Air and water are both fluids and they behave in similar fashions as they flow around obstacles. The design of F1 cars, as we know, depends on efficient aerodynamics and we tend to think of designers in this field coming from the world of aerospace. But, those who study the flow of water can be just as useful. The current Technology Director of the all-powerful Mercedes AMG Petronas team, Geoff Willis, is a case in point. His F1 career began 26 years ago when he began to do some consulting work with Leyton House Racing, which was then under the technical leadership of a young Adrian Newey. The team had a consultant who also consulted with Britain’s America’s Cup consortium at the time, known as Blue Arrow. This had built a startlingly different kind of yacht to all the other challengers, known as “Radical”, for obvious reasons. The hydrodynamicist on Radical was Willis.
An engineering graduate from Cambridge, Willis had worked initially for the scientific research association known as British Maritime Technology, which had previously been a government institution. Based in Teddington, it studied all manner of different things, many of them secret, such as the design of submarines and torpedoes. While he was doing his research work, Willis also gained a PhD in Engineering Science from Exeter University, specializing in hydrodynamics. A while later he was approached by Blue Arrow and asked to join the design team. Unfortunately, Radical was rather too radical and in October 1988, while doing test runs off the coast of Falmouth, the vessel hit a large wave, while travelling at high speed. The bow dug into the water and the yacht pitchpoled, fracturing the hull. The boat was not rebuilt.
The design process had, however, introduced Willis to the new science of computational fluid dynamics, using computer models to simulate fluid flows and thus it was that he became a valuable person to Mr Newey. It was a short-lived relationship because after just a few months Newey was fired by Leyton House (just before the cars came good) and he landed at Williams. He called in Willis and so Geoff joined the team full-time and when Adrian left for McLaren in 1997, Willis became Chief Aerodynamicist of Williams and from there went on to become Technical Director of BAR and Red Bull Racing before landing at Mercedes in 2011.