In recent seasons The Red Bull Air Race World Championship has become more and more competitive. First and second place is separated by just hundredths of a second. Many things have improved the closeness of the competition, but one of the most important weapon in the pilots' armoury is the race analyst.
After each session the pilots can be found sitting down in front of a computer next to their analyst trying to work out the smallest of changes they could make to improve the next flight.
Nigel Lamb was one of the first pilots to see the benefit of adding a Race Analyst to his team. He brought in his son Max, an engineering graduate, who played his part in Lamb becoming the 2014 World Champion.
This season the Race Analyst has become a major part for most of the race teams as the pilots have seen the benefits of what they do.
The role of the analyst is all consuming. Max is busiest in a lead up to a race. He will receive the track layout at the same time as the pilots. "I have a program that was developed with James Allison, the technical director at Ferrari's Formula One team," explained Max. "The program is a basic solver. I'll put in the coordinates of the gates and their properties, whether they're a chicane, normal gate or a vertical turn and I use that to find the fastest line round the track," he added.
This is very labour intensive. "It's quite a long process to get the first analysis ready. It will take two solid days work to analyse the track properly and then another full day to complete the output that Dad uses to get a good impression of the racetrack," said Max.
The program provides the team with G traces and speed traces, which will help Nigel fly the most efficient line. Then once Nigel begins to fly the track, Max can add in more data to improve the output. "The main aim before race week is to give my dad a real impression of what the track will be like before he's flown through it. So before the first training session he's aiming to hit the ideal racing line, rather than learning the track and figuring it out as he goes," said Max. "Then after that first session, I'll take the data from the EFIS [Electronic Flight Instrument System] so we can compare and analyse," he explained.
Kirby Chambliss, one of the longest serving pilots in the Red Bull Air Race, has recently seen the benefit of analysing his data and has started working in conjunction with Ashish Kapoor, a computer science researcher working for Microsoft. "I work in research at Microsoft. It's a very forward-looking lab. We work on algorithms that will go into robotic planning. It's what you'd find in driverless cars. But with Kirby I can put this theory into real life and get data," said Kapoor.
"My program maps out the track, then searches through a host of possibilities and comes up with a theoretic perfect line depending on the wind conditions. Kirby will look at this and then it will be his skill that adapts it for his flight. When he returns we can then download the data and compare what he flew to what he should have flown. The program works on robotic control, so everything is static. If I put in 4kts of wind it will stay that way, it can't calculate gusts or track temperature," he added.
Much like Ashish, Max is always adapting his analysis to make sure Nigel has the most relevant data for his flight. "I will look at the historical averages for the weather, but as we get closer to the race I'll input the fresh data such as temperature, wind, and air pressure – which is really important. But the line doesn't change much unless there's a dramatic change in the weather," explained Max, although he has to always be prepared for unexpected changes in climate. "In Budapest, I had a few late nights changing the data because I wasn't expecting it to be that hot," he added.
Max is constantly working throughout the race week to try and improve the data he presents to Nigel. "If there are two flights in the day, I'll give him a quick run down of the main things he needs to work on, after the first session" said Max. "But after Training is done, I'll give him another quick brief so he can think about that during the evening. Then I'll spend the evening, normally until 1-2am, working on a full analysis. I'll send it to my dad in the morning so he doesn't have to think about it, can rest and be fresh for the morning."
The document Max sends can vary from race to race. "Some days it will be just few sentences and lots of pictures, other times it can be a 1,000-word document, it depends on what we've discussed and what needs to be worked on."
Max isn't a pilot, which can help analyse the data with a clear, analytical mind, but he says he sometimes finds it difficult to put himself in Nigel's shoes. "Sometimes I'll point out that he's rolling for 0.3 of a second too much and I have to catch myself as I can't even think that quick, never mind when flying a raceplane at 200kts at 10G," he concluded.