With my interest and fascination in EV’s having soared over the last year, largely due to the inaugural season of the FIA Formula E Championship drawing ever closer, I felt it was crazy I hadn’t yet actually driven such a car. The kind people at revolutionary American car company, Tesla, recently threw one my way for a couple of days to take to Donington Park’s Formula E test in July.
Tesla didn’t just give me any old car either. I turned up to their West London showroom, nestled inconspicuously amongst the boutique clothing and swanky underwear stores of the Westfield Shopping Centre and drove away in the all-singing-all-dancing, top-of-the-range Model S P85+.
I’d heard all manor of things about driving electric cars, not least from the elite field of Formula E racers themselves, but really felt I should try it for myself in order to be able to comment accurately about the technical side of the new sport.
Formula One too, with their hybrid cars of 2014, have changed the experience of those behind the wheel in terms of energy recovery and deployment and I hoped the Tesla might help me explain exactly what’s involved.
The P85+ has the biggest motor in the company’s range, at 350kw, (the FE motor is rated as 200kw) offering the equivalent of over 450bhp and yet still has the capability to keep going for 300 miles on a single charge of its 85kwh battery (FE battery rated as 30kwh). The 0-60 figure is 4.2 seconds and of course all this is done without any harmful emissions from the tailpipe…in fact it doesn’t even have a tailpipe (nor does the FE car).
The stats are pretty impressive, but as ever, don’t quite tell the entire story. After all, history books show Michael Schumacher winning 7 F1 world titles, but is he really 7 x better a driver than John Surtees, Nigel Mansell or Lewis Hamilton, each with just one to their names?
The first thing to say is this car looks great. It oozes class from every angle, but certainly doesn’t feel the need to shout out loud about it.
The one I was given did have every single bell and whistle the company could throw at it, totalling something in the region of a staggering £30,000 just for the optional extras, but even without the spangly 21” wheels, panoramic glass roof and fancy paintwork, the entry level version still turns heads through its design alone.
We all know through motorsport, just how important the weight distribution, centre of gravity (CofG) and layout of a car is to its performance and because of the unusual way this car’s propelled, it’s designers were able to throw away the old rule book in that regard.
The hugely powerful electric motor and inverter/generator unit sit in-between the rear wheels and don’t take up much space, whilst the impressive batteries, heavy though they are, fill the entire aluminium floorpan across the footprint of the car.
Can you imagine the delight to an F1 design team if they could, all of a sudden, spread their big and heavy engine and fuel cell, currently sat high up behind the driver, across the entire floor of the car? Imagine the huge chunk of lap time that would bring them? Imagine how stable it would be through the corners without the higher CofG? Imagine the aerodynamic benefits of being able to design a car without the space restrictions of the bulky engine and gearbox?
That’s exactly what the guys sketching out the original Model S had to play with. As a result they’ve delivered a car that has most of its weight no higher than the top of the tyres and handles accordingly. The lightweight aluminium chassis forms an aero-efficient shape, but instead of screaming “Quirky electric car!”, as many of the other sustainably powered vehicles on the market seem to like to do, it just glides inconspicuously by like a confident and classy power-dresser.
Inside the car there’s space. Lots of space. The missing engine and gearbox mean everything can be reconfigured inside and no matter in which of the seven seats (yes SEVEN) you sit, none feel cramped for what they’re intended. The extra two fold down child seats in the back don’t come as a trade off for luggage space either, as the traditional ‘engine bay’ can hold a number of decent sized bags or a set of golf clubs.
Aside from its Tardis-like feel, the interior’s dominated by the impressively huge, central touchscreen display from which all-things-electronic are almost infinitely configurable. Like any high end racing car, the control systems can all be tailored and tweaked to optimise performance, drivability, comfort and here of course, energy management.
The car’s operating system is permanently ‘connected’ through 3G networks and Tesla can send out software updates, much like you get on your iPhone, to add new features and functionality at no extra cost.
In the F1 of a few years back, if the car needed some new settings or new ECU code for example, to make it perform better or more efficiently, it could be added whenever required, transmitted with no need to return the car to the pits. Same with this. If you buy a new Mercedes, Jaguar or BMW for example, the car is what it is on the day you hand over your money and will be forever more, not here, it’s a constantly evolving product…much like a racing car I guess.
