Hamilton’s data ban: is Lewis onto something?
Formula One is no stranger to Lewis Hamilton’s outspokenness on the state of the sport.
Whether it’s his views on stewarding, his describing of the FIA’s plans for head protection “worst looking mod in Formula One history” or his short-lived war with the media, Hamilton has established himself as F1’s most opinionated and divisive personality.
Indeed, Hamilton began his off-season in the style of many an exiled prime minister: subtly undermining his bosses, accusing his team of disrespecting him in the 2016 finale grand prix in Abu Dhabi.
And it seemed the three-time champion was out to stir the pot again on the eve of the 2017 season, saying in a sponsor interview that he felt it was unfair his teammates could use his lap data to improve their own performances.
“For example when we’re driving we’re picking out braking points, bumps, tyre rubber marks on the track — all these different things to help get you through the corner quickest.
“The other driver probably naturally may be able to do more or less than you are, but because of this data they can just copy you: ‘Oh he’s braking five metres later there, I’ll go out and I’ll try braking five metres later’.
The Briton’s problem is that any natural advantage brought by a driver is no longer intrinsic to them; data renders the tricks of the trade completely public within the team, potentially negating their effectiveness against a teammate.
“You could take a young kid from Formula Three, have them just go on a simulator and drive every single day and try and get to my lines — and eventually they’d probably get to my lines.
“He should have to discover that himself. You’ve got to find the limit yourself, that’s the whole challenge of being a racing driver.”
Was it an act of self-preservation to shore up his ego after championship defeat at the hands of Nico Rosberg despite his persistent belief Rosberg was the less deserving of the two?
Hamilton clarified his position, tweeting that his commentary wasn’t a dig at the team but rather his perspective on this modern data-driven sport.
I wish to clarify, I have not hit out at my team at all. My point on data sharing is solely my feelings about the sport in general
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) February 20, 2017
“I have asked my team. I don’t want to see my teammate’s [data],” he noted in the original interview.
“I don’t feel it’s fair that he brings his A-game and I should be able to study his A-game on a computer.”
So if his position on data sharing is genuine, could it be useful to Formula One?
Engineers on each car view each other’s data to help ensure both cars are performing optimally for qualifying, and part of that is reviewing driver traces — everything from acceleration and braking markers to steering inputs — which can build a near complete picture of how a car performs to a given lap time.
Mercedes in particular has been alert to the benefits of keeping information flowing freely between garages, swapping Hamilton and Rosberg’s engineers for 2016 to prevent a staff split in the heat of a third consecutive championship battle.
But Hamilton’s high-tension battle with Rosberg isn’t the first time the Briton has found himself on what he could perceive as the giving end of a data-sharing relationship — Jenson Button, after an infamously uncompetitive start to the 2012 season, used teammate Hamilton’s data to shrink a 43-point gap after seven rounds to just two points by season’s end.
Fernando Alonso, thinking it strange Hamilton would take such a view given the Briton admitted to having learnt from the Spaniard’s data in his debut season, agreed.
“If he was watching more data from Rosberg last year, maybe he would have won the championship!” Alonso backhanded.
A theme for Formula One’s regulation changes has been to return drivers to centre stage as the heroes of the sport. This is materialising itself this season in cars that will require more strength to drive but has also manifested itself in the controversial radio bans of last season, which were universally poorly received.
Competition could benefit from teammates working to master their car and the circuit independently. It’s a truism that an F1 team can’t unlearn something it already knows, and not being able to maximise their drivers’ performances and therefore points hauls would be difficult argument to put to them, but it would be a beneficial change in the constant battle to prevent the sport from becoming a mere technical exercise.
Would it be difficult to execute and police? Absolutely — but then Formula One has a track record for diving head-first into untested rule changes, including those much maligned radio restrictions.
But maybe Hamilton, in a possible attempt at massaging his own ego, is onto something.