing, they’re all kind of melting together into a digital space. The technology department today is not just making sure the printer is here and the Wi-Fi is up, they’re involved in different things throughout the entire championship.

What are your core values?

EE: I think our core values are humility and hunger to go after new things. Just because something works doesn’t mean it has to stay that way; this is not the last implementation of the way we’re doing things. We’re not making helicopters or planes and that’s certified and the way it’s going to be for the next 30 years. I’m very keen and I really like driving the departments that report to me to look at everything we’re doing and keep on moving it forward. We’ve done this, it works now, but how can we be doing this better? How does this connect to something different?

How might that look in practice?

EE: Let’s take the example of timing, you have a loop cut into the road, the cars drive over with a sensor, and that sensor picks up at 0.0001 second accuracy your time; great, that works, that’s a really simple way of doing timing, a very efficient way, it’s been working like that for the last 20 years; but does it really need to be like that? Cars should know where they are up to a centimetre, up to a millimetre on the road where they are every time of the day, so why can’t the cars do the timing for us? Why instead of having timing loops and sectors, just having times throughout the entire track; you want to know how far forward someone or how far advanced someone is from another driver, you could have a live updates over the entire track, how many seconds is he gaining or losing; and take that whole infrastructure out of the road, take the networking you need out of the road and just connect to the car and have the car talk to you about where it is and who else is there. Those are ideas where people say you’re nuts but if you look at them with engineers and blockchain and 5G; those possibilities are here today. You can absolutely do those things; and then you start re-thinking the racing format.

What are the implications for performance?

EE: The more data you get the more decisions you can make, right? Or you think you can make. There’s always information overload where you get a lot of different channels of data and you need to need to have something to overlay it to give you the right amount of overview into what’s happening, long-term and short-term. A lot of the data today is all based on moments, a lot of the AI engines give you a perspective on a moment of what happened then. Very few of them have the capability to actually show you a long-term vision of where things are happening because it’s very complex. There’s so many different factors that go into it; it could be raining further down the track or how much rain is dropping, much will it dry before that car gets there? The computer will go and give you 35 different options for that one, which is then engaged by another 35 options further down the road so you end up with a couple of million possibilities of what can happen and you have to decide which one it’s going to be – is that really part of a sport anymore?

Are comparisons to Formula 1 helpful?

EE: I think the biggest comparison to Formula 1 is because of the way the car looks, the single-seater approach and because we’re a tier 1 motor racing championship. I don’t like putting us next to Formula 1; I think Formula 1 is doing its own thing in a great way with a massive amount of history and heritage, which the way they’ve paved the way for where we are today by putting motorsports at that level that we all want to achieve. Obviously there’s back and forth of what we’re doing and what they’re doing but I don’t think it’s a rivalry. It’s just a mutual respect. They have been on the block a lot longer than we have, they have a bigger fan base and there’s more money involved but that doesn’t mean we cannot be as good as them.

For the view interview with Eric Ernst listen here:

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