Octane and Algorithms

Before going to the seventieth Monaco Grand Prix last May, I placed some bets on a Web gambling site. I’d never been to Monaco, less than a square mile of rock packed with billionaires and millionaires and, for a few days, home of the planet’s premier street-racing event. I’d never gambled on a Formula 1 race. Once I got there, I was psyched. Betting gave me a fresh take on F1’s high craziness. It flipped my normal longing to be trackside for the vicarious thrills and shifted my focus elsewhere. To data and money. Patterns and performance. It was like being on a low-grade dopamine high, the neurotransmitter of pleasure being triggered constantly. Even in my sleep, I began having gambling dreams. All around were stimulants: celebrities pursued by paparazzi, stunners in stilettos, VIPs on yachts, more Ferraris than you could count. But all my senses longed for was more data to up the odds of coming out a winner.

I hadn’t expected this. I knew I needed an edge, so before I’d left my flat in Prague, I attempted to come up with a system. First, I tried algorithms. “You want some kind of betting algorithm,” my mathematician friend Alan told me. “Put all your data in and get results.” He made a spreadsheet. Plugged in some numbers: pole positions, podium positions, driver standings for the 2012 F1 season after five races. Soon the spreadsheet had twenty-four rows and fifteen columns. “I don’t know about this,” I said to myself as Alan assured me that “with enough data, and a large enough sample size, you can predict with great accuracy.”

My brain just sort of blanked out from all the numbers.

Second, I considered man-at-the-casino feedback. Inside tips. Stuff I could pick up once I got to the principality a few days before the race itself. Forget about it. Although Monaco is a Mecca for gambling, there is absolutely none allowed for F1 racing. “Neither on the drivers nor the constructors,” I was informed by Guillaume Jahan De Lestang, an attache at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. “Would m’sieur be interested in punto banco, baccarat, roulette?”

Third, I retreated to crazy logic, as Charles Bukowski called his system for horses in the novel Hollywood. I came up with my own system, one with unequal parts: driver histories, performance patterns, and dumb luck. It wasn’t much of a system, but it was something. And I had laid down some dough.

En route to Monaco, I went over betting tactics for a winning strategy, as I planned to make more wagers each day. Sure bets? There weren’t any. So far this season, all five races had been won by different drivers. That hadn’t happened in decades. It was a stark contrast to the 2011 season, when Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button dominated. Driving for the Red Bull-Renault team, Vettel, the geeky-looking German wunderkind on Red Bull’s payroll since he was eleven, and the gaunt, thirty-two-year-old Button, a Brit driving for McLaren-Mercedes, had won fourteen of nineteen races. This year, though, they were no longer dominating.

One of F1’s saving graces is that success usually comes to teams with the most ingenious engineering and organization, not to those with the biggest budgets and hype machinery. That was being born out this spring. The Red Bull team, along with McLaren-Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton joining Button in the drivers’ seats, and Scuderia Ferrari, led by Fernando Alonso but hobbled by inferior cars, were awash in dough. I’d decided I liked the relatively unhyped team from Lotus. It had ingenuity, deep organization, and “racing spirit,” bragged team leader Eric Boullier. There were two new drivers, Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raeikkoenen, the former F1 champ known as the Iceman. But it was Grosjean I had my eye on.

A rookie of sorts (he raced F1 briefly in 2009 with dismal results), Grosjean is French. He possesses a certain je ne sais quoi,
the kind of nonqualitative variable the data crunchers tend to dismiss. His weaknesses are those of the F1 novice: bad starts alternating with good, close overtaking with contact too often retiring him in a race. While the Iceman hardly speaks, inscrutable behind dark sunglasses and a low-riding Pirelli cap, Grosjean says things like, “If you want to succeed you have to be aware of every single aspect of this unique cosmos.” He loves to cook and smiles easily. He lingers with fans, signing autographs. Most important, the odd couple and the upstart team were trending upward. In Spain, at the previous race, Grosjean placed fourth, Raeikkoenen second. Lotus was currently third in the constructor standings.

On Thursday, my first day on the circuit, I took a small survey in the paddock about gambling. “Gambling” was a dirty word. Team members didn’t want to be associated with it. The F1 guys see themselves in business, the business of risk assessment, data acquisition, computer modeling of complicated variables. Foremost on most minds in Monaco was rubber management, not betting lines. Every team seemed anxious about tires. All the racing tires are made by Pirelli in Turkey. Big and light, the tires come in six grades — super soft, soft, medium, and hard compounds for dry weather, and two more, intermediate and wet, for rainy conditions. Each grade of tire deteriorates differently under the stresses of speed and track surface and weather. How to master four pieces of rubber under the constantly changing conditions that an F1 race throws at a driver and team was this season’s puzzle. A puzzle in search of a brilliant algorithm and thousands of lines of code that had yet to surface.

Frankly, all the hand-wringing over rubber warmed this rookie gambler’s heart. Unpredictability gives a crazy system a better chance of winning. Variable rates of disintegration, thermal sensitivities, rubber marbles flying off and making the track slippery, hard to super soft — I wondered why no one had made a condom commercial from all of this.

Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s tire chief, seemed to take all the tire madness in good stride. “One of the oldest variables in life — weather — causes a lot of team programs to go out the window,” he told me with a wry grin.

I wandered through the narrow streets among zealous fans and stared at a flotilla of ostentatious yachts crammed together like gunboats of the rich in the harbor. Still hoping to find a local place to bet, I went into Slammers Bar, just up the street from an auto dealer — Fiskers to the left, Ferraris to the right. The owner, Lisa Bolton, had been in Monaco for thirty years and confirmed that no off-track betting was allowed. “Everything’s run by a society,” she said, drawing nine-dollar pints of beer. “It’s part of the government; we don’t even have strip clubs.”

Finding a local betting joint began to feel a little like overtaking a car in front of you on the famous circuit, 2.08 miles of narrow, twisting, elevation-changing street driving. That is, virtually impossible.

Friday, despite the setbacks, my gambling mind really kicked in. It was probably the dopamine, abetted by the sweet scent of honeysuckle and the presence of the emerald-green Mediterranean, along which I strolled to the train station in Eze-sur-mer. A gray Lamborghini Gallardo went by. Something like hubris stirred inside me. Gambler’s fever? Dostoevsky’s note to his brother about a ruinous roulette habit still carried a modern message worth listening to: “I believed in my system [but I] couldn’t control myself and lost everything.”

I had just upped my bet on Grosjean to podium; he’d been second fastest around the circuit during yesterday’s practice sessions.

In Monaco, Friday was a free day. Fans could walk the street track, the oldest and slowest — but also the most dangerous and surely the most beautiful — of F1 venues. You could set off past the Casino de Monte-Carlo, stroll down beneath the BetClic ad, through the Fairmont hotel hairpin, and to the infamous curved tunnel, into which Vettel, Grosjean, Webber, Schumacher, et al. would soon enter in third gear at about 95 mph and exit in seventh gear at about 175 mph, having pulled 2.6 g’s and rattling the cement with a decibel level of some 128 dB, a volume louder than that of a pneumatic rivet gun four feet from your ear. After a chicane, a swiggle through which a mistake bounces a car like a rabbit, comes the harbor. Yachts to the left, a rising wall of expensive real estate on the right.

Walking the circuit were low rollers and high. A guy in a suit and a Panama hat drinking a beer, a woman using ski poles, an elderly couple with their arms around one another. Wild drums beat near the garages, drawing people like a siren song. In the pits, the mob’s mood was jubilant, bacchanalian. Muscle boys danced, Euro trash swayed, cocktails in raised hands. All seven deadly sins were on display, palpable. Especially lust and envy. What’s a new 458 Italia or Murcielago LP650-4 roadster without a yacht to die for, trophy babes lounging on the deck in tans? Here was one reason Monaco is so alluring: you can be a low-net-worth individual and still party amid otherworldly splendor and decadence.

I have to admit that the day before, for a while, with the traffic, prices, and confusion, I’d thought this was the stupidest car race ever. Today, it was the most pleasurable.

Later that night, a weird thing happened: A meshing of the real and the surreal only possible in a place like Monaco. Out of an SUV just ten feet from me slid Flavio Briatore, Italian playboy, banished F1 majordomo, a living monument to criminal pleasures surrounded by a scrum of bodyguards. Briatore was bound, no doubt, for the VIP party at the Billionaire Club on the roof of the Fairmont. After all, he owned the club, this bloated sybarite who had tried back in 2008 to fix the Singapore Grand Prix with a planned crash. He’d been the manager of the Benetton-Renault team. An indictment followed the unsuccessful attempt, but Briatore was never prosecuted.

The party awaited, a dance floor, bottles of Grand Cru champagne. Maybe J-Lo, Will Smith, or Paris Hilton — all rumored to be in town — would show.

Briatore slipped away into the humid night, but the wake of the mini-scandal he initiated still lingers. A big fear of gamblers everywhere — off-track, online, on-site — is a rigged outcome. A dopamine hit for cheats.
There’s a new type of gambler about. One who sees technology and data as a sort of all-encompassing oracle. Facilitated by the Internet, boosted by market-driven thinking, and rarely spotted at a track, his heart rate is ticked up by the order: “Gentlemen, start your gadgets!”

By Saturday, I found myself hopelessly adrift in this new realm, watching the qualification sessions in a dark room via F1 live timing and finding it oddly exciting. Having walked the circuit the day before, I could visualize the three sections: turns, pitches, dangers, delights. The Fairmont hairpin, with its banner for the Billionaire Club, fluttered in my mind. I could still smell the sea-scented air in the tunnel.

Numbers swirled: lap times, gaps behind the leader, gaps between cars, overall ranking, times through sections. Here was a new brain sandwich I’d never partaken of before. Briefly nutritious, it soured when Grosjean fell back in the pack, sweetened when his numbers improved. “Monaco is all about qualifying,” the F1 vet Button had said. “It’s very tricky to overtake here.” So Grosjean needed to do well and get slotted at the front of the grid.

