There must be something in the water at Red Bull. The energy-drink-turned-entertainment brand has undergone a shift over the last decade, transforming from a beverage company to a content powerhouse that produces some of the most compelling visuals, events, and products inside and outside of its target sports demographic.
Interestingly enough, this transformation has come not only from the ubiquity of the energy drink itself but from the partnerships and expansions the Austrian company has carefully manufactured. Somewhere along the way, the Red Bull team realized a drink can only go so far in connecting with people—but the spirit the brand captures can move mountains. Or at least bike down them.
From can to content, Red Bull has transitioned to a media company, owning a YouTube channel with close to nine million subscribers and multiple social media presences that easily top two million. Check out any sporting event, from windsurfing to soccer, and Red Bull will have a presence. The expansion of the brand is the story of a company taking on a number of technical partnerships across various channels—and there is no better example than Red Bull Racing.
Bigger than the Red Bull brand
Formula 1 (F1) racing is one of the biggest sports on the planets, yet compared to other leagues—and even other variations of racing—it still flies under the radar in North America. Last year, F1 nearly totaled 500 million unique digital and TV viewers across the world, with a global cumulative audience topping 1.75 billion viewers. The top viewing markets are China, Brazil, and yes, the U.S., despite competing with rivals like Indycar and other leagues like the NFL and MLB.
Sitting amongst the most illustrious and awarded F1 competitors is Red Bull Racing, which is currently partnered with Aston Martin and Honda. Red Bull Racing opened its car doors 15 years ago, and to really trace how the Red Bull brand itself has evolved and embraced digital nativity, it takes a dive into the transformation of its most well-known division.
A lot of people say ‘content is king,’ but don’t understand the sentiment until faced with the true kings of the castle. Red Bull tops that pantheon, as videos like Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic freefall from 128 kilometers in the air or the wingsuit stunt A Door in the Sky are inspirational, gut-wrenching, and visually breathtaking. Red Bull Racing’s content is no different, whether it is an F1 car racing an F-18 jet, a pit stop in zero gravity, or the spectacular short film The Life of a Bolt.
Creating alluring content is obviously only enabled by having the capability to tell the story in the first place. No one will grasp onto a narrative about the life of a small piece of metal unless it was published by the talented and passionate team responsible for building that piece of metal and realizing its full potential.
Recognizing this is the first step towards understanding the brand equity Red Bull holds and how their racing subsidiary is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate a digital evolution of the company.
“Formula 1 provides an excellent platform for the promotion of the Red Bull brand,” says Zoe Chilton, the head of technical partnerships for Red Bull Racing. “Fundamentally, we’re trying to bring something a little different to the sport. We try to bring this digital-oriented approach to F1, which when we joined a few years ago, the league was lacking a little bit. We wanted to come and bring some fun back into the sport and inspire younger fans to get excited about it. The Red Bull brand has some nice synergy there. It’s about pushing the envelope in terms of content creation.”
F1 as an organization has embraced data and analytics heavily over the last half-decade, and as that relationship has grown, so too have the technical partnerships associated with its top competitors. Companies are recognizing the shift to an analytics-heavy environment and are eager to understand just how their product or platform can fit into the evolving F1 ecosystem. Standing there with open arms is Red Bull Racing, a leader in expanding its technology ecosystem.
“The objective is to make engineers’ lives easier and enable them to do more with less.”– Zoe Chilton, head of technical partnerships, Red Bull Racing.
“We work with the biggest names in technology and they are really excited by Formula 1 as a platform to showcase and push the limits of new technology,” says Chilton. “One thing I have noticed over the last five years is that big businesses are recognizing and seeing the value of Formula 1 as a sport and us as a team to tell a really interesting story for their products. It’s not only about delivering a service but working with us as a team to create new development opportunities and product variance.”
When it comes to racing machines at over 330 km/h and setting world records by performing pit stops in under two seconds, any technical partner Red Bull Racing embraces must stand up to the pressure. If the extreme engineering duress was not enough, partners must also be precise, with some calculations measuring down to the micron—one-millionth of a meter.
“If a product can be tested in this extreme engineering environment, it can most likely fit into any kind of contained business environment,” says Chilton.
