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Ghost of a Machine


When Sting sang that; "we are spirits in the material world", one can only wonder if he was thinking of Formula One and Cycling when he composed it.

Both sports suffer from having the human in the machine, and the machine in the human. Fabian Cancellara, a world class Swiss cyclist with the nickname "Spartacus" for his never surrender style of cycling, was forced to pull his bike apart a few years ago. He was asked to provide he did not have a new-generation electric motor hidden in his bottom bracket, such was his winning margin in some very tough road races.

Graeme Obree, known as "The Flying Scotsman", broke the cycling hour record twice, in July 1993, and then again in April 1994, while also being individual pursuit world champion in 1993 and 1995.

One of his record setting cycle frames was called "Old Faithful" and included parts he had scavenged from a washing machine... until the UCI (the FIA of cycling) stepped in and cancelled his record runs and turned the clock back to the "Athletes Record" which required a bike rather similar to the one Eddie Merckx used to set the hour record at 49.431Km way back in 1972.

So from the drama and excitement of the hour record tumbling on a regular basis in the 1990's, most people today cannot name who currently holds what specific, tightly bounded and regulated record.

Today it is the unified record, which was first taken by Jens Voigt cracking out a remarkable 51.11Km before walking away from professional cycling in September 2014. I had the honour of meeting Jens in Perth, WA, not long after this and he was a truly charming and engaging human.

The current record was set in April 2019 by Victor Campenaerts in Mexico with a breath-taking 55.089Km from a standing start covered in precisely one hour. Suck on that electric plug-in vehicles!

Most weekend cycle warriors have bikes far in advance of those used for the record runs these days, but the UCI theory is that the record has gone back to being about the rider and not the engineer and the bike...

Meanwhile at your local, friendly car dealer the 2021 models are pre-ordered and polished, and the latest software updates installed... and then installed again. Oh, and again... It's all software movable surfaces, reconfiguration on the fly for engines, and mapping, mapping and remapping of everything ever.

The latest 911 has forward scanning sensors under the front air dams that scan the road and recalibrate the brakes, and stability control based on the amount of moisture detected on the road ahead. Rolls Royce have for some years used software that combines your current driving style with GPS data, to know what corner you are about to enter and instantly retune the gearbox and suspension accordingly.

McLaren and Porsche cars have significant movable aero surfaces. Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru STi owners know software is the path to power...

And simply do not get me started on the fact that electric motors generate maximum torque when stalled (i.e. just before they commence spinning) and as such are the bees elbows for getting stuck into a tough "get me off the line" moment. Diesel electric trains are not diesel driven... they are electrically driven and the diesels are simply along for the ride to power the electric motors.

Human and machine. Machine and human. Humans birthed and trained by humans. Machines designed and built by humans. Indeed, casting our net wider dear reader, devices researched, designed, developed, and used by humans. At core it was all down to us. Tool users.

At core it is still all down to us. The apes that learned how to use an iPhone. Leave two iPhones together on an oak table in a delightful country pub, and when you return in the morning you'll still have two iPhones, albeit with 8% less battery life remaining. Leave two young lovers around a delightful old oak table in a remote country pub on a sweet and fresh Spring evening, and nine months later you might be welcoming the next Adrian Newey onto planet Earth. Machines do not begat machines. Art does not paint itself. The "Rules" of sport are nothing to do with Miss Physics and the immutable laws of this plane of existence.

The platform in Formula One is not built by the demagogues of 'Big Oil' in darkened caverns overseen by Vulcan himself in some unearthly act of bastard creation.


Each crest, each fold, each dolphin delicate aerodynamic curve, has been daydreamed, designed, and crafted into existence by a human. Sure our tools have moved on from shaped flint, and questionable bronze. Autocad, CFD analytics, 3D printers, full motion simulators. All attempts to model the real world with soulless machines. Each a reflection of something human.

