Future Thoughts: F1’s Rob Smedley on data revolutions, sustainability and motorsport’s next generation

Oct 05 2021


As part of our Future Thoughts series, Airspeeder spoke to Rob Smedley, Director of Data Systems at Formula One. Outside of his long and successful career in F1, Rob is now looking to create a sustainability revolution in grassroots motorsport with Total Karting Zero.


Airspeeder: There has never been a more exciting time to be innovating within motorsport. Tell us in summary what it is you are doing and where have you come from?

Rob Smedley: I’ve worked in Formula 1 for more than 25 years for a variety of teams. Today I split my time between being the Director of Data Systems for Formula One Management and the work I do with the Smedley Group of companies. 

On the F1 side, after many years frontline, I wanted to do something more purpose-driven and with a focus on the governance of the sport. I’m particularly trying to channel how the teams use data to tell the F1 story to engage a younger fanbase. I’m enjoying the challenge of taking a huge and massively successful sport and bringing in new fans while maintaining the DNA. 

The other side of this purpose is to create a motorsport ecosystem through the Smedley Group. We’ve reasoned that taking a holistic approach rather than focusing on one small area of motorsport would enable us to make a more positive change in the sport. For example, the focus of our work with Total Karting is very much aligned to the faster, fairer, cheaper, cleaner mantra that will bring many more young people into motorsports at a grassroots level. 

Rob Smedley discusses the F1 data revolution, sustainability and democratising grassroots motorsport
I don't think my generation should be able to run around the world being F1 playboys. I believe we should be looking at all aspects of sustainability within motorsport.
Rob Smedley Director of Data Systems, Formula One

The world is pushing towards a more sustainable future. Does motorsport still have a role to play in this new world?

We are very much in an age of accountability. We are being held to account by the younger generation: which I think is brilliant. I don’t think my generation, as successful as we think we are, should be able to run around the world being F1 playboys. I believe we should be looking at all aspects of sustainability within motorsport, whether that be environmental sustainability or financial sustainability. The important answer to this is what can we achieve at the grassroots of motorsport. This is a key focus of mine. We need to address two key barriers of entry.

The first is cost: most families simply can’t afford to do karting at a competitive level. If you’re investing hugely in a sport but you’re over a second off the pace, it’s disheartening and doesn’t have the effect sport should have on the younger generations. 

The second is complexity. Motorsport is a very complicated landscape even at the grassroots level. There are so many choices that families will have to make. When you look at other sports, you don’t need massive investment to pick up a pair of football boots to get you started. Karting doesn’t have that. So we wanted to offer a complete ecosystem of a simpler and fairer karting where the machinery was identical while keeping the offering and format the same as other championships without the complexity of extra mid-season investments. With this system in place, it should be a more level playing field.

These are all things we thought about when we sat down to work out how we could be more accountable to that generation, but more importantly to give that opportunity for young people to get involved. 

We want to use grassroots motorsport to give the next generation all the benefits and opportunities that might turn them into better human beings and a better society overall.
Rob Smedley Director of Data Systems, Formula One

How will motorsport continue to engage with the younger enthusiasts and fanbase? 

We want to use grassroots motorsport to give the next generation all the benefits and opportunities that might turn them into better human beings and a better society overall. The younger generation is still untapped at the top level of the sport, which is why I think the grassroots is so important. It’s the only way to bring in mass participation and get them into the higher levels of the sport. In my generation there was a lot less choice, you could either watch sport on TV or get out and get involved at a club level. We have to make things appealing. Motorsport can’t be an expensive, elitist, single demographic sport if we are going to attract that mass audience.

For me, this is where the purpose of it all is: it’s my chance to give back and leverage the opportunities I’ve had. I’ve been really lucky but also had the talent and intelligence to leverage those opportunities and take them when they were presented. Without those opportunities, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have in my career. Therefore you have to understand that there has been a huge amount of fortune to get to the pinnacle. How do you make it so it’s much less reliant on the one-in-a-million chance to get into the industry?

I have always been a massive STEM ambassador and getting kids involved in science, technology, engineering and maths. If we can capture the imagination of even a tiny percentage of the younger generation through mass participation in grassroots motorsport – whether that be through their interest in the machinery or the whole operation – they will be learning STEM by stealth. For example, I taught my kids maths and physics through motorsport because they were interested in it. They liked karting and Formula 4 because they could relate to the drivers because they weren’t much older than them. 

