Using Technology to Improve the Driver

28th June 2017

Motorsport Days caught up with Strakka Racing to find out how they use technology to improve its drivers.

Strakka Racing believes it is just as important to use technology to improve its drivers as it is the car and so it has signed a new partnership with McLaren for 2017 – thanks to its innovative approach to driving training.

The Silverstone-based team has been a mainstay of sportscar racing for 10 years. From a low-key beginning with a BMW in domestic championships through to podiums at Le Mans – and developing its own car- Strakka has become a respected British team. That respect has now seen it forge a new partnership with McLaren for 2017, with an ambitious four-car assault on the Blancpain GT Series. The development is not just happening on track though. Strakka’s facilities, just a stone’s throw from Silverstone, have expanded in the past 18 months. A larger workshop will house the GT campaign and is complemented with a simulator that the team is increasingly renting out to other teams and drivers.

Strakka Racing was created by driver Nick Leventis in 2007. He had been a skier, but one too many falls meant a change of focus was needed. Nick’s father Harry was competing at that time in historic motorsport, with a glorious Ferrari 330P and Aston Martin DBR1, and Leventis accompanied his father to several track days. This led him to decide to start racing at an international level. However, Leventis’s competitive nature meant that he wanted to be the best he possibly could be and so formed Strakka Racing to progress not only as a race team, but to personally develop as a racing driver too.

“We were looking to develop Nick into a very competitive driver,” says technical director Jay Davenport.  “That’s become more critical as more drivers, some highly professional drivers, are leveraging the ‘silver’ grading and not ‘amateurs’, as perhaps race organisers intended. We realised that you could use technology to improve the driver just as you would the car or a component. Examples included mounting HD cameras on the cars to review driving lines. We also brought in driver coaches to drive a second car. They could chase Nick, or be in front and block him or show him racing lines, in real time. We looked at extracting the most from the data too. That meant live telemetry with the data coming in real-time on our screens in the garage. We could then say ‘Brake later into Luffield’, or ‘You need to be fourth gear there,’ etc. It’s easier to act on the instruction whilst on track rather than poring over the data 30 minutes later.”

Strakka’s infrastructure was also attracting more drivers, increasingly on the single seater ladder. With track time so expensive, any opportunity to make the most of a session was proving very attractive. “Our Strakka Performance programme grew and we had some very big names running private sessions with us,” adds Davenport.

The spectre of rising track costs led, like many other teams, to also invest in a Driver In The Loop (DIL) simulator. Located at the team’s Silverstone headquarters, this sim is now available for both professional and amateur drivers to hire. Uniquely, these sessions are monitored by one of the team’s race engineers. “Too many sims are run by people that just leave the driver to get on with it,” claims Davenport. “We treat each session as if it was on the track and with the same data acquisition system as on the car; the sessions are as accurate as possible. We think this approach eliminates many of the criticisms some drivers have about sims and how easy it can be to ‘cheat’ to chase a lap time. There is just no value to that.”

The simulator and driver support tools were another vital factor that swayed McLaren to place its GT Academy drivers at Strakka for 2017. “McLaren could see we could offer the entire suite of support for young drivers and that includes a decent simulator,” says Davenport. “We already have customised our vehicle models and track maps and are looking at creating a McLaren tub alongside our closed-cockpit WEC and single seater tubs for an even more immersive and realistic experience. It will still be available for other drivers to use and each gets our engineer to coach them through a session. We had a novice driver in Caterhams who, after two hours, learnt so much about bad habits that, as a result, were halfway up the grid, not right at the back. That was just after one session with us.”

Engineering the driver means looking at human performance from a physical and mental perspective too.  In 2016, Strakka engaged Dean Fouache to lead this activity with its drivers. Drivers might look at their fitness, but forget other aspects such as hydration, which can have an equally positive effect on track performance.

Drivers often underestimate the strain racing puts on the body. “We work really hard to keep body temperatures down,” he says.

“We use in-mouth thermometers to monitor and weigh drivers before and after each session to highlight how much fluid has been lost and needs to be replaced.”

As Fouache explains, drivers often underestimate the strain racing puts on the body. “We work really hard to keep body temperatures down,” he says. “We use in-mouth thermometers to monitor and weigh drivers before and after each session to highlight how much fluid has been lost and needs to be replaced.”

Fouache claims that at the Texas WEC race this summer, Lewis Williamson lost 3kg from sweating and that included drinking a litre of fluid during the stint from the in-car bottle. For a driver such as Jonny Kane, who might only weigh 60kg, that is a significant amount which needs replenishing rapidly through electrolyte mixes. “Being hydrated, sharp and fresh when you get in the car really does make a difference,” suggests Fouache. “Don’t underestimate how much fluid you can lose.”

So as Strakka embarks on a new chapter in its history, the team’s commitment to engineering the driver remains a priority and one they will continue to adopt for pro or am driver alike. “All drivers can improve,” says Davenport. “Motorsport isn’t a sport you can easily practise repetitively like tennis, football or golf. So any tools that can improve your performance are vital tools in a driver’s armoury. There are still big gains to be had and it’s up to us to help drivers find and exploit them.”