James Henderson

How extreme innovation is keeping off-road McLaren on-track

“It’s a little like dancing, having the car sliding underneath you from corner to corner,” shared Emma Gilmour, painting a picture of motor racing in its most extreme form. “It’s a truly addictive feeling and something I still get a huge buzz from.”

Whether gliding across the glaciers of Greenland at the Arctic X Prix or surging through the sandy terrains of Saudi Arabia at the Desert X Prix, Extreme E is a radical off-road racing series promoting sustainability and diversity at an unrelenting pace.

Races are contested in the most remote corners of the planet impacted by climate change with 10 teams – consisting of one female and one male driver – racing to highlight global issues and inspire the next generation.

Announced as McLaren Racing’s first-ever female racing driver in November 2021, Gilmour now completes the NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team driver line up alongside US driver Tanner Foust in the all-electric SUV series.

“When the idea first came out, I thought it was just going to be an online racing series and didn’t think it was actually going to come to fruition,” Gilmour said. “It was just so future thinking, the idea of showing that motorsport could be done in a different and more sustainable way. That’s at the core of the whole series.”

Emma Gilmour (NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team)

Addressing Dell Technologies Forum in Melbourne, Dunedin-born Gilmour highlighted the importance of innovation in meeting ambitious sustainability and performance goals.

“Data is huge in all motor racing but we find it very important in our series because of the vehicles and remote terrain plus the fact that we’re not doing an unlimited amount of racing,” Gilmour explained.

“Compared to Formula One, we are allowed a total of four laps each practice session and then we’re racing. So we have very limited time on the track and from that, we need to extract as much data as possible and then turn that data into useful information to be competitive.”

Building on a long-standing alliance which originated in 2018, Dell is the official technology partner of McLaren across all motor racing disciplines including Formula One and now expanding into Extreme E, which launched in 2021.

“Our hardware and software solutions are seamlessly integrated into McLaren’s day-to-day operations, helping to supercharge data driven innovation,” said Angela Fox, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Australia and New Zealand (A/NZ) at Dell.

“In Extreme E racing, McLaren uses our solutions and systems to support race team performance in some of the most remote and extreme conditions across the world. This includes helping drivers to evaluate course conditions and to decide the racing line, as well as enabling racing engineers to collaborate trackside despite the harsh conditions.”

Integrations include high-performance computing to execute compute-intensive tasks in real-time, underpinned by PowerEdge servers and data storage solutions with speed and agility in mind.

“Data gathered helps us assess the lines that we might be taking on track because we have such limited time,” Gilmour added. “We have to learn from what other teams are doing as well as analysing data from our teammates and our own driving.”

In addition to data-powered solutions, durable devices are also utilised alongside customisable mobile workstations to navigate extreme racing conditions and large-scale remote working demands.

This enhances a strategy of ensuring Extreme E leaves as little footprint as possible when racing around the world.

“There’s only eight in a team which limits our footprint when travelling and to reduce the amount of infrastructure required, we use blow-up tents,” Gilmour explained. “We’re like a travelling circus and our aim is to show that racing can be done without leaving a trace because we compete in locations and terrains that have never been raced on before.

“We were in Sardinia recently and it was 40 degrees inside the tent – very hot and dusty because they aren’t sealed very well. Tanner and I both use rugged devices from Dell and just having equipment that is durable and up to the task is crucial. Everyone is the best at their game.”

The sport houses no spectators with coverage televised to limit the footprint of racing with all cars, tents and infrastructure shipped by a boat called St. Helena – otherwise known as ‘The Electric Odyssey’. On the boat is a travelling laboratory deep-diving into data and studies under the supervision of leading scientists.

“All of us in a small way can help make improvements to combat climate change,” Gilmour said. “When we were racing in Greenland, we were struck by the fact that the glaciers were dirty and black and not white as we imagined.

“That’s because of pollution which speeds up the melting. We took samples to be processed in our laboratory and visited local schools – there’s a much bigger message than just racing.”

Previously a competent horse woman, Gilmour’s interest in motorsport was piqued purely by chance when she agreed to be the co-driver for a friend who was competing in a rally.