Each only on this earth because a human had a dream, and elected to make the dream real. Ghosts of concepts. Ghosts of failures past. Ghosts of Christmas yet to come.

How do you define a human, with no other human reference points? Planet of the Apes? 2001 a Space Odyssey? The Sands of Mars, or the wastes of Woomera? The Book of Kells, or Taylor Swift Evermore?

The Mercedes team, filled with human tool users, or Lewis Hamilton, human driver supreme?

Ask Lewis to stand-in for Adrian Newey or James Allison, and while he could push the mechanical pencil or mouse around the desk top, I do not believe he would create a world beating hybrid platform. Ask Adrian or James to sub for Lewis behind the wheel of the Mercedes, and while both can pedal rather well by mortal standards, they would be far off Lewis' lap times and race craft.

We humans have, when at our social best, a wonderful ability to have the right person in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. Apollo space program. Medical advances. Manhattan Project. Hybrid Mercedes platform for Formula One domination. Each piece of the machine was birthed into life by humans. Every. Single. Piece.

Mercedes machine. George Russell human. Nearly placed it on pole. A modest 0.026 seconds behind Bottas. That's two hundredths of a second. Which, at race speeds, is a matter of inches, or centimetres, not car lengths. He caressed that machine off the line like a defending world champion, and proceeded to dance on the edge of the possible for lap after lap as he eased on down the road. Farewell fellow humans! This machine is for me!

Just as one Carnaby's Black Cockatoo does not a Summer make, so a robust schooling of a few laps does not a champion make. Tyre wear? Fuel use? Suspension damage? Engine wear for the next race? Mental strain? Pushing it at ten-tenths that would surely reward with a huge off before the chequered flag was seen? We shall not know. For tinfoil headgear wearing folk were gifted a conspiracy theory from the Gods.

Dear George was forced to pit four, yup four, times within a matter of laps due to the Keystone Cops (1912-1917) and Marx Brothers (1905-1949) having a sudden revival as the Mercedes pit and strategy crews.

A super human effort in a gifted machine, designed, built and maintained by humans, that was utterly neutralised by comedians from one hundred years ago. How so?

Because the human in the machine is far more of a ghost of things to come, than the machine is a player within the human.

Place the Mercedes platform and the radio communicators used by the team into a pristine marble floored garage and they will sit silently until oil turns to stone, and radio batteries to treacle with nothing more happening between the two.

Garnish lavishly with a selection of humans from around the planet, and, as if by some magical hand, the machines come alive, and miracles and disasters, happen aplenty.

George as super human behind the wheel. Keystone Cops as pit crew. Marx Brothers on radio communications (actually I'd pay to hear them talk Kimi through a race...) and before you know it we have so many "You cannot be serious!?" Moments in the one race that even Jacque Villeneuve and John McEnroe would have been lost for words.



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1. Posted by Max Noble, 20/12/2020 2:16

"@Superbird70 - my thanks for the thanks, appreciated! With these articles I am always seeking to take a different angle to the more main stream “Is Ferrari going to use red paint next year?” Sort of discussion. We can all thank esteemed editor Balfe for one, encouraging an experimental approach, and two then being open-minded and supportive enough to publish the articles!

Wishing all our readers a safe, happy and healthy break... and if Santa could just drop some “MERCSPEC” engine internals in the stockings of every other team that would be a glorious Christmas gift for all... HoHoHo...!"

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2. Posted by Superbird70, 19/12/2020 13:33

"@Max Noble, I just want to thank you for providing such interesting and thought provoking articles. All the best for the holidays."

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3. Posted by Max Noble, 19/12/2020 10:27

"@All - great to see interesting discussion on this one. Agree that Mercedes has found the "Special Sauce" when it comes to process and quality. That final 1% is the quality of Toto's leadership no doubt, but one man does not a modern F1 team make!

@Superbird70 - love the "MILSPEC" to "MERCSPEC" pun, rather sums-up the game changing quality Mercedes have shown season after season.

