The current kerfuffle over engineers in F1 has, albeit briefly, shone the spotlight on the complexity of a modern F1 operation – something which many fans do not even begin to appreciate. They may read that a modern F1 car has more than 5,000 different parts and that wind tunnels work around the clock, testing new versions of a Formula 1 car, but there are an awful lot of other areas which are completely invisible to the people in the grandstands, or those watching the racing on television.
I cannot remember which F1 team boss used the example of the swan to describe his F1 team, but it is a good analogy: the swan may glide effortlessly and elegantly across the water, but beneath the surface its legs are paddling furiously in all directions.
Designing great racing cars has not been the work of a single talented individual since the suck-it-and-see days of the 1920s. Individual engineers are never slow to take credit for the work of others and a healthy ego is usually the sign of a good F1 engineer, but when you stop and think about it, it takes more than that to spend the vast sums that are sunk into F1 cars these days. So it is not just about getting the man who can conceive a demon rear wing. It is about infrastructure, industrial capacity and perpetual innovation. It is about new ideas round-the-clock and instant analysis of these, using computational fluid dynamics as well as wind tunnels. It is as much about rejecting ideas as it is about finding them.
There are many unsung heroes – and indeed heroines – in this process and the importance of their contribution is lost in the adulation that is heaped on the drivers and the top engineers on the pit wall.
And it is not just about designing better parts, it is also about testing and manufacturing them as quickly as is possible, so that good ideas go from concept to racing car with the smallest possible delay. The cars that appear at the races are forever changing. The chassis may remain the same, but many other parts are changing from week to week. They are snapshots in time, the latest iterations of developing themes. Think of it this way: by the time any F1 car accelerates out of its garage it is already out of date.
Production is the most under-rated area in the sport and, in a world where engines are frozen and aerodynamic rules are tight, some of the most exciting breakthroughs in F1 in recent years have been in the production field, with new technologies slashing the time needed to create and test new parts. Much progress has been made, for example, in the injection moulding with composite materials and even when old-fashioned lay-up techniques are still being used, the lay-up men are being guided by laser projection machines, saving further time and reducing errors. These ideas are reckoned to have increased the production of a chassis by an impressive 62 percent. This also means that – in theory – every chassis is identical to its siblings.
The sport has been using computer-guided multi-axis machine tools for many years, but until recently there were still jobs that neither these nor advanced casting could achieve. Solid free-form fabrication techniques have changed that with stereolithography, laser sintering and more recently direct metal laser sintering leading the way. The easiest way to explain these is to use the popular expression “3D photocopying”. A designer can create the most complicated machinery with fancy internals but until now it was impossible to manufacture them without compromises. Today, computers can tell a laser to trace a cross-section of the part in a vat of liquid photopolymer resin or in a powder bed and layer by layer the desired part will emerge as each layer of material is fused to the next by the heat of the laser beam.
Teams used to test tens of thousands of such parts in their wind tunnels, although CFD has now taken over some of that work, which means that today fewer parts get beyond the virtual stage. The same methods can be used for rubber and metal components as well. There is beautiful design work going on everywhere. Engineers are always on the lookout for the next new thing, to enable them to build smaller and lighter machinery, while wind tunnels and simulators are like the racing cars, in that they are in a constant state of upgrade.
Keeping track of all this, plus having overlapping design teams, means that F1 operations can swallow up large numbers of engineers and all of them will be kept busy, so comments about teams having too many chiefs and not enough indians are not always as correct as they might seem from the outside.
Designing a great racing car is the work of a team, and because of this secrets do not remain secret for long. The quickest way for a rival team to learn new technologies is to offer the chief designer of a fast car a better deal. If he stays where he is, then rivals make offers to his acolytes, offering them more money, or fancier titles. As the size of the teams have increased, so knowledge has spread faster and faster.
The speed of development is highlighted by the fact that the law courts now refuse to allow engineers to be benched for more than six months because they will fall behind and their employment prospects will suffer. Thus was born the concept of gardening leave.
As teams have grown in size and complexity, so they have had to adopt more corporate structures, which was not easy given the rambunctious nature of racing teams of old. In the old days the boss knew all the names of the people working for him and they were loyalties that do not exist today. Some teams have tried to introduce corporate concepts such as succession planning, which relies on identifying and developing the talents of younger team members in order to have them prepared to fill key positions as and when these become available. The danger of this is that they will trained up and will then disappear off to another team if they have to wait too long. So a lot of teams have not bothered and simply hire the best engineers they can get, when they need new talent. This means that company loyalties are undermined, as those in the hierarchy question whether they should stay, rather than assuming it is the best thing to do, as they once did.
The remarks made yesterday by Ross Brawn about having a fall-back plan with Paddy Lowe taking over from him if he leaves is all very corporate, just as is Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche’s hedging of his bets by having an exit strategy (in the person of Toto Wolff) as well as the “Silver Arrows” glory plan.
However, such fall-back plans only work if the information stays out of the public eye. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that if what Brawn is saying is true (and his remarks have been faithfully reported) Lowe is now unemployable by anyone other than Mercedes, because no F1 team in its right mind is going to hire a technical director who will take off at a moment’s notice, with all his team’s secrets.
But what goes around comes around. While getting Lowe may be a good idea, it will mean that some of those at Brackley will start to wonder if it is really worth staying where they are, or whether their best career path is to head off to other jobs in teams that might appreciate their talents a little more, and give them better chances to win, more exposure – and thus better earning potential.
So, yes, F1 fans see the F1 teams as swans, cruising elegantly from one race to the next, but they are all going hell-for-leather under the surface.