Doug Nye

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Following on from last month regarding my general disquiet with the historic motor sporting world today, there’s another potential matter I’d like to raise. I believe digital data-logging devices are a potential danger which absolutely should be banned from use at historic events – as indeed they are already from Historic Racing Drivers’ Club meetings. 

These data-loggers are undoubtedly clever and undeniably useful little devices. They are certainly a great training aid and, for the owner-driver, using one can most definitely help in achieving exactly what the ads claim: “Better lap times are a constant challenge on any track.” [Our data logger] “offers sports car drivers and motor sport professionals intuitive data analysis systems for recording and analysing laps.” Or: “Get important racing performance data and maximise your track time with [brand name’s] range of data-logging systems. Properly configured data-logging leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of those last few tenths…”

I have no gripe whatsoever about the use of such systems in professional-level competition, or within any area of significant motor sport in which the entire object is pursuit of success within a current category. But where great danger lies is surely within any kind of competition in which a professional shares the driving of any individual car with an amateur. This situation is most familiar to me – because I have zero interest in saloons – within historic sports and GT racing. 

Now I swear upon my bank manager’s life that I am not a worrier. I don’t lie awake at night chewing the bedclothes, fearing for the safety of some lunatic driver I have never met who might be going to smear themselves across the scenery somewhere. But what I don’t like – and I have both heard about it and seen it for myself – is a pro going out to set a time, and then replaying the race data of their best lap to an earnest and eager amateur co-driver before they go out to do their best. The amateur does just that, comes in and the recorded data from his best lap is then compared to the pro’s. 

Doug believes data systems should be banned from historic events

“Aah,” begins the advice. “Now if you brake later there,” or “if you turn in earlier here,” or “you shouldn’t lift for that one” – I am not in the business of naming names, but I have heard some of these things.

Our ambitious amateur, fired up by such revelations – adrenalin pumping, testosterone a-surge – promptly returns to the track, intent this time upon exploring entirely new areas of speed and performance that – in many, many cases – they have neither the natural talent, the experience, nor any sensible right ever to be exploring. Sending a novice on his own to climb Leith Hill is one thing – to climb the Eiger North Face, quite another.

Thus urged on, an over-encouraged amateur can become a menace not only to themselves but to every other driver on track. If they are really intent upon staying up there in those sunlit uplands, trying new and different ways to clamber onto the same performance platform which their professional co-driver has inhabited every race weekend, often over many years, then the amateur sports person’s elastic can certainly get stretched fearfully tight.

The chances of it snapping are hugely increased – and when it does, not only the amateur in question but also every other driver around them, the track marshals and – ultimately – the spectators could well pay a price. That is something we just should not let happen. Or am I feeling concerned for no good reason? 

THIS MARCH WE HAVE the umpteenth edition of the biennial Connoisseurship Symposium at the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, Florida. Miles Collier launched this remarkable four-day ‘brains trust’ back at the turn of this century. Among a number of other presenters Miles made me one of the faculty, most particularly alongside our much-missed friend Phil Hill. The attendees have all been essentially just dyed-in-the-wool car guys, many of considerable substance, truly a world-class cross-section of collectors, owners, restorers, racers… you name it. Each Symposium has shared friendly experience, opinion, attitude, debate, argument – and plenty of it. Every time I have learned so much. 

Discussion has covered an incredibly broad range of topics related to great cars, modest cars, past cars and future cars. Their documentation in print and on film and video has been endlessly debated, plus every conceivable aspect of their ownership, conservation, restoration… It’s all been chewed over. And – I am happy to report – many of the consensus attitudes and approaches developed there have since become accepted as ‘best practice’ standards…

Recently I spent time with the world champion Mercedes F1 team studying a broad range of its hugely successful W-series Formula 1 cars, from the 2010 W01 – with its 18,000rpm 2.4-litre V8 – to this past year’s W09 EQ Power+ – with 15,000rpm 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 (something I can understand) – and associated hybrid MGU-K and MGU-H units (which frankly, I can’t).

But while studying Lewis Hamilton’s stripped-down 2018 W09, chassis 05 – with which he admits to having formed a special relationship – questions arose of conservation and maybe also of restoration of such modern, yet literally historic, cars. 

In this particular machine, the five-times world champion has won the Italian, Singapore, Russian, Japanese, Brazilian and Abu Dhabi GPs. It was in this chassis that he asserted himself upon Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari at Monza, then two weeks later drove his memorable pole lap in Singapore. In other words here’s a modern land-borne flying machine whose exploits rival five-times world champion Fangio’s 1957 ‘Lightweight’ Maserati 250F, of German GP-winning fame. For any thinking life-long enthusiast, ‘W09-05’ now has similarly majestic presence. 

The Mercedes F1 team has a heritage division to ensure cars are accurately conserved

But it’s a moulded carbon-composite car, whereas the Maserati was, of course, a traditional front-engined mixture of welded steel-tube chassis, and detachable hand-beaten aluminium-sheet body panelling. If Maserati, at the end of ’57, had wanted to preserve its great champion’s car in, say, its Monaco GP spec that May, they would have had to make little change to it from its Italian GP form in September.

But today it’s very different for W09-5. If, for argument’s sake, the team decides to preserve the car as it was when Lewis actually clinched the title with his third place in Mexico City, some quite critical changes would be required from its end-of-year Abu Dhabi-winning spec. Should they opt instead for its configuration at Singapore back in September, it would be different again – and for Monza different yet again.

Sure – you might think that must be easy, because we all know current F1 teams change wings and things from course to course, and that must be just a bolt-on job. Well – some items in a spec change are indeed exactly that, but many are anything but.

Aerodynamic development of the W09s has whistled on relentlessly all year. Literally dozens of detail fins and flaps and foils, of underfloor bibs and keels and cascade components project all over this generation of really huge GP cars. The W09’s wheelbase alone is almost 12ft 3in – that’s only five inches shorter than a 1930 Bentley Speed Six’s…

Staggeringly, the wheelbase of Fangio’s ‘Lightweight’ Maserati 250F is a whole 4ft 10in shorter than the Hamilton car’s. And that’s nearly all due, under 2018 rules, to maximising aerodynamic surface area, so critical is this modern demand