That’s the mantra of the 92 men who work into the night at every Grand Prix to get the Renault team onto the grid. We went to China to see what the TV cameras don’t show
By Rob Widdows
In the People’s Republic of China this is the Year of the Pig and, for the ING Renault F1 team, it has been a pig of a year. Accustomed to winning in recent years, the Anglo-French equipe has struggled to find the sweet spot through a long and arduous summer.
In Japan it rained, and on a track awash with streams and puddles Heikki Kovalainen drove well, had some luck, and was the first Finn home, ahead of the one in the Ferrari.
Now, in the heat and humidity of Shanghai, there is a touch more optimism, especially as typhoon Krosa is heading our way and rain is forecast for the race.
“Yes, how appropriate. Certainly in terms of performance, race results and the championship it has been the year of the pig,” says Pat Symonds, the team’s executive director of engineering. “But you must always look for the good sides of everything and there have been lots of positives to take from this year. I know every team spins up the positive side,” he smiles, “and while I’m not proud of what we’ve achieved on the track, or that we produced a car that is sub-standard, I am proud of the way the guys at the factory have handled the problems and discovered their root causes. I’m certain we’ve solved them now, so we don’t go into next year with similar concerns. So there are some positives; maybe it’s been a piglet of a year, rather than a pig.”
And the prospect of an imminent typhoon with some heavy rain for the race on Sunday? “Well, let’s not get too excited,” says Symonds. “Some luck came our way in Fuji last week when three cars in front of us were eliminated. I say I don’t believe in luck but things do happen that are outside your control and we did handle the race well; we looked for the opportunities and we grabbed them when they came along and we should be proud of the outcome. But it could just as easily have been us in the barriers and when you’re dealing with aquaplaning you’re in the lap of the gods… or the pig.”
And, looking ahead, beyond these last two races to a new season with the new R28?
“It is going well but it’s taken longer to get it right than I thought it would. I know we’ve solved the aerodynamic problem but you have to understand we’re sitting about seven or eight months behind the rest in development time. And that means we have to double our rate of development – that’s the target we’ve set ourselves. And unless we can achieve that we will start with some kind of deficit next year. Right now I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be back where we should be but there’s a long way to go yet before we have to define the final parts for race one, and a lot of work to do over the next four months.”
Symonds, well known to television viewers for his articulate and straightforward statements, is one of the famous faces of the Renault team. But here, in Shanghai, there are 91 other souls striving to keep the show on a long, and challenging, road that keeps them away from home for 140 days each year and which adds 125,000 air miles to their itinerant existence in this huge travelling circus. By October they are tired, just a little tetchy, the heat and humidity of this penultimate race adding to the strain. But the man in charge of logistics, Geoff Simmonds, shows no sign of the enormous workload, smiling and joking his way through the long days and nights. They call him Tigger, what else?
“I guess the motto is ‘get on and get it done’,” he laughs, “but here in China that can be difficult, there’s just no sense of urgency – you know, setting up ahead of the race we need things done now, not tomorrow, not the next day, but right now. We’ve got 32 tons of freight to unpack on the Tuesday, having just arrived from Japan, then there’s the garage to set up, the engineering suites, the offices for the team, the communications back to base, the links with the circuit – making sure Flavio [Briatore] has got a phone line where he wants it – the marketing area, the catering, all the fridges, the tables and chairs, the cables, the electrics, the hydraulics for the garage. Then there’s the cars to unpack, get them built and fired up so the mechanics can start their work, and so it goes on.
“But we’re a good team, we make it happen together, and it’s my job to make sure all the different areas come together and that it all works. When the cars go out on the grid on Sunday afternoon, there’s a huge sense of achievement, we’ve all pulled together and made it happen.”
He pauses, still smiling: “And there’s always something new, like today we’ve got a problem with an aerial on the pit roof. The access is locked up and we need an interpreter to explain to the man with the keys that we need to get up there and sort it, quick.
