From Durban to Formula One

An exclusive interview with SA born Graeme Hackland; one of very few South Africans working in Formula One

Reuben Van Niekerk
Formula One
Williams Racing
Bahrain Grand Prix

South African born Graeme Hackland is the Williams Group IT Director and Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Williams Racing.

Hackland has been part of Williams since 2014 and has achieved one of the highest positions in F1 Racing as CIO. Starting with a National Diploma in Electronic Engineering (LC) from Natal Technikon, he is now in charge of managing the vast amounts of data the team collects daily that is used to enhance engine, racing car design and driver performance. His focus is on the risks that even Formula One faces, namely data security and how cyber protection is assisting.


Cyber protection company Acronis and Williams Racing have renewed their technology partnership, extending the adoption of the technology across the entire Williams Racing IT infrastructure.

As part of the partnership, Williams Racing will continue with Acronis Cyber Protect across their IT infrastructure. The solution integrates fast and reliable backup, as well as AI-powered anti-malware and antivirus, and comprehensive endpoint management, managed from a single interface. 

Acronis Cyber Backup, which protects Williams data, is installed on roughly 300 servers and 1,500 endpoints, protecting nearly half a petabyte of data. 


We sat down with Hackland at the start of the 2021 Formula One season to chat about the role of big data in the sport and how it is protected:


How did you get from Durban to the pinnacle of motorsport?

When I was studying in Durban I never considered Formula One as a career and I must say there was a lot of luck involved as there are only 10 positions like mine in the world. Like many South Africans I did well when I moved to the UK, our good work ethic is well known.

I got a job in IT, working for Novell who was supporting Benetton at the time and one thing led to another. I love my job, being part of a team and the teamwork that is needed to help improve the car week in and week out.


You are a South African that has made his way to the leading edge of Formula One, what advice do you have for youngsters wanting to get into the technical side of Formula One?

There are only around 80 mechanics working in Formula One globally so you can imagine that the jobs are rather sought after. It is not enough to just do the curriculum, your CV needs to show that you display leadership, are involved in other sports and that you do things outside of your studies such as charity work or helping out with race teams in your free time, that show that you are selfless and a team player.

The F1 in schools programme is a great way of getting exposure to this side of the sport. There are various levels and successful participants who make it to the finals get to interact with engineers and learn about the Formula One car.


What are some of the biggest changes that you have seen during your career?

In 1997 we first stared using email but the biggest change has definitely been with regards to the data. In 1997 all the data from a race weekend could fit on a single floppy disk, now we create around 320 gigabyte of data per weekend.

Along with this data there is also the requirement to analyse it and that has meant that the team has grown from 180 people in total to over 650 staff with many of those brains applied to data. The analyses of data is becoming so time consuming that we are getting to a stage where there is an opportunity for artificial intelligence and automation.


The global pandemic would have been very difficult without the technology that we have, we now have the ability to work anywhere and 70 percent of the Williams Formula One staff now work from home.

We also need less staff at the track on race weekends as video, audio, telemetry and all those related tools are now accessible remotely.


What measures are in place to protect the team’s valuable data?

With staff working from a variety of locations including coffee shops, hotels or their homes we knew that we had lost control with no network boundaries. In the past we would focus on endpoints but with Acronis software we can allow staff to connect from anywhere, and even with their own personal devices as the actual data is now protected eliminating the need for protecting the hardware. The Ransomware and AI monitors behaviour and patterns in data and can intervene if it detects any change in behaviour.


Acronis Cyber Protection encompasses all areas of workload protection, simplifies data management and prevents cyber attacks. It’s a constantly changing environment. To have a technology partner whose technology meets the modern day needs and leads the market is critical for our team to regain competitive advantage.


Many fans of Formula One would like to see closer racing would sharing of data not mean a more exciting show?

Teams will never voluntarily share data, this directive would need to come from the regulator. However fans already see more data than ever before, with many data streams included in the live television broadcast these days.

The regulator has had a huge impact on the designs of the cars in terms of the 2022 regulations; for example, they ran wind tunnel simulations to ensure that the dirty air is not so disruptive, making overtaking easier.


Do the many sensors located across the Formula One car to collect data make it more fragile in a way?

We have had sensors in Formula One cars since 1979 so they are well developed and extremely robust, we very rarely see sensor related issues these days.


With the collection of so much data, what role does the feedback from the driver play?

The driver still plays a critical role in the development of a Formula One car. When developing a new component the maths can only get you so far. We use the science as a starting point and then go testing with two drivers, one might go faster and one might go slower. No matter what the data says, we will always go with the driver, for the simple fact that if the driver isn’t confident in the car, they wont be fast. This can be seen as the cars develop, the new cars will be identical at the beginning of the season but they will diverge as time goes by in line with what the driver feels allows them to get the most out of the car.


2021 Season

The 23 round Formula One season kicks off on the 28th of March with the Bahrain Grand Prix.