Testing plays a huge part in today’s Formula 1 programmes, and it’s a seriously high-tech business. Rob Widdows joined BMW Sauber at Catalunya and marvelled
There’s nothing new about testing. But then there are precious few aspects of motorsport that can be described as new in the sense of changing the world. That is not the sport’s primary objective. One of the raisons d’être of racing is the pure, unadulterated competition, a man in a car against another man in a car. Racing.
These days, however, motor manufacturers are keen to stress the importance of improving the breed, passing such things as carbon brakes on to you and me. More importantly, they understand the urgent need to engineer a more environmentally friendly form of everyday transport. Racing, they say, at the extreme level of modern Formula 1 at least, will produce a greener, less demanding vehicle. But more of that later.
I am reminded of a conversation with Denis Jenkinson in the mid 1980s. Jenks was a man who said what he thought, spoke of things as he found them. “Motor racing is nothing more, nothing less, than a reflection of the world that is going on around it,” he said, “and what we are seeing, and will increasingly see, is more commerce and more technology.” He was right, as ever. Here was a man, a motor racing addict, who kept his enthusiasm under control when it came to what he perceived to be the dilution of the sport, the racing itself. “I am not at all sure about the computers, the gadgetry,” he said – this a man who loved all things mechanical – “and the way grand prix racing is going reflects the way the world is going; that is more technology, more computers and less individuality.”
He was right again. My memories of these conversations lead me to believe that he would have been much impressed by the cleverness of the modern racing car, but not by its correctness, its character confined by restrictive rules and CAD/CAM programmers. Jenks had, after all, seen wings, aerofoils, sequential gearboxes and Heath Robinson wind tunnels – notably with Mercedes-Benz and Porsche before the war – but he was not to be around to witness the full impact of the computer age.
Much of my early life was spent standing in a cold and draughty Goodwood pitlane, sheltering under the tin roof, watching racing cars pound round in pursuit of that extra tenth. When Ken Tyrrell brought a young Scot called Jackie Stewart to Sussex, he sat on the pit counter, stabbing at his stopwatch, lap after lap, scribbling the thoughts of JYS onto his note pad. When Jack Brabham came from Chessington, the punchy little Brabham-Hondas on a trailer behind a van, he drove, stepped out, made an adjustment and drove again. Japanese mechanics fiddled with springs, dampers and roll bars, peered up the exhaust pipes and nodded excitedly.
Things got really technical when, one winter, McLaren arrived with the Can-Am cars. The long, fast corners were a test for Robin Herd’s aerodynamics, the huge power of the Chevrolet V8 demanding that downforce be applied to the big, wide Goodyears. Bruce and Denny covered hundreds of miles. Airflow over those wide orange decks was crucial, Herd sticking pieces of blue thread on the surfaces to see which way they blew in the wind.
Nelson Piquet and Gordon Murray came to Goodwood with the Brabham-BMW. Nelson flung the car round, making short work of the straights, slamming over the kerbs and cutting corners to stop the watch in under a minute. This was getting serious, and the F1 teams migrated to the wide open spaces of Silverstone.
Much of my time last month was spent trying to understand what I had seen standing in the heat, and sheltering from the thunderstorms, at the Catalunya track near Barcelona. The grands prix themselves are the tip of the iceberg. Days like these in Spain are the huge part that remains underwater, under wraps that may not be penetrated by those who are invited to watch, or rather gawp, boggle-eyed at what is taking place. This is where races are won, or lost. This is where engineers engage in their constant quest for a tenth of a second. Or less. A sneeze can move a car five places up or down the grid.
No amount of racing success if ever likely to impress that breed of motorist for whom a car is merely transport to office and supermarket. However, there are manufacturers, especially those involved with F1, who believe that intense competition will result in significantly leaner, greener and more efficient road cars.
The BMW Sauber F107 is rocket science, Nick Heidfeld the test pilot. He has his daughter Juni’s thumbprint on the back of his helmet: there is humanity among the technology. Oddly, the bearded German’s image appears clean-shaven on the shiny white expanse of the test team truck. A rare lapse in attention to detail for the Bavaria Motor Works squad. Surprisingly, nobody has so far been tempted with a paintbrush.
A large team from the University of Very Bright Young Things looks after every single breath taken by this racing car. If you have a first-class degree in aeronautics, or gravitational physics, you will understand what they are doing when they go testing. If you do not, you can only watch in awe and try to get your head round what is happening. Today much time will be spent on perfecting the traction control and some new aero parts.
“I’m looking forward to being without the TC,” says Heidfeld. “It will be easier to make mistakes, yes, but it will be more exciting and the quick drivers won’t be any slower. Niki Lauda said a monkey could drive an F1 car now, but he spun when he tried the Jaguar. Is not so easy, you know.” So what does he need from the test? “More top speed, Ferrari is way ahead, and some progress with the TC.” And what has he found on this, the first day? “Nothing I should tell you,” he smiles, and climbs back aboard the car.
