There’s not much about Formula 1 that Éric Boullier doesn’t know. He’s worked for the world’s top teams, is now CEO of the French Formula 1 Grand Prix, and has watched data transform motor sport from within.
Éric Boullier has been racing for 20 years. Literally and figuratively. This 45-year-old strategic advisor and global ambassador for the French Formula 1 Grand Prix can already look back on a fast-moving and solid career. He has worked as DAMS team managing and technical director, Renault F1 Team principal, Lotus F1 Team principal and McLaren Racing director. His experience and contacts, in other words, are unparalleled.
Watching more than 150 Grand Prix races from the trackside as team principal makes you something of an expert in this discipline. That’s why Christian Estrosi, who chairs GIP Grand Prix de France, called him in 2017 and asked him to come on board the “all-new” team organising the French Grand Prix.
Éric knows all about that, too: back in 2011, prime minister François Fillon appointed him to a working group tasked with putting the French Grand Prix back on the Formula 1 World Championship calendar (which it had not been on since 2008). But then the government changed and the plan was shelved in 2012.
Between the aerospace and automotive worlds
Éric was born in Laval, an hour from the circuit hosting the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So this move is a bit like coming full circle. The circle started in a garage near the house where he grew up. The owner would often take him to the legendary circuit to watch races, and that’s where he caught the motor-sport bug. “I volunteered to work in the paddocks when I was 14 or 15. I got a front-row seat to the duel between Senna and Prost!”, he remembers, his excitement undiminished.
“The more you understand machines and men, the more you anticipate and the more creative you become.”
He never wanted to be an aircraft pilot (“that was maybe my survival instinct talking”) but his passion for technology led him to study engineering at IPSA (Institut Polytechnique des Sciences Avancées) and major in aerospace. “Automotive engineering is like aircraft or even spacecraft engineering in many ways,” he explains today. He completed his studies with an internship on the DAMS team, which hired him as soon as it was over.
Data for anticipation
His experience in motor sport has taught him two things: “Discipline and commitment. Both to serve performance and logistics. Because it’s a challenge to work with 800 people, 100 of which are at a racetrack halfway around the world, under huge pressure.”
Technology is obviously essential in this quest for excellence. There are almost 100 Gigs of data travelling around in real time, from a plethora of sensors, every race weekend. “Data has turned Formula 1 into a very high-tech sport. The reasons have to do with agility, with boosting performance and safety, so as to anticipate and improve the car but also to fine-tune Formula 1 race organisation,” Éric continues.
Data and AI have become two key features in Formula 1. He continues, “The more you understand machines and men, the more you anticipate and the more creative you become.” When you compile all the data from all the cars in all the teams in real time, you can make critical tactical decisions – for example on refuelling or changing tyres.”
Inspiration from Formula 1
Formula 1 is at the cutting edge of technology. And often blazes new trails. For example, in electric energy today: “Formula E is a technology lab for carmakers that want to develop applications on roadgoing cars very fast,” Éric believes. He continues, “There are entire industry sectors – especially the automotive and energy sectors – that could find inspiration in the Formula 1 model.”
Éric is anticipating as much as ever, but for the French Grand Prix these days. AI and data may be slightly less prominent, but his job – besides his essential role as facilitator for all the teams, drivers, Formula One Management and other stakeholders – is still to stay one step ahead. In this case ahead of the changes in regulations and a new Grand Prix configuration aimed at attracting younger audiences and more women to Formula 1 events.