The times on the screen were dizzying. The screams of the cars echoed deep in some primal canyon of the mind (not hard to do when an engine like Renault’s RS27 V-8 can hit 18,000 rpm). At midstage, the top-ten drivers were separated by just 0.4 second. The final ten minutes of qualification were riveting. Grosjean had the pole for Lotus with a 1:14.639 lap, then lost it to Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg. In the final two laps, there was a kind of frenzy: with lead changes, commentary beside the numbers.

Then it was over. Michael Schumacher, the forty-three-year-old Formula 1 legend, had won the pole, Red Bull-Renault’s Mark Webber was second, Rosberg third, Hamilton fourth, Grosjean fifth. Penalized five slots on the grid for an accident at the previous race in Spain, where Schumacher misjudged distance and crashed into the car in front of him, the pole winner would start in sixth place, right behind Grosjean.

That was worrying. Schumacher and Grosjean had each crashed a lot this season. Good gamblers watch for patterns. And this was Monaco, a circuit made for accidents.

Sitting in the gloom, computer off, I wondered what I was doing. Watching a live feed, thinking of more bets when I could actually be on-site, enjoying the thrills in real time. This aging gambler’s brain, high on F1 images and data, kept flashing. I stepped out into the sun. It was calm, quiet. There was the Mediterranean Sea.
Race day finds me on the back of a motor scooter because of a train strike. We pass through tunnels and by the sea. It’s calm, but rain is in the forecast. Dino swerves to a stop, drops me amid the madding crowd: guys in funny hats, doll-faced TAG Heuer girls with umbrellas, Monaco cops blowing whistles and miraculously keeping everything moving.

In the Mercedes hospitality suite, I watch the start on tandem screens, one showing the cars, the other live-racing data. I’ve become hooked on this mental sandwich.

Starts are always perilous, and Monaco’s especially so. Grosjean’s is terrible. Not 100 yards into the race, he gets hit. Schumacher made a daring move to get by him. The rookie driver’s left rear wheel shears off as Schumacher’s front tire contacts it. Grosjean spins.

Anguish. Loss. I feel both. My three bets on Grosjean are toast, but I’m glad he’s OK. Years ago I saw an F1 start in Montreal in which a rookie driver smashed into the pole driver because his car stalled just as the light turned green. Everyone made it past except the rookie, Riccardo Paletti. He died. Today, Grosjean walks away. I stare at him on one of the tandem screens. On the other is data detailing the twenty-three cars racing up the straightaway toward the casino. A little stunned and in denial, showing how deeply I’ve slipped into a gambling head, my mind scrambles for explanations: Schumacher caused the crash (he didn’t), Alonso was too impulsive (the Spaniard was also trying to pass). Most poignantly, a nervous stranger, fiddling with his phone, sat right in my sight line minutes before the start. That idiot jinxed the race for me! I think irrationally. Bottom line: my driver has been eliminated in a split second that no algorithm could have predicted. Or was this just a pattern repeating, its likelihood helped by Schumacher and Grosjean being together at the start?
Webber leads after one lap, Rosberg is second. Driving masterfully, Vettel soon moves from ninth place to sixth. By midrace the big question is the weather.

“It’s starting to sprinkle,” says a young Frenchman named Guillaume who’s next to me.

“You bet on the race?” I ask, disconsolate still.

“Yes. I think it is more interesting to watch that way.”

He bet on Rosberg to win. I still have Rosberg to podium. So there we sit, two possible winners, both wanting rain to fix our bets. With eight laps left, Rosberg is only 0.6 second behind. “He must win!” Guillaume says under his breath, making me wonder how much he’s wagered. The last laps, in the wet, tires crucial, are nerve-racking. At the checkered flag, it’s Webber, Rosberg, Alonso.

Guillaume quickly tells me he’s a business-school student and a rookie F1 gambler like me. Yes, on the Web. No, not BetClic — the site wanted his banking information. He has to go, is supposed to be working. I hurry after him, the race still in me, down past the hospitality suites and almost pass Grosjean. In jeans, a Lotus shirt, and cap, he is walking by himself. Slowing down, I reach out and give his shoulder an avuncular squeeze. How thin he feels, how slight and vulnerable. He smiles with youthful resignation. Like a goofball fan sharing a moment of intimate connection with a new hero, I give Grosjean a thumbs-up.
Then I’m off after Guillaume to talk more about gambling.
Monaco was an intense, four-day, adventurous education into the strangely addictive world of F1 gambling. I escaped the Alcatraz of the rich, as one local called it, slightly ahead. Four bucks ahead, to be precise. My largest bet, Rosberg to podium, saved me. I made mistakes, but I erred on the side of discretion. A motorsports gambler should learn about algorithms, I realized, and let the geek inside him fly. And park his heart when he gambles. No knee-jerk emotional plays, like the one I made on Schumacher after he took the pole. It was a poor bet on a former champ beating back time.

As for Grosjean, it feels good to have a young hero. His weaknesses are those of the F1 newcomer. Too switched on, overaggressive. He needs experience. If he stops crashing, relaxes, gets “out of his skin,” like they say when they talk about how Ayrton Senna often drove, Grosjean could be great. Even make me a little money. After all, I’m a winner.