Driving the data conversation
Analytics enables organizations to make smarter choices and invest in the best outcomes. This is no different for Red Bull Racing and F1, as there are thousands of ways a car and its team’s understanding of a track can be improved.
“Imagine the car is your product and the driver is the customer,” explains Chilton. “When it’s racing on the track, the only way to find out if the product is doing what it should be doing is to capture data. We’re fortunate because our product has sensors all over it to tell us in great detail how it is interacting in the real world. That allows us to make thousands of iterations through the season. We don’t just build [one car for each racer] and race it the whole year. We make thousands of tiny changes to prepare for the next race, so we’re always moving forward.”
Many companies would be apprehensive to change and adapt so quickly, but it is a mindset Red Bull Racing has learned to love.
“Change is a scary thing,” says Chilton. “Most businesses react to change, but we turn that on its head. We have to look at learning from data as being an opportunity to be proactive about change. Learning from that data allows us to proactively anticipate that change and infer if design is required, and data allows us to get ahead of that.”
Races happen every other weekend during the season and Red Bull Racing gathers upwards of a terabyte worth of data per competition, all in an effort to shave hundredths of a second from lap times. There is qualitative data gathered from the drivers, but the quantitative data and telemetrics gathered from the 150-plus sensors strategically placed around the car tell a story no human can.
Back at Red Bull Racing’s factory in Milton Keynes, that data is deciphered through the implementation of over a dozen key technical partnerships. These partnerships span the factory’s several technical zones, such as test rigs, a driver simulator, wind tunnel, machine shop, and a composites department. Moving beyond the factory, Red Bull Racing also builds its own miniature data centers for every race, which allows the team to analyze data on the fly and make small changes after test runs.
Most of Red Bull Racing’s nearly 700 employees are engineers. Chilton explains that when the highly-motivated staff comes together, it’s imperative to provide them with the best possible tools, whether its data center components or vacuum fluorescent displays. Each innovation partner the team works with is driven by a separate engineering challenge.
“The objective is to make engineers’ lives easier and enable them to do more with less,” says Chilton.
Red Bull Racing’s technology stack
Sometimes, the answer to a problem comes from flipping it over and looking at it in a new way. Red Bull Racing had been working with software company Citrix for about 10 years, using their virtual desktops in a few niche areas. After some iteration, the Red Bull Racing infrastructure team realized they could use Citrix to deliver heavyweight applications and complex deliverables, working with their team to develop a bespoke solution that could then be applied to other Citrix partners.
The new applications allowed Red Bull Racing to run much higher quality 3D vGPU workloads involving computer-aided design (CAD), which is a vital asset for racing. Designing cars for optimal performance involves some of the most precise model rendering available on the market, as organizations like Red Bull Racing need to understand exactly how their $15 million machine—the average cost of an F1 car—runs on the track. To do so, they utilize computational fluid dynamics, or CFD.
“At a high level, CFD is a virtual wind tunnel,” explains Chilton. “When you’re creating an aerodynamically significant vehicle, you want to see how air will flow around it. Because we’re making tons of small changes to the shape of the car, every week we learn a bit more and we get a bit wiser, and we also might need to adapt the shape of a car for different race circuit characteristics.”
Those characteristics, however minor they may be, can have a massive impact on how a car performs. The altitude in Singapore is different than Sochi, so Red Bull Racing team has to test for different kinds of wind flow and even track conditions relating to these shifting parameters. Modifications like these happen every race, not to mention actual iterations on the shape of the car that improve speed regardless of weather, track, or altitude conditions.
“We need to make subtle changes to improve the car and make it more bespoke. But where that starts is CFD,” continues Chilton. “CFD is a high compute intensity process. We have a team of in-house aerodynamicists who have written a 200-step process that takes you from a CAD model to our CFD process.”
Red Bull Racing taps Siemens’ NX CAD software to design virtual cars for CFD testing, using surfacing tools to develop specific parts for the car’s front wing (shown below), which takes the brunt of wind resistance. In total, up to 800 unique parts may make up just the front wing of an F1 car.
“The front wing is the first part of the car to meet air and our aim is to micromanage every aspect of airflow,” says Matt Cadieux, Red Bull Racing’s CIO. “The front wing is an array of surfaces, all bonded together, which creates the effect of multiple front wings. With extremely complicated geometry, involving many angles and winglets, every little surface has a purpose.”