Your career has taken you to the cutting edge of data in motorsport. How central to the fan experience is presenting key information on vehicle and driver performance? 

In football, for example, you can see 99% of the action within that broadcast. There is nothing else preventing you from consuming and engaging in that sport. In F1 it’s very different as the director can only ever focus on one on-track battle or a few cars at one time, leaving perhaps 6 kilometres of track and 17 to 18 other cars out of view. There’s just a mass of action that is missed. In such a technical sport, with dense strategy and tactics, the only way of condensing that down into easily digestible chunks for the fans to engage in is through data. 

You look at how the younger generations consume media and sport nowadays: they want the data, statistics, facts, and figures. In the age of social media, they want to assimilate information and look for affirmation of whether their opinion is right or wrong. When you consider the format of F1 races has not really changed over the last five decades, we need them to have the tools to allow them to consume and engage with F1 in a very different way. 

That said, there is a balancing act between not turning off the older generation of fans or people that don’t care about the data. It’s not necessarily desirable to display the depth of information needed by a mathematician, physicist, data scientist or F1 race performance engineer, but just give the fans nuggets of information that they find interesting and helps them understand why that certain team strategy is being used for example. 

The reality is that data on the team side of the sport is so far advanced with maths, physics simulations, game theory, machine-learning and artificial intelligence that is used in race strategy, we mostly know what will happen before the race has even run. We need to be careful not to give that data to the fans as it would turn them off: there’s no excitement if they already know the result. So the data we use on broadcast now is just to engage fans further, to explain what is going on in front of them or by teasing that something interesting might be coming up in the next few laps to create that tension. 

Motorsport can't be an expensive, elitist, single demographic sport if we are going to attract that mass audience.
Rob Smedley Director of Data Systems, Formula One

You’ve been working with Amazon Web Services (AWS), tell us about that? 

What we have done at Formula One Management is brought together the brightest F1 subject matter experts and engineers and their massive knowledge about the technical and analytical side of the sport. We have twinned that group with Amazon Web Services, that don’t have the F1 knowledge, but are experts in machine learning applications. This combined team has produced all the on-screen data graphics and insights we see on F1 broadcasts today, informed by the really complex models and simulations developed behind the scenes. One of the great satisfactions I get from being involved is taking that vast combined technical knowledge and using it to reach new fans and new demographics rather than to shave tenths of a second off a lap. 

YouTube video

The future is autonomous. Do you think there is still space for those that seek the thrill and agency of driving? How do you think motorsport can drive this?

I am a huge supporter of autonomous driving and racing, but Formula One has always been that perfect blend of technology and human endeavour. I don’t think F1 will ever change that. The human element gives you jeopardy and that edge-of-the-seat experience will never go away. This is what we’ve seen even recently in F1, with two different drivers from two different teams battling out for the championship, which really makes it entertaining for the viewer. The human endeavour aspect is something we should celebrate and something that the recent Netflix series Drive To Survive has done very well in capturing. In focusing on the drivers’ story and the team behind the scenes rather than the technical side or the racing has brought with it a huge number of new fans from a huge variety of demographics. 

Quickfire Questions

The Airspeeder format takes racing to anywhere in the globe. Where would you stage an electric flying car Grand Prix and why?


We need to get motorsports to India. I want to get the Indian sub-continent really interested and engaged in motorsport. They are some of the world’s most passionate sports fans – if you look at their love for cricket over there for example – it gives them as a nation so much joy! I think there’s a huge untapped market there.

In 10 years time, how will you get to work in the week and what are you travelling in on a Sunday?


In ten years’ time, I’ll be getting to work in an autonomous shared taxi and at the weekend I’ll be driving an Aston Martin DB5 with about 1000BHP equivalent electric engine in it!

Describe your instinctive thoughts on the birth of electric flying car racing?


I think it’s really interesting, a brilliant concept. Again it is something that captivates the imagination and is a great offering at a fan participation level. But importantly, it is a new take on sustainable motorsport and a new way to inspire and get people involved.

In your view, what is the single greatest motorsport innovation?


Road safety. This campaign had become very public through Max Moseley, but it was largely a continuation of what we have been doing in F1, which is so much safer now. We need to keep striving for safety in F1 and passing those learnings to road cars: think crumple zones, energy-absorbing components and head protection.

Read our previous interview with:Wisk Aero CEO, Gary Gysin




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