How F1 could change the Olympics in 2012

As the UK looks to win record number of cycling medals in 2012, McLaren unveils wireless tech that stores data and telemetry info as cyclists hurtle toward the finish line.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
McLaren's Jenson Button at the wheel. JensonButton.com

The UK-based McLaren Group, which sponsors the likes of Jenson Button in Formula 1 racing, has created a wireless system that stores data and telemetry info for other athletes as well, including cyclists, rowers, and sailors.

UK Sport, which plans to invest about $500 million (300 million British pounds) in various Olympics endeavors as the country preps to defend its turf during the 2012 games in London, approached McLaren because it has "unique expertise" in data mining, according to the group's head of research and innovation Scott Drawer.

McLaren's Applied Technology division could eventually develop commercial applications for far more ordinary athletes, such as systems built into athletic wear to monitor personal fitness. McLaren might even adapt its Formula 1 simulator--developed a dozen years ago--for winter sports such as bobsleigh.

The English cycling team is already well known for its disciplined approach to what is called the "aggregation of marginal gains," and is always searching for new ways to measure and analyze physical performance.

As 1992 Olympic gold medalist and British cycling lead researcher Chris Boardman tells the Guardian:

Data gathering is happening in the background. Each rider has a transponder on their back. Rather than a coach lining people up, timing them, writing it in a book and someone analyzing that information, now it's automatic. It means the coach is freed up to reflect on what is going on and the time he would have spent analyzing huge amounts of data is freed up to do other things. That frees up imagination and that's really hard to quantify. Data and numbers help you change athletes' behavior.

Boardman likes all that data, and is constantly looking to other sports and systems of measurement to collect more. Before Beijing, the cycling research group apparently made 1,742 changes to the team's equipment and clothing alone. The approach seemed to work; the team took home a record 14 medals (8 of which were gold) in Beijing in 2008.

How exactly McLaren's technology will look, work, and cost remains to be seen, but it will surely be lauded for making headway in sports that do not rely on pressing a gas pedal to cross the finish line.