This is a process called meshing. There are very few straight lines on the surface of an F1 car, which is difficult for a computer to understand. The meshing process tessellates a layer of geometric shapes, covering the entire car and providing the software with a series of very tiny flat surfaces. The better software can define the mesh, the better the test results will be. This is an incredibly intense process for a computer to handle and it takes up an immense amount of resources.
NX allows Red Bull to gain a concise view of products that are currently undergoing testing. This is no simple process, as a single F1 car may undergo more than 7,500 modifications over a 21 race season, with more than 100,000 total parts designed. Even some of the pit stop equipment is designed in-house using Siemens software to ensure it fits the bespoke details of the car itself.
“We’re asking our engineers to see into the future.”– Zoe Chilton
Another technical partner Red Bull Racing taps to aid in several workflows is IBM and their Spectrum solutions LSF, Symphony, and Scale. These solutions respectively manage the scheduling and management of jobs on Red Bull Racing’s high-performance computing (HPC) cluster, provide bespoke race analytics, and act as a hub for data storage and retrieval. In particular, LSF allows the team to prototype new parts for CFD testing in a standardized workflow, saving valuable time and resources.
“Each simulation comprises more than 100 million data points, and a typical simulation could generate gigabytes of data—so the faster the storage, the faster we can write that data, and the faster we get to the end of the simulation,” Red Bull Racing’s head of HPC Wayne Glanfield said.
Red Bull Racing and IBM even work together to anticipate weather for races. Tire selections must be made up to 14 weeks before a race, so by using information from the IBM-owned The Weather Company, Red Bull Racing can make intelligent decisions surrounding best on-course performance. During the race weekend itself, even the smallest temperature changes can affect tire degradation and car set-up, so keeping on top of the weather becomes as important as testing for aerodynamics.
Staying inside resource limits
All of these optimizations and technical partnerships are impressive, especially considering that they all often result in differences amounting to a handful of milliseconds. Adding to the challenge is the fact that resource restrictions are enforced by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), F1’s governing body. The FIA limits the amount of wind tunnel testing and TeraFLOPS used for testing cars, which means organizations must be precise with how they utilize their time and resources for testing. The weight of each partnership is placed under intense scrutiny to carefully ensure it is the best possible use of limited testing resources.
“If you have X number of TeraFLOPS of solve power, thinking about what product you select and how much solve power you will use is definitely a consideration,” says Chilton. “The biggest challenge is that our season is incredibly fast-moving. As a business, we need to balance the need for new technology and solving new IT challenges that appear, and we need to make sure our partnerships are supportive of that process.”
The final result is an organization running one of the most optimized research and development processes on the planet. Every CFD calculation counts and every single modification to the car is tracked, studied, and evaluated.
“We’re trying to see into the future, right? The job of our strategy team is to predict the future,” says Chilton. “We would like them to see the end of the race and where we finish. In the interim, we need them to provide us input on choices around the tires or which lap we should aim to do a pit stop on. Or maybe watching tire degradation from Friday to Saturday to inform our simulations. We’re asking them to see into the future.”
Yes, seeing into the future is impossible. The next best thing is designing an environment that makes use of the best-in-market technical partners to design every possible version of the future and see what happens when one of the most advanced machines in the world drives into it going 330 km/h.
Understanding the continued evolution of how Red Bull Racing utilizes data and analytics offers a rare glimpse into a company that has itself completely changed over the last decade. The brand transformation Red Bull has undertaken is nothing short of extraordinary, moving from energy drinks to content and now all the way to organizational dominance in one of the most popular leagues on the planet. Through careful consideration of technical partnerships and strict adherence to an ‘if it isn’t helping us better manage our resources, it’s dead weight’ mentality, the growth of Red Bull Racing is emblematic of its parent company—identify an opportunity within a target demographic, activate through compelling content and results, and reap the rewards of industry-leading engagement.
This is how a company best-known for energy drinks completely separates itself from a physical product and embraces digital transformation through cutting-edge innovation and confident brand reinforcement. This is how Red Bull Racing wins Grands Prix.