In both Formula One and now Formula E, the use of available electrical power’s crucial to getting the most from the car. In the Tesla, like it’s racing cousins, the way the energy’s both harvested and deployed can be manipulated to suit your needs. We’ll hear more and more about the term ‘Regen’ as the FIA Formula E Championship gets going, but it’s the rate at which the motor/generator unit (MGU) harvests electrical energy and feeds it back into the battery when the car’s not powering forward or, ‘on throttle’. By adjusting the switch on the steering wheels of the racing cars or on the touchscreen in the Tesla, battery life can be greatly extended.
Setting the ‘regen’ to its standard rate, means the moment you lift off the accelerator, the car slows more aggressively than I’m used to, but not uncomfortably so, as the motor switches to its generator mode. There’s something very satisfying about seeing the energy usage gauge go from orange into green and from a driving perspective it means you barely need to use the brakes on a normal journey. In F1 this year, cars now have much smaller rear brakes on the car with their hybrid systems onboard and this is exactly why. In the Tesla it means brakes should last a very long time indeed.
The graphical display on the Model S constantly gives a stream of data to show the efficiency of your driving style and it makes a surprising difference to the way you end up using the vehicle. If you want to have fun in this car, it won’t disappoint as the acceleration, particularly off the line, is genuinely phenomenal, but if you want to go in comfort for over 300 miles before recharging it, the tools are all there at your disposal to do that too.
Both F1 and FE drivers, along with their teams, are putting a lot of work in to learning the intricacies of optimising the way they generate energy, at which points in the race and indeed at which points around each lap, they use the various ‘regen’ settings available. In motorsport it could mean the difference between staying out for a crucial extra lap before pitting in the race, opening up different strategic options, so could well be a big differentiator. In the case of the Model S, ‘regen’ and the subsequent deployment of that energy can make a massive difference to range before needing a recharge.
The last time I drove an EV was actually when I worked at McLaren. Before we moved into the big shiny MTC building, the company was sprawled out across an industrial estate in Woking in the UK and we used a battered old electric milk float to cart things around the site. The instant torque from the motor was evident then too, jolting it immediately forward like a dodgem car when you hit the throttle, but instead of peaking at 5mph, the Tesla and the Formula E cars just keep on going at staggering speeds. When I first got into the Model S and put my foot down, I was genuinely stunned, the acceleration is a seriously mind blowing experience.
This car has everything you’d expect from a luxury, executive class vehicle, but so much more too. It’s probably the fastest thing I’ve ever driven from 0-40mph, yet it costs virtually nothing to run, both of which made me giggle a bit every time I got in it.
It’s not cheap, ranging from around £50k to the all singing, all dancing, £95k version I had, but equally not outrageous for what you get. If you’re in the market for that level of car, the Model S is a genuine alternative to the industry’s established big players and sets a new benchmark in many areas of car design, electric or otherwise.
The range and acceleration of the Tesla are truly impressive and most people can have loads of fun in it and still go nowhere near emptying the battery in a day before plugging it back in at night. Some other electric cars are far more modest in their stats, meaning they are only suitable as small ‘runarounds’, but what F1 and now Formula E are hoping to do by placing the technology into a highly competitive sporting arena, is accelerate the development of electric motors, electronic control systems and crucially, battery technology to a far more advanced level. If this happens as expected, the idea of ‘range anxiety’ could be a thing of the past and we could all benefit as EV’s move more towards the norm in city centres.
Tesla too, recently took a huge decision for the good of us all, by releasing all of its technology patents to the wider world. They hope by doing so, the electric vehicle market as a whole will benefit, taking the groundbreaking tech from the Model S and associated ancillaries like the company’s Superchargers and developing it further without the commercial and legal restrictions they’d otherwise face.
The Model S is a great car, not just a great electric car. Along with the Spark-Renault Formula E, it could be one of the most important cars for the future of sustainable mobility and one we might look back on one day as representing a turning point in changing people’s minds.
Formula E last night hosted an evening entitled the Global Launch Event, for the fast approaching FIA sanctioned, fully electric race series and I was privileged to attend.
