Formula 1 chief appalled to find team using Excel to manage 20,000 car parts

AI SaaS

A pit stop during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in early March evokes how the team's manager was feeling when looking at the Excel sheet that managed the car's build components.
Enlarge / A pit stop during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in early March evokes how the team’s manager was feeling when looking at the Excel sheet that managed the car’s build components.

ALI HAIDER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a new boss at a storied 47-year-old Formula 1 team, and he’s eager to shake things up. He’s been saying that the team is far behind its competition in technology and coordination. And Excel is a big part of it.

Starting in early 2023, Williams team principal James Vowles and chief technical officer Pat Fry started reworking the F1 team’s systems for designing and building its car. It would be painful, but the pain would keep the team from falling even further behind. As they started figuring out new processes and systems, they encountered what they considered a core issue: Microsoft Excel.

The Williams car build workbook, with roughly 20,000 individual parts, was “a joke,” Vowles recently told The Race. “Impossible to navigate and impossible to update.” This colossal Excel file lacked information on how much each of those parts cost and the time it took to produce them, along with whether the parts were already on order. Prioritizing one car section over another, from manufacture through inspection, was impossible, Vowles suggested.

“When you start tracking now hundreds of thousands of components through your organization moving around, an Excel spreadsheet is useless,” Vowles told The Race. Because of the multiple states each part could be in—ordered, backordered, inspected, returned—humans are often left to work out the details. “And once you start putting that level of complexity in, which is where modern Formula 1 is, the Excel spreadsheet falls over, and humans fall over. And that’s exactly where we are.”

The consequences of this row/column chaos, and the resulting hiccups, were many. Williams missed early pre-season testing in 2019. Workers sometimes had to physically search the team’s factory for parts. The wrong parts got priority, other parts came late, and some piled up. And yet transitioning to a modern tracking system was “viciously expensive,” Fry told The Race, and making up for the painful process required “humans pushing themselves to the absolute limits and breaking.”

Williams' driver Alexander Albon drives during the qualifying session of the Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Jeddah on March 8, 2024.

Williams’ driver Alexander Albon drives during the qualifying session of the Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Jeddah on March 8, 2024.

Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

The devil you know strikes again

The idea that a modern Formula 1 team, building some of the most fantastically advanced and efficient machines on Earth, would be using Excel to build those machines might strike you as odd. F1 cars cost an estimated $12–$16 million each, with resource cap of about $145 million. But none of this really matters, and it actually makes sense, if you’ve ever worked IT at nearly any decent-sized organization.

Then again, it’s not even uncommon in Formula 1. When Sebastian Anthony embedded with the Renault team, he reported back for Ars in 2017 that Renault Sport Formula One’s Excel design and build spreadsheet was 77,000 lines long—more than three times as large as the Williams setup that spurred an internal revolution in 2023.

Every F1 team has its own software setup, Anthony wrote, but they have to integrate with a lot of other systems: Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and wind tunnel results, rapid prototyping and manufacturing, and inventory. This leaves F1 teams “susceptible to the plague of legacy software,” Anthony wrote, though he noted that Renault had moved on to a more dynamic cloud-based system that year. (Renault was also “a big Microsoft shop” in other areas, like email and file sharing, at the time.)

One year prior to Anthony’s excavation, Adam Banks wrote for Ars about the benefits of adopting cloud-based tools for enterprise resource planning (ERP). You adopt a cloud-based business management software to go “Beyond Excel.” “If PowerPoint is the universal language businesses use to talk to one another, their internal monologue is Excel,” Banks wrote. The issue is that all the systems and processes a business touches are complex and generate all kinds of data, but Excel is totally cool with taking in all of it. Or at least 1,048,576 rows of it.

Banks cited Tim Worstall’s 2013 contention that Excel could be “the most dangerous software on the planet.” Back then, international investment bankers were found manually copying and pasting Excel between Excel sheets to do their work, and it raised alarm.

But spreadsheets continue to show up where they ought not. Spreadsheet errors in recent years have led to police doxxing, false trainee test failures, an accidental $10 million crypto transfer, and bank shares sold at sorely undervalued prices. Spreadsheets are sometimes called the “dark matter” of large organizations, being ever-present and far too relied upon despite 90 percent of larger sheets being likely to have a major error.

So, Excel sheets catch a lot of blame, even if they’re just a symptom of a larger issue. Still, it’s good to see one no longer connected to the safety of a human heading into a turn at more than 200 miles per hour.

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