“But there’s a bond between us – we’re all away from home, we look out for each other. Here, we’re seven hours ahead, so if we’ve got to get something from England we need to know as soon as possible – so we get as much done as we can early in the week – and, of course, we lose a day coming from Japan.
“What you see on the TV is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many people relying on each other and in this team we’re probably the strongest bunch of guys. Some of that stems from Flavio; he has quite an informal style, he likes the music on in the garages. When we take somebody on, he has to be the kind of guy who, when he’s finished his own jobs, looks around and sees what he can do to help someone else. And that’s how we work, how we beat the tiredness and get through the programme so that the cars are ready to run on Friday morning.”
In the pit garages the cars are taking shape, from bags of bits in boxes, to gleaming Grand Prix machines once again. Number one mechanic on Giancarlo Fisichella’s car is Greg Baker, or Cleggy to his mates, and he’s one of three people on the car – a man on the front end, a man on the back and him in the middle, half an eye on the whole assembly.
“It’s the best thing in the world. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a boy,” he begins, with a grin, “but it’s not the glamorous life everyone thinks it is. It’s not just standing on the grid on a Sunday; there’s a lot of hard work involved. The sport has moved on, the electronics have changed our job massively, especially regarding the amount of information downloaded from the cars now.
“But it’s still important to have a relationship with the driver. He may not hang around in the garage as much as he used to, but you need to have an understanding, and he needs to know the guys working on his car. He needs to have confidence in them, and in his car. This is my third year with Giancarlo, he’s a fantastic guy. He’s good around the lads who work on the car, he will come and have a chat. He’s a good pedaller too, and we’ve had some great results with him – yeah, we like him.
“I’m quite happy to work all hours, to get as much out of the car as I can, as long as the driver is pushing hard and trying to get as much out of it as he can, too. I don’t mind if they go off in testing, or in practice, as long as they’re pushing and trying to get that last tenth out of the car. Giancarlo’s had three chassis this year and we’ve built two of those from scratch so we know the cars intimately and we have our own little bits on them, our own little bits of finesse that don’t necessarily make a difference but it makes the car your own, you know?”
In the hot, windy darkness of Friday night, glamour gives way to grind. The cars are being prepared for qualifying. Every man has his job to do under the arc lights, the air like a sauna. Gearboxes are being assembled, suspensions grafted on, hydraulics checked and re-checked, everywhere the clang of hammers, the snapping on of sockets, the click of the spanners, a constant blur of controlled activity. From outside in the darkness it looks like a frenetic play being enacted on a crowded, brightly lit stage.
“In this game you have to do it once, and do it right once,” says Cleggy. “You don’t get a second chance, you have to make sure it’s spot- on. Nowadays the pressure is on us. With the parc fermé rules on the Saturday, there’s so little time to get the jobs done. Everybody said the cars would be more unreliable but it’s been the opposite. But it puts a lot of responsibility on the guys; we can’t spanner-check the cars after qualifying now. We can take bodywork off and look at it, but we can’t do all the Saturday night checks we used to do.”
How do their ears stand up to the constant howl of the engines, the mad shrieking of the exhaust inside the garage? “Sorry?” he laughs. OK, I say, I fell into that one. “No, seriously, we have checks on that all the time and, honestly, it’s as much the music as the cars sometimes but this kind of thing is all covered by health and safety nowadays.”
Late at night – it was after midnight when the mechanics bolted on the last few bits – the importance of support from the backroom boys cannot be underestimated. The team works like a huge jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces coming together with support from the adjoining piece. On the edge of an approaching typhoon, half way round the world from home, and just hours away from qualifying, cold drinks and a decent meal make all the difference. And they are always there, on time and on call, thanks to the motorhome crew led by the incredibly cheerful Paul Thompson and his mate Mick Wilson. Half of a team of four that goes to the European races, these two characters live side by side on the road from March to October. No trucks to bring in this time and some permanent facilities to be fitted out rather than a build from the ground up, but then there’s shopping in Shanghai to give them a little challenge.