As a motorsport fan and someone with history and a vested interest in Formula One, I’m intrigued and excited by the sporting aspect of the project. Racing around city centres in almost anything should provide a thrilling spectacle, so I can’t wait for that first day in Beijing, when all twenty drivers are unleashed at once in the new machinery.
I’m of course fascinated by the technology. The cars are a collaboration of contributions from some highly respected and well known players in both the motorsport and wider technological world and what they’ve all managed to achieve in such a short space of time is nothing short of remarkable.
In fact ‘remarkable’ is a great word to describe many of the achievements of Formula E to date. The initial deal between the FIA and Alejandro Agag’s newly formed company, Formula E Holdings, was only signed in August of 2012 and yet yesterday, at The Roundhouse in London, we were surrounded by a full fleet of teams, their cars, partners and some major players from sport, business and politics.
Formula E’s operational headquarters, based here in the UK at Donington Park, sprung out of the ground and moved in its occupants in a mere fifteen weeks, which is impressive in itself. A seven figure sum’s been invested in the 44,000 square feet of space to house all ten teams, their cars and equipment, along with FE staff, and upwards of 50 million euros has been secured in investment in the project so far.
The fact that The Roundhouse was packed to the rafters for the event was testament enough to the interest being generated around the new championship, but the fact it was packed full of some of the biggest and most prestigious players from the automotive industry, British government and Formula One, holds testament to it’s growing momentum as a serious enterprise and pioneering British export.
There were a host of announcements at the launch event. A second female racer; a support vehicle partnership with BMW; a fantastic initiative to get school children involved in EV engineering and the unveiling of Battersea Park as the London race venue, amongst others. All great assets to the series, I don’t think anyone could disagree.
What a lot of people do seem to disagree with already, even before it’s been given a chance, is Formula E’s much talked about FanBoost system.
I’ve been a big fan and supporter of FE from the very beginning, seeing the positives associated with the project and the huge benefits it could bring us all in the future. My most obvious area of expertise is technical and operational, but I also work a lot in the business and corporate sector today, talking to different industries about what they might learn from F1 and its methods.
More and more I’m seeing trends where actually in certain areas, namely online and digital, many of these companies I’m supposed to be inspiring are light years ahead of F1, not the other way round…awkward.
As a result I’ve had to look for new examples of my industry leading the way in an experimental digital world that I can share with others and so, as a result, I’ve turned to Formula E as it’s doing exactly that.
Who knows if FanBoost will be a success or not, not even the organisers know that right now? But how about we applaud them for trying to use social media and engage with a young and enthusiastic audience and let’s just see how it goes?
Because my world largely exists around Formula One, the direct feedback I’ve seen has mainly been from F1 fans and it’s not all been that great. That’s not really a surprise. Apart from the fact that F1 fans and insiders alike, seem to be caught up in an era of publicly complaining about their own sport, despite attempts from the organisers to try and address issues that have arisen, they’re almost all looking at FE through their F1 conditioned eyes.
The tag line of Formula E, you might have noticed is “The Future is Electric”, it’s not The Future Of Motorsport is Electric. Motor racing is merely the chosen vehicle, excuse the pun, to help promote the technology and the message that sustainable and emission free motoring is the way forward.
Organisers hope to push that message to the teenagers of today and their families, because they know that they’re the ones who’s minds they need to change over the next couple of years before they buy their first cars. If they’re excited by FE, if they engage with it, feel involved and enjoy it, electric cars become cool. Those kids are not necessarily F1 fans in general, mainly because F1’s ignored them for so long and done little to reach out to them through their chosen channels.
The Formula E city centre event, or TV show, however we choose to take it in, looks like being a thoroughly entertaining experience for people of all ages. It’s not aimed specifically at F1 fans, but there should be no reason at all they shouldn’t enjoy it along with everyone else.
The first thing they need to do for that to happen though, is look at this like a new form of groundbreaking entertainment, which happens to have a personal connection to them through motorsport. Look at it with an open mind, give ideas like FanBoost a chance and see how it all unfolds.
Try not to be negative, but be positive about something that, if it does indeed succeed, could not only make a brilliant and entertaining spectacle, but benefit us all in the long run.
