The data engineer: why figures can improve car and driver
Whenever Marco Wittmann’s BMW is pushed into the garage by the mechanics, Christian Kuhnke switches to maximum concentration. A cable is connected to the car’s data logger and seconds later, a flood of data flows across the screen of his computer. Kuhnke is data engineer of BMW Team RMG, has been responsible for Marco Wittmann for three years, now, and first of all has to execute two tasks: “We help making the car – and the driver too – faster,” says Kuhnke who can use the time between the season and the race weekends for analysing the data unhurriedly. During a DTM weekend, however, he has to act quickly. But not only in these situations, the intense cooperation with driver and race engineer represents an important part of his job.
“As soon as the car is standing, all the data gathered in the laps completed are uploaded to my computer. While the car is out on the track we receive nothing. Live-data transfer isn’t allowed in DTM. So, there’s nothing I can do in a race. We only can use the time-keeping data. Doing so allows you to see where you are faster or slower and to think about what you can do to possibly extenuate possible problems,” explains Kuhnke. When the data have been uploaded to his computer, he first of all checks the so-called vitals – the most important essential data of the car. ”Is the oil pressure okay? Are the temperatures in the healthy area? Is the fuel pressure okay? Everything that is elementary for running the car.”
Should everything be fine in these basic areas, the analysis follows right away. Here, the first step hasn’t to do with checking the gathered data but is a conversation with the driver. “Is he happy with the balance of the car? What do we have to do to help him going even faster?” In the next step, the statements of the driver are compared with the gathered data and only then, possible changes on the car are carried out.
The easiest example to explain this procedure is over and understeer respectively. Should a driver complain about over or understeer, Kuhnke can see in the gathered data if this really is the case to then look for the reason for the problem. “Over and understeer easily can be detected by dint of the recorded steering angle. Should it be too high or too low for a corner we have got a problem. Sometimes I detect the reason right away and discuss with the race engineer if a change is reasonable concerning the overall performance. But there can be discrepancies. A driver is of the opinion that he is hampered by oversteer but we can’t detect anything in our data. But this doesn’t mean that this understeer a driver believes to be hampered by doesn’t exist. Every driver feels differently, in the car. In these cases, it’s really helpful if you have been cooperating with the driver for a long time. In this case, you know if you have to tackle the problem or not.” Should a new driver join the team, the trio – data engineer, race engineer and driver – has to accustom to one another, but according to Kuhnke this usually doesn’t take a long time. “After two or three tests but at the latest after the first race weekend we are attuned to one another. More often than not, a scale also can be helpful. How big is the problem on a one-to-six scale? This makes classifying the driver’s assessment easier.”
During a session – practice session or qualifying – the stress factor for Kuhnke and his colleagues is particularly high. It takes a while until all the data have been uploaded to his computer. The discussions with driver and race engineer and the changes on the car also take some time. In these situations, things tend to get rather hectic. I mustn’t miss the smallest detail and we have to make our decisions in no time at all. After all, the car is supposed to go out again as fast as possible.”
But even the period of time between the sessions often is too short for working comfortably. Nonetheless, these breaks usually offer enough time for also tackling the second big task: to make the driver faster. To do so, accelerator and brake-pedal adjustments, steering angle and many other data documenting the approach of the driver are very helpful. And the same applies to the data exchange of the different teams racing for the same manufacturer. “So, we can compare, put the different laps on top of one another other and give the driver hints. Look here, you colleague opted for a slightly different approach or another line, there, and was slightly faster. What about trying this, too?”
Apart from Kuhnke, there are other data engineers working in the RGM garage as Kuhnke solely is responsible for the performance. “I process the information provided by the different sensors but before I do so, a colleague checks if they are correctly calibrated. That’s perfectly attuned team work.“