“Yep, you just gotta get in there, get it done; the guys want food and drink as soon as they get here. It can be a problem, but we have an interpreter and there’s a Carrefour supermarket in town these days so we can get most of what we need. We forgot the mint sauce in Japan and, I tell you, that was serious. We got some stick for that; the lads weren’t too happy to get their roast lamb and find there’s no mint sauce. That’s the kind of thing that annoys you when you’re tired and far from home,” says Paul, who clearly loves his job, his way of life on the road, which he came to after working as a truck driver.
“People just don’t realise the scale of Formula 1 as it is now,” he says. “We move about eight tons of sea freight on top of the 30 tons of air freight for the cars and the garages – it’s the same wherever we go but here we don’t have the trucks of course, so that’s a bit easier. There’s a strange kind of normality to it in that we work towards the same result, the same look for the facilities wherever we go, there’s a military precision to it all. By this time of the season everyone’s a bit tired, you’ve had enough, but a good result in Japan helped a lot, re-motivated us all.”
Mick, a Glaswegian, was a linesman with Scottish Power before he came to motor racing. “All you see is an airport, a hotel and a racetrack,” he grins, “but you get used to the job and the money’s good. I don’t like Malaysia much because of the heat – we don’t do heat where I come from. At the end of the day you’ve got to get on with it and he and I” – he nods at Paul the guv’nor – “we work well together, get on pretty good.”
This week in China the food arrived early from the wholesaler in the city. “We’ve been rushing round getting the fridges organised; it’s all part of the game. I enjoy the challenge. You have to improvise, adapt and overcome, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t know much about the racing side but that’s an advantage – they don’t want blokes like me just standing gawping inside the garages. Without all these people in the background it just wouldn’t happen and there’s a lot of blood, sweat and sometimes tears.
“You won’t see us on the telly but there’s so much going on to get all this up and running. We know what we have to do, and in what order, and the rest is keeping on top of all the little things that crop up when you’re moving so much stuff around the world. Things break, they get lost, and you have to react. It’s good when the team is winning, and we all felt better after Japan.” Later that night Paul and Mick are still tramping back and forth between pits and their hospitality base, heaving boxes, wheeling crates, fixing gas leaks, refreshing the lads on the front line. It’s an army on night exercise.
Friday practice, effectively a test session for qualifying on Saturday, was not a huge success. There is tension in the air when Kovalainen’s car stops out on the circuit in the afternoon session, a fuel coupling fault leading to a total loss of fuel pressure. The radio traffic is rapid and abrupt, yet somehow there remains a calm discipline, no panic. Conditions for calm are not ideal: the air temperature is 31 degrees, the humidity 73 per cent and the track temperature is climbing towards 40 degrees. But they get the car back, after frantic communications with race director Charlie Whiting via the engineers on the pit wall, and the coupling is fixed. Kovalainen waits patiently at the back of the garage, sitting in the little glass-fronted grandstand where sponsors and VIP guests can watch the action and listen in to the team radio. It seems extraordinary that no other team has copied this innovative marketing wheeze.
Saturday is little better. The R27 is simply not on the pace in the dry, the team opting for a wet set-up in expectation of typhoon Krosa on Sunday. They’re not as quick as the Renault-engined Red Bull and that’s the ultimate slap in the face. Fisichella has been chasing a handling problem that was only sorted at the end of third practice and he missed the cut by two hundredths, equating to just a metre around the 3.4 mile track. He will start 18th on the grid. Things were a little better on the other side of the garage, but not by much. Radio traffic comes and goes in staccato bursts, everyone sounding a little tense.
“OK mate, how much quicker can you go?” asks engineer Adam Carter with precious few minutes left to run.
“I can do P10, best I can do,” crackles Kovalainen against a background of gears changing down, zap, zap, zap.
“Can you take less wing?”