Career highlights since include winning the FIA Women in Motorsport and QMMF Cross Country Selection in 2015 while becoming the first woman to win a round of the New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC) when she claimed victory in the 2016 Rally of Canterbury.

“Growing up in New Zealand, we’re super proud of the McLaren brand given that Bruce McLaren – who founded the company – is a Kiwi,” Gilmour outlined.

“Throughout my career I’ve had some amazing opportunities overseas but very often, I was there as a little bit of a token female – you’re not really given the same equipment as your teammate, for example.”

Through Extreme E however, every single car on the grid has a female and male driver paired up with women now afforded the chance to “shine and show their abilities” on the world stage.

“It’s a driver’s dream come true because you are given a road that’s basically just yours,” Gilmour highlighted. “There’s no one coming the other way, there’s no police officers and there’s no speed cameras. It’s just you and your co-driver both driving as fast as you can.”

Angela Fox (Dell Technologies)

Innovating at speed

Extreme innovation in motor racing acts as an example for organisations within the enterprise seeking to leverage technology to accelerate market growth ambitions. According to Dell Technologies Innovation Index findings, 71% of organisations consider themselves to be innovative yet almost six in 10 are concerned about future business relevance within the next 3-5 years.

The maturity curve is outlined below with A/NZ businesses placed as:

  • Innovation Laggards – No innovation plans; limited initiatives and investments: 6%
  • Innovation Followers – Very few investments; tentative plans: 39%
  • Innovation Evaluators – Gradual innovation and planning: 43%
  • Innovation Adopters – Mature innovation plans, investments in place: 10%
  • Innovation Leaders – Innovation ingrained in DNA: 2%

“There’s a perception gap,” Fox observed. “A combination of people, process and technology is driving this disconnect in A/NZ with the majority of organisations still sitting on the left hand side of the innovation maturity curve.

“Only 12% of local businesses have a mature and sustained approach to innovation so clearly, that leaves a lot of room for improvement.”

As noted by Fox, evaluation and planning will not catapult organisations forward to the front of the pack, weakening any chance of true competitive advantage in the process.

Compared to Innovation Laggards and Followers, Innovation Leaders and Adopters are:

  • 2.6X more likely to experience high levels of revenue growth of more than 15%
  • 2.5X less likely to face a skilled IT labour shortage
  • 2.5X more likely to accelerate during recession / inflation / economic uncertainty

“The status quo simply isn’t good enough but innovation leaders do think and behave very differently,” Fox acknowledged. “Innovation is embedded into everything they do and viewed as a critical success factor. They use innovation to problem solve which obviously puts them at the front of the pack and in pole position.”

Such a philosophy exists at McLaren, a racing team fixated on introducing any form of innovation – no matter how big or small – to go faster.

“When I joined McLaren, I felt the pressure but was blown away by the debriefs after events which was very similar to what Angela shared,” Gilmour said.

“We learned to fail fast and if we made a mistake, we moved onto the next thing which is the great thing about motorsport – it’s too fast-paced to spend time deliberating and assessing what went wrong. Learn as quickly as possible and focus on the next corner, so to speak.”

In the enterprise world however, ongoing challenges continue to hamper innovation.

Locally speaking, trans-Tasman businesses primarily struggle to convert data into real-time insights (73%) while failing to implement a holistic end-to-end security strategy (63%) and continually battling complexity at the edge (57%). This is in addition to navigating ongoing issues with securing work from anywhere arrangements (50%) and managing growing cloud costs (35%).

“No organisation is exempt and we know there are constant learnings, twists and changes along the way,” Fox cautioned.

“Data is absolutely exploding yet the priorities of organisations are not aligning with the reality. Most efforts are still going into keeping the lights on and managing complex environments which is distracting focus from actually innovating to create a competitive advantage.”

According to Fox, the strongest companies embarking on transformation have developed innovative resilience centred on people, process and technology.

“Build an innovation culture that everybody participates in and learn to fail fast, this is a critical part of the journey,” Fox advised.

“Use structured data driven processes to identify and act on the right opportunities to align with specific business goals. And last but not least, utilise the power of technology.”


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