Some of the discussion here is moving towards the concept of "Lean Six Sigma" which is all about designing, and engineering variability out of process and product. I'm sure the Mercedes Race Team must live and breath it in a form that works for them.

...and as per the main intent of my article... that's all dreamt-up, implemented, and executed by the humans within the machine! "

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4. Posted by kenji, 19/12/2020 10:15

"@ Superbird...thanks for the response. Yes, you are correct in all of that and it has been recognised for quite some time now. IMO though there is more to it than that. The PU concept has been with us now for almost eight years, seven of which are racing years. There appears little dissent that the Mercedes PU is far supdrior to any other on the grid. Commentators are prone to guessing the relativity between teams but the facts would say that the Mercedes PU is far superior and has been for a very long time!

Given the fact that F1 has within it's ranks some of the cleverest engineers on the planet and yet over all this time none of them have been able to build a legitimate competitor product. Marry that with superb chassis design and you have a car that has proved to be almost entirely unbeatable, in fact, the most successful ever...except on rare circumstances where events are mostly out of their control. Unpredictable. Maybe it's the ultimate distillation of process but I'm not convinced.Randomness of itself cannot be predictable yet the results of the past seven years would contradict that theory!


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5. Posted by ZJAY, 18/12/2020 12:03

"@Superbird: you are spot on. It is rare to be able to implement both of your point. It feels like swimming against the current because it take tedious and consistent effort. Usually there is a person behind the effort who builds a team of similar minded people. In this case I believe is Toto Wolf. May be Max can have a one in one deep interview with Toto. Really deep stuff not when Hamilton’s contract talk. We may all learn something about how he built the human machine which created the machine. Maybe Max can collect some of the questions from his readers. "

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6. Posted by Lapps, 17/12/2020 19:40

"Interest Article and replies. I suppose, in summary, the ‘machine’ is being regarded as an ‘icon’ representing the group of people who created it.
I’m a techie though, not a philosopher So I would like one to see one other piece of data. I would love to see Lewis doing a race in the Williams! Then we could revisit the whole George, Lewis, Valteri, Merc debate."

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7. Posted by Superbird70, 17/12/2020 17:31

"@kenji, I believe that there are at least two main reasons why Mercedes have excelled.
The first and probably most important is their Quality Management System philosophy. Mercedes make very few blunders. When they do, whether it be the communications error, headrest malfunction or something that compromises their race, the first words out of Senior Management is that ‘no one is to blame’. They look at the issue as a process failure as opposed to human error. If you look at the video of the left front tire changer in Bahrain you can see that he spotted the fault on Botta’s car and made the decision to stop the change and notify management. Management, then had the old tires refitted. The tire changer then had a long conversation with someone who literally patted him on the back. That type of system encourages people to come forward to ask questions and provide input. It makes for a more harmonious workplace reducing one element of stress.

The second is the attention to detail. Mercedes try to account for everything. They are assigning a risk and uncertainty to each and every process and component in their system and assessing the potential for failure. There aren’t an infinite number of things to look at but a great deal none the less, and Mercedes seem have accounted for 99.9999% of them. They have assigned allowable deviations for everything that they constantly monitor and assess.
The gold standard for quality used to be something called MILSPEC. I think now it is MERCSPEC.

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8. Posted by kenji, 17/12/2020 11:52

"An interesting article that begs for further interpretation. An F1 car is composed of a startling array of components that must operate as one and work together in total sympathy. That is before the human element/driver is introduced. Each and every race is subject to the theory of randomness, especially when car and driver are added to act as a single entity. How then does one account for the predictability/probability of results given the the randomness of each and every race? There are an infinite number of mathematical elements to be considered and i am surprised that the random element of chance doesn't factor more largely than it actually does.Mercedes cars must be able to cope with a wider range of possibilities to achieve such a high level of 'probability' over a given period of time and place. The question is...why haven't other teams been able replicate this over such a long period of development? "

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