My Ryanair flight home from the Spanish GP on Sunday night was mostly spent poring over various race lap analysis, speed trap data and sector times, amongst other things… that’s right, it’s a rock and roll lifestyle on the road these days.
A few things caught my eye, some I’m still trying to analyse further and make sense of, but one set of figures that stood out for me, was the summary of pitstop times from the race.
The times show patterns forming, many of which you won’t be too surprised at, but there are a few details that surprised me just a little. I’ll refer to all times as the total time spent in pitlane, because that’s how it should be. It’s important to remember that the driver’s as much a part of the team as the guys and girls waiting for him in the box and therefore his entry and exit’s are just as crucial as the speed with which the wheels are all replaced etc.
Red Bull Racing were consistently the fastest team in Spain, as they have been for some time now. They do a lot of work in this area and have some fairly clever technology, combined with their own well choreographed procedures and preparation, to help produce the ultimate stops.
To give one little insight into the levels of detail that teams at this end of the grid go into, Red Bull use a laser positioning system, mounted on the overhead gantry, that shows the gun men the exact height to hold the guns at, before the car arrives in the box. Assuming the driver hits his marks, something they practice lots too, it takes another variable out of the equation, importantly improving consistency.
Sebastian Vettel had the fastest stop of the day at 21.599s seconds, which equates to a lightening quick 2.1s stationary. That’s fast and crucially they’re able to do it consistently at this level and of course it gives them a clear advantage in a race situation.
Ferrari were next quickest with Alonso’s car at his final stop, with a 21.664s and McLaren third with Magnussen at 21.768s.
They’re all very close times, almost unnoticeably different to the naked eye in the heat of battle, but the bigger picture comes when you look at the average times of all stops of each team.
Red Bull’s average pitstop time in the Spanish GP, taken over the 5 stops the team completed, was just 21.796s, now that’s impressive. The crew, including both drivers, are doing an incredible job here, because I can assure you from my own experience, it’s not a straightforward task. You could argue that, as current world champions, they have a very small advantage from their ‘garage one’ position in the pitlane, in that the drivers can approach the box in a straight line, rather than swinging in at the last minute. This may be true, however small the actual time benefit is, but I’ve no doubt they’d rightly argue it was their superior performances of the past few years that have afforded them this extra luxury in the first place.
If we take the other extreme and look at the slowest pitstops from Barcelona, it’s not Caterham, or Marussia, but in fact Sauber, that under performed dramatically in this area.
The team’s fastest pitstop of the day, Gutierrez’s third, was timed at 23.025s, almost 1.5s slower than that of Red Bull’s best with Vettel.
Over the course of the entire grand prix, where both drivers completed three stops, it meant the Sauber spent a full 5.687s longer in pitlane than the world champion, 5.687s not racing at speed towards the chequered flag.
The team’s average pitstop time, over their five visits, was a disappointing 24.452s.
The time spent in pitlane bears no correlation to the speed of a team’s car, the fact the RB10 lapped the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona 1.5s/lap faster than the C33 is irrelevant in this instance. For each stop they both travel the same length of pitlane at exactly the same limited speed and both change all four wheels and tyres each time. The differentiator then, has to be the technology used to change those wheels and the human element of each team’s operation.
Finance clearly plays a big part in the technology side of things, so I’m certainly not criticising Sauber, or anyone else, but it’s interesting to highlight the amount of resource that big teams utilise in this crucial area. It’s easy to see that if you can lose five and a half seconds in a race just in pitlane, without having any abnormal pitstop issues, that to be competing at the front you need to treat all aspects of the pitstop as seriously as you treat the car itself.
At the front end of the grid, teams do have some pretty clever and incredibly well engineered equipment. Crews are being trained extensively in their roles, using video and data analysis. They’re being physically coached, tailoring exercises and routines specifically for individual roles and even recently we’ve seen teams utilising sports physiologists to try and gain any edge they can over rivals.
It’s a development race all of it’s own, but if you’re going to spend millions shaving tenths of a second per lap from your car’s pace, you clearly can’t afford to lose a second in pitlane each time you stop.
As an aside, you might note there’s been no mention of the one team dominating our sport in such intimidating style right now, Mercedes?