“OK, we take 0.5 off. Front wing goes to 20.5 – confirm. Steve Larney tyre sets 405 and 412 ready, please. We are P14.”
“Sure, I can do better than that,” comes back from the car, this time drowned in a bestial scream of acceleration.
Quickly in, new tyres, pressures adjusted, front wing adjusted, and quickly out. One minute left. But it’s not fast enough.
“First two sectors are as fast as I can go,” reports Kovalainen from the slow-down lap. “I went wide after 11 and 12, picked up some dust, had to back off, then the last one was a vain attempt to get the time back, but it all went wrong.” That’s it, finished, Heikki had run wide over the rumble strip at the final corner and the lap was gone. P14, and now they can only wait and see what tomorrow brings. Cars to parc fermé. Job done.
Denis Chevrier, head of engine track operations at Renault, is downbeat. “A big disappointment – we have not made our job any easier with today’s performance,” says the vastly experienced engineer who looks after his engines wherever they go, whatever team is running them. “These days we speak with data, that is how we communicate, not French or English, but with data. Formula 1 has changed, is changing, and the rules are getting stricter, with less opportunity for creativity,” says the man who loves his engines, loves his motor racing.
“For sure, we are not pleased with the changes, with the need to re-tune our engines to lower revs for this year, and with the limit of 19,000 revs. But honestly, I don’t think the new engines have been a factor in the results this year. The weight of the engine stayed the same, and the centre of gravity too, so the influence of the engine in the global behaviour of the car is not huge. Maybe we lost some horsepower compared with our competitors in the tuning to 19,000 revs, we don’t know, but this cannot explain the difference this year. We cannot look inside other engines, we cannot know these things.
“You must see the engine, anyway, as part of a global package that is the car. There is no magical formula. There are so many things to consider with an engine, and next year we have a standard ECU. And this is not fair; there is no reason to be pleased, and it means a huge amount of work, and all for an engine that will not be as efficient as it is now because there will be no traction control. It’s a challenge, it’s demanding and it will be slower, for sure, but still competitive.”
Sunday morning and time to practice pit stops for the second time this weekend, the same routine every race, seeking perfection in every kind of scenario. On the front jack is Garth Harradine, a South African who came to England to realise his boyhood dream of getting into Grand Prix racing. Now he’s the matador who stands in front of the bull as it charges down the pitlane at up to 60mph.
“It’s a dynamic thing,” he smiles. “The first few times I was nervous. But it’s about confidence. You’ve got to stand your ground – and what will be, will be. The law of averages says that one day I’ll be run over, but there’s a lot of other guys there who expect you just to go ahead and do it, get the job done, and touch wood it’s been alright. You get a 40-second call – that’s when you see us run out there – then a 20 second call and you see the car coming at you. You feel more secure in the dry; the wet is a bit of a lottery, and it’s a physical thing, it’s changing all the time until the car stops. Then there’s six guys waiting for me to get in there, three on each side at the front, and then you wait for the hands to go up and you got to get out of there fast.” The night before he’d been building gearboxes. Never a quiet moment in the life of a mechanic.
The Grand Prix of China was not one for the boys to celebrate before packing up the boxes for Brazil. No points, no prizes for all the graft of the last five days, and beaten by the Red Bull of Coulthard. Kovalainen came home ninth, Fisichella 11th. “The team deserved a better result,” said Heikki after suffering from understeer and low grip in the first stint. “I was quicker than David at the end but not by enough. Now we go to Brazil and we need to go for broke.”
The Renault team is refreshingly devoid of the corporate rigidity that so often swamps teams up and down the modern pitlane. This is a racing team in the purest sense, led by engineers and infused with the love of competition. A serious outfit, yes, and intensely keen to get back to the front. But there’s an informality, a sense of fun, and the barriers around the team are few. By the time you read this the boys will be back from Brazil at the end of a challenging season. With the new car already taking shape, and the test team back in action soon, the passports won’t be put away for long.