WELCOME to mission control – and that mission is to retain the F1 world title.
SunSport was granted special access to Mercedes’ top-secret Race Support Room – the nerve centre at the heart of the team’s success.
Deep inside Merc’s multi-million pound high-tech Brackley HQ, I got to witness the vital conversations between drivers, engineers – and spies – during qualifying some 4,900 miles away in Austin for the US GP.
So what is the RSR?
Think of it like mission control at NASA, with a giant screen and up to 30 key managers assessing every piece of data transmitted from the cars driven by Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
There is even an army of spies, who decipher secret coded messages from Mercedes’ rivals.
Around 10 students have the job of monitoring the airways, eavesdropping on radio communications and watching video footage to see what the other teams and drivers are up to.
They then pass on the transcripts from teams’ radios and photos to senior Merc bosses to assess and inform the pitlane to help with their strategic decisions.
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In return, Merc allows the volunteers open access to their communications as they gain crucial race experience.
Merc boss Toto Wolff calls the RSR the team’s ‘remote brain’ and adds: “Whilst we are racing, everybody in the RSR keeps the machine moving.
“When we’re sleeping, they are learning so we have a car and an engine that goes faster than anyone else.”
But the rules for my visit were very clear – no photos and no repeating of sensitive conversations!
The level of secrecy is understandable, Mercedes are seven-times consecutive winners of drivers and constructors’ titles and want it to remain that way.
A giant screen dominates the room with 14 other screens dotted around.
Shots of Hamilton’s and Bottas’ garage, the weather radar, lap times, a giant overlay of track and relevant GPS locations of all 20 cars are all on view.
The RSR is connected to the pitwall, so the engineers at Brackley can exchange information.
But that’s before we even talk about the huge amount of data coming from the car back to the war room.
Mercedes are coy on the amount of sensors on their car but the figure is in the hundreds.
Every piece of information is analysed and scrutinised and no less than FIVE strategists set about picking the best race strategy.
The key is being prepared so when a curveball does come up, there is always a contingency and the predicted eventuality.
Such is the importance of the RSR, strategic decisions made in the UK result in wins.
On the spying missions, Dominique Riefstahl, who runs the Race Support Room, revealed: “It’s extra manpower, because listening to 20 car feeds’ worth of people talking, you just need ears to monitor all of the TV feeds, you need eyes on the ground.”
Senior Race Strategy Engineer Joseph McMillan added “The students are doing things like listening to all the radio comms and transcribing, so we can see all the text, and clipping videos.
“They volunteer at the weekends because it’s cool.”
The information gathered helps Merc boffins compile their race-winning strategies.
McMillan added: “The Spanish GP this year is a great example of when a decision has been made here, rather than at the track and resulted in a win.
“We changed from a one-stop to a two-stop for Lewis. I’d done the maths, said: ‘Here’s the plan, we should do this.’
“Chief strategist James Vowels looked at it and went: ‘Yep, you’re right.’ He did it and Lewis won.”
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises about spending time in the RSR is the amount of feedback Hamilton gives his team over the radio.
He is constantly asking questions about his rivals, tyre temperatures, suggesting set-up changes.
For all those who think he jumps in the car and drives, I can assure you that is simply not the case.
The level of information he provides to the team on his laps is incredible and shows just why Hamilton relies on the RSR as much as the guys in his garage.
Hamilton said: “The RSR is so important for the team and how we function through the weekend.
“When we do our big comms meetings, the RSR team are on the other line listening in and we are just one big team.
“The guys in the RSR back at the factory are doing a huge amount of simulation, preparation, finding answers, downloading information and understanding that information so we can make the right choices on a weekend.
“They are a super-important extension to what we do at the track as we have limited numbers and are integral to us achieving our goal which is winning races.”
I learn that Hamilton has to be careful with just how much he says over the radio.
When he’s out of the garage, his audio is fair game and available to his rivals.
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That all changes when he’s back in the garage and each time is reminded to ‘plug in’ his radio to keep it off the airwaves.
But that is also another area where Merc excels, with a network of transcribers typing up what other drivers say while the digital boffins are able to monitor what’s going on elsewhere, grabbing still images from real-time footage.
Dominique Riefstahl, who runs the RSR, says his role is keeping an eye on their cars, as well as their opponents.
He says: “I’m the first point of contact if there are any questions coming from the track, and making sure we get the right people involved for analysing, answering, finding the image that they’re looking for.
“As a simple example, at the start, the first thing we do is we already have the onboards of our cars but also the cars around us ready, and we’re watching them live.
“If something is to happen to us, it would be reviewed and we could see if there is contact or not.
“Then it might also be, did Max Verstappen go beyond track limits at a certain corner, or did we go beyond track limits?”
Outside of the RSR, there are yet more details of how much work goes on behind the scenes and away from the racetrack.
Riefstahl added: “We have support from systems, who are the guys running all the automation on the cars and there are guys running in the F1 simulator.”
The sheer scale of the operation is staggering and as I leave just after midnight, around 60 minutes after qualifying in Austin, the work is only just beginning in Brackley.