Their fastest pitstop on Sunday was well over half a second slower than that of the chasing Red Bulls, at 22.254s on Rosberg’s first stop. The team’s average pitstop time from both cars over the whole race, was 22.776s, a full second slower than RBR’s equivalent.
There could be a number of reasons for this, but the team have not yet excelled in this area historically, despite having had some fairly advanced technology amongst their pitstop equipment.
There is an argument to say that with their current on-track advantage, they don’t need to risk this year’s, extra stringent, unsafe pitstop release punishments and it would be possible to dial in a small safety cushion with the traffic light control software, but looking at the stops myself, they just didn’t look as smooth as they could be. There was also some talk in earlier races that the team’s sophisticated front jacks had been downgraded to minimise risk, whilst they enjoy their current situation.
Whatever the reason the championship leaders’ were only able to rank fourth in the table of fastest stops in Spain, they have more than enough pace in hand to cope right now.
There will however come a time, sooner or later, that Nico Rosberg or his team, can no longer afford to lose the 7.5 tenths of a second longer he spent in pitlane over the race, than closest chasing rival, Daniel Ricciardo did.
Red Bull are coming, they need a big helping hand from Renault in a hurry, but if and when they get it, everything else seems to be already in place and ready to pounce.
Some key figures from the article.
Team average stop times.
The Lotus Formula One Team have agreed a deal to run the Virgin Racing Formula E Team on behalf of Sir Richard Branson’s iconic brand.
The outfit will be headed by Team Principal Alex Tai, who’s been involved in a number of Virgin’s big technology projects. His roles in Branson’s pioneering efforts have included aviation, space travel and racing, so the worlds first fully electric race car series, Formula E, fits well into his portfolio.
Lotus will provide staff from their show car, or demo, team to build and operate the new cars from Formula E’s brand new base at the Donington Park Circuit in the UK. The team will however be branded as Virgin Racing Formula E Team and not have any public association with Lotus.
The Formula One team’s crew, who normally display or run their car at publicity events, have found themselves with less and less commitments of their own recently, as Lotus’ financial and marketing departments have struggled to make ends meet. On this basis, the deal provides much needed extra income for the team, but crucially also helps to secure the jobs of those currently at their Enstone base, who might otherwise have found themselves in a precarious position.
It’s understood that Lotus personnel will operate the Formula E team from Donington, as well as attend each of the 10 rounds of the new championship, launching in September 2014 in Beijing.
Lotus join fellow F1 teams, McLaren and Williams in becoming involved in the groundbreaking new series, something Formula One is watching with great interest.
The Sahara Force India Formula One Team will announce a major new sponsor, Smirnoff Vodka, on Wednesday, adding to the list of partners already signed by the team ahead of the 2014 season.
The brand, owned by parent company Diageo, could appear on the team’s cars from Barcelona onwards and means the UK drinks giant now has two of its major brand names in Formula One at two different teams. McLaren still count Johnnie Walker as one of their official partners.
The deal is thought to have been formed with a clause in Diageo’s part buy out of Vijay Mallya’s United Spirits Group last year and crucially therefore, may not actually bring much, or anything, in the way of financial revenue to the team directly.
For Mallya, the initial sale of just over 25% of the company’s shares brought much needed debt relief and for Diageo, access to a huge distribution network across India and the emerging markets.
There’s been lots of talk recently about the way Mercedes have managed to create themselves an advantage with their simple, but clever, installation of the power unit within the overall packaging of the W05 F1 car. They do seem to have done a wonderful job, although one might also ask why the other two engine manufacturers and their teams didn’t manage to interpret the regulations and associated challenges in the same way?
The more interesting situation, for me, is how they’ve managed to emerge so far ahead of even the other Mercedes powered teams, who all have the same hardware, including the split turbo arrangement revealed recently.
McLaren for example, undoubtedly a top team with some quite brilliant talent in the technical departments, should be expected to be considerably closer than the two seconds a lap delta we saw as the safety car pealed back into the pits with ten laps to go in the Bahrain GP.
Many have spoken about the advantage for Mercedes of being able to integrate the design of the power unit and chassis installations more closely than other teams, although clearly Ferrari have this same advantage, what exactly does that mean?