There are 35 people here, working out of four enormous trucks. The car sits in the pit garage like a patient in an operating theatre, connected by strange umbilical cords to computers that send and receive huge amounts of data every second. This car cannot move a muscle without it being recorded, downloaded and diagnosed. Eleven studious men sit at computers in an adjoining room, glued to their screens, occasionally reporting via headsets to the team’s head of track engineering, Mike Krack, who oversees the test. Heidfeld has just returned from three flying laps of the recently revised Catalunya circuit.
“I killed the tyres on the last lap,” he reports, speaking slowly, calmly and quietly. “The TC is coming in too early – I think I pushed the problem button. There is oversteer on the exit of Turn 3, the TC is better there but track conditions have changed since the last run.” Notes are made on a clipboard and keyboards are tapped next door. “You were five or six kph faster on the entry to Turn 3 that lap, looked like a big moment,” reports a disembodied voice from a computer station. They are analysing one particular corner of the circuit in intense detail, diagnosing what the car is doing, and why. Heidfeld is asked to re-set one of the many controls on the steering wheel. ‘Go to five’ is the command. Then he steps out, lifts a rear tyre warmer to inspect the rubber, and goes into a huddle with his engineers. They plot the next few laps.
“This is our interface with the car,” explains the electronics man, showing me round the steering wheel. “On this interface we can control the engine revs, the traction control and the fuel mixture, and there is a menu of programmes for certain other situations.” He is not prepared to expand on that. I comment that there is no room for any more buttons unless they remove the BMW badge from the centre of this console. “We have to keep that there,” smiles my guide, reaching for his laptop to make another software change. The layout and the colours of the controls are unique to Heidfeld, his fingers going to the buttons like a touch typist, no room for hesitation. A different steering wheel will be used when team-mate Robert Kubica drives the following day. Even the hand grips are moulded for each driver.
“We may find a tenth today,” says Mike Krack, “but probably so will Ferrari and McLaren. We have new parts to try; the car is already completely changed since the launch. We have new aero parts since Bahrain, new suspension, but then so have the others. Every time we gain, they gain, and it’s hard to close that gap, even though it’s hundredths of a second sometimes. This car is good, but if you start with a bad car one season, if the basics are wrong, then it’s tough. I’ve never seen a bad car become a good one during a season when you’re racing every two weeks. We have a feeling when a car is good; engineers are also human beings you know, and this car is good,” he smiles.
The driver is seen as just one of many input sources. His comments are just one element of the data being collected. They are isolating a balance problem in one particular corner, focusing on the data from the aerodynamics, the suspension, the characteristics of the new Bridgestone tyres. “You take the good drivers for granted,” says Krack. “You only realise they are useful when you have one that is less good. A driver will not lead development, he is one part. We are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the track and at the factory, changing parts overnight sometimes, sending data to the factory once we’ve analysed every detail at the end of each day. We are the end of a chain here; we get the glory when we win, the blame and the shame when we lose, but it’s all a huge team effort.”
Heidfeld prepares for another run, adjustments to the front wing and changes within the seamless-shift gearbox completed, computers ready to monitor the car once again. A command from a laptop fires the engine. “Prepare for leaving now,” the driver is told, his gloved fingers setting controls on the steering wheel, or interface. The faintest clunk and the BMW Sauber F107 is rolling, turning right along the pitlane. Engineers return to their computers, Krack heads for the pitwall.
“Can be faster in turns two, seven and nine,” a matter- of-fact voice reports, then silence, the coloured graphs and graphics dancing up, down, left and right across the bank of screens. “TC too late now,” Heidfeld reports. “You do the diagnostic?” he asks, calm as you like from the cockpit at 240kph. And so it continues through the day, stopping when the rain is torrential, grabbing food and coffees when they can. In the breaks the mechanics eat well, stoking up on healthy salads and pasta in a marquee behind the pits. Their hands are clean, most of the changes to the car being made within the software programmes. There is not a toolbox in sight, though somebody produced a screwdriver to adjust the front wing. A lot is happening but so much of it is invisible to the untrained eye.
The modern racing driver receives constant attention, too. Joseph Leberer is a graduate of the Willi Dungl school and looked after Senna and Prost at McLaren before he came to BMW Sauber. “It’s hard work in the car,” he says. “They never rest, unless it’s Monza. It’s not comfortable in there, it’s a tight fit, the seat is hard, the car is stiff and they are strapped down with five belts. So I warm him up before he drives – some massage, some cardio for the circulation, some physio on the joints and muscles. It’s vital to be fit, to have health in body and mind. Nick is very precise about what he wants, he’s quite relaxed and we have a routine we go through before he gets into the car.”
After three days, a fraction of a second is found in a new front wing. The test team packs up and hauls out towards the French border, bound for Hinwil where the race team is preparing to leave for the race. They will pass each other on the autoroute, job done for one, job to do for the other.
The 21st century racing car is a bewildering beast, a beauty that bristles with all the secret functions of new technology. Admired by many, understood by few. Next year traction control is banned, but the bright young things will find plenty more wizardry to occupy their minds. Leaving Circuit de Catalunya I pass Juan Manuel Fangio standing by his Mercedes-Benz, cast in bronze. I wonder what the maestro would have made of the modern grand prix car. We can only guess. But Jenks would probably say it’s just the way of the world today. A world in which cars on the grids are separated by cat’s whiskers