I’ll use the example of McLaren as that’s where the bulk of my personal experience lies.
For many, many years McLaren were considered to be the Mercedes ‘works’ team and that brought with it some considerable benefits.
The designers in our drawing office at the team worked so closely with their counterparts at Brixworth, that they considered themselves colleagues. They met regularly and spoke on the phone on an almost daily basis, discussing ideas and thoughts about how to improve both sides.
From the software side, a really key area in F1, the same applied. We found clever tricks in engine management and mapping, and the flow of information, although very carefully kept secret from the outside world, was shared and developed openly between the two companies.
We, as the team, had the unconditional backing of Mercedes Benz and no expense or effort was spared to make sure we had the best possible chance of success. We were one team.
Today of course, things are very different. Those practices are exactly the sort of thing going on inside the Mercedes team and one of the reasons for their slick operation.
Back at McLaren, they’ve found themselves in a tricky situation.
McLaren are now nothing more than a customer of Mercedes and that brings with it a very different working culture. On top of that, the decision makers at Brixworth are all too aware that Honda have themselves very much embedded within the Woking based outfit ahead of 2015 and need to be very careful about just how much information they share.
Having spoken to people at both squads, I understand it’s been a difficult relationship to get right, particularly given the long-standing and deep-rooted history between the two. It’s not just about a corporate relationship, these are the same people who’ve spent years working together as close ‘colleagues’ and friends, who all of a sudden are having to deny access to certain areas of the building or to certain files on their systems.
The upshot of all this is that Mercedes find themselves in a very good position, not just with their current car, but moving forward too.
They have the huge advantage of being able to control the rate of development of their customer teams. The key hardware may not change and I’ve no doubt that engine contracts stipulate some levels of parity between them and everyone they supply, but where they have the edge, the significant edge, is the ability to control the release of vital update information to customer teams.
It may not sound like such a big deal, but of course updates from your engine partner can have major ramifications on other areas of the car and they can take time to react to.
McLaren, for example turned up at the Jerez test in February with their new car, to be effectively handed a brand new set of exhausts from Mercedes with little prior warning. The update, a much, much smaller, more tightly packaged installation, of course has huge benefits to the team, but only if you’re able to design the rest of your ancillary layout around it. Then, and most importantly, the rear bodywork can be remodeled to give massive aero gains.
Until now McLaren have had to live with what they have. They’ve had small staged upgrades in various areas, but such a major change is not the work of five minutes. In Bahrain the car ran with so much space between the exhausts and the bodywork, I’m told you could fit a small suitcase in the gap. That’s unheard of and unacceptable to F1 designers and something that clearly isn’t present on the W05. They, of course knew the new exhausts were coming as soon as the idea was conceptualised and could fit it neatly into their new car many weeks ahead of the others.
McLaren will arrive in China this week with a big aero upgrade to address the issue and it’ll be interesting to see if it helps to close the gap to the front.
The bottom line is that Mercedes do have the best power unit, that’s down to great work from their engine team. They have a great car delivered by the many technical experts at Brackley, but perhaps the biggest advantage they have, are the unrestricted open lines of communication between the two.
They’ve also steered themselves into a position of considerable power over the teams that should be their biggest and closest rivals…their own customers.
What exactly goes on inside a Formula one team over the course of January and February as they head all too quickly towards the first Grand Prix of a new season?
Having been part of a number of pre-season campaigns, I can assure you it’s a hectic spell.
Most people head back to work after the Christmas break with a sense of trepidation, knowing what’s about to hit them and there’s really nothing that can prepare you for what this time can throw at you.
Often the very early days of January can actually be a little slow and tedious at times as the mechanics wait for the first car to be delivered into their racebays. Most areas of the factory are flat out, desperately trying to meet tight deadlines, but until the race team get their hands onto a new chassis, there’s only so much they can do. Having said that, there’s always pit equipment that needs making or adapting to suit the new car, things like radiator or brake duct fans etc, so there’s certainly no chance of anyone getting bored.
Once the first chassis arrives from the carbon shop, which is actually normally chassis 02 because 01 is the one that gets put through the FIA’s crash tests, the mechanics get their first look at what they have to work with.
The first few days are spent inspecting, adjusting and then pre-fitting some of the basic new parts that are available. It’s rare that all of the components are ready ahead of the chassis, just waiting to be fitted. Things move so quickly in Formula One that the first iteration of any new component can often be superceded by an updated version before it ever even makes it onto a car. That can mean a frustrating time for mechanics as they wait for the drawing office or production to create the part that might be holding up the fitting of other items in the build.
By the time we get to September, a familiar race car can perhaps be built up from scratch in around 24 hours if need be, but in January, when parts are scarce and some need modifying to fit properly, it can take a couple of weeks to get together.
Often, mechanics will spend days building up the steering and suspension components, fettling them to fit and operate perfectly, only to have to then strip the whole thing back down again to send the chassis off for modifications or to be painted. It might seem silly to carry out all that work, only to have to ‘undo’ it, but the first time things are put together is when the majority of any problems or areas of improvement are found, so it’s best to take the time at that stage and get it right. That way, in theory, when it comes to building up the painted car in preparation for the first test, it should go together correctly.
Any modifications to parts or the chassis obviously need to be mapped and fed back into the system to ensure that future components all come out to the same modified specification moving forwards.
One of the milestones of any new car build, particularly this year, is the first engine fire up and gearbox shift check. When McLaren fired up the MP4-29 for the first time last week at MTC, almost the entire factory gathered around the racebays to hear the new sounds and witness the dawning of this new era of Formula One.
Not only is it a test of the new engine, or power unit and gearbox, but it’s the first test of most of the new onboard systems too. Engineers from the team and engine partner crowd around laptops and pore over data, whilst mechanics check for leaks, correct clearances of moving parts and general working operation. The process can take all day, as gremlins are ironed out in software, mechanics prepare the car, the engine’s pre-heated, factory exhaust extraction systems are hooked up and everyone involved is 100% sure that their bit’s ready to go, before a slightly nervous gearbox mechanic presses the button on the starter for the very first time.
Once that bit’s successfully completed and the swarms of people dissipate from around the car, the mechanics are left to continue preparations which include fitting the car’s carbon fibre floor and attempting a first set up on the team’s measuring table. This is not only a chance for the team to implement the base set up onto the car, including things like camber, caster and toe angles of the suspension and steering, ride heights etc, but also the first opportunity for engineers to corroborate real life measurements and weights to those predicted in the design process. Hopefully, nobody finds any surprising results at this stage, but it’s not unheard of.
As the first test draws nearer, everyone’s working towards a deadline which is normally the last point at which the trucks need to leave to reach their destination, this year Jerez. In that time, the car, all of it’s spares, which are limited at this stage and any associated equipment needed to run the test must be finished, checked, tested and loaded onto the team’s trucks.
In the days of big fancy press launches, it was obviously the target to have the car ready to unveil for that date, ahead of the test. Whilst the banks of photographers lined up to snap the new challenger as its cover was pulled off by the drivers, I’ve known more than one occasion when the car was actually far from finished underneath the shell, even on one occasion without an engine under the bodywork, not that anyone noticed.
Usually, on the night before the car leaves the factory, finally in its near complete state, it gets whisked away at the last minute to be professionally photographed in a studio to enable the team and its partners to use the glitzy photos for promotions and to release to the media the following day.
From then on it’s into the unknown as the car hits the track for the very first time. From here on in no one knows what to expect. Everyone of course has high hopes, but until a driver gets in and begins to wind up the lap times after the first exploratory days, things could go either way.
The mechanics and engineers work long hours, even with the benefit of today’s night shift systems, as they check and change parts constantly, strip everything each evening for crack checking, or to swap components as used bits get returned to the factory for inspection. It’s at this stage that any faults or signs of wear are recorded and used to implement a strategic lifing system for rotating the car’s key components during the course of the season.
This year, more than any other, every team heads to Jerez and Bahrain not knowing where they might stand. The new technology has already caused headaches, particularly at this early stage as reliability issues mean lots of extra work for the guys and girls in the garages.
F1 cars are designed to be built in the factory and go quickly around a race track, they’re not designed with much thought for mechanics constantly having to change bits during January and February, so it will be a very long and very hard twelve days of pre-season testing in the life of a Formula One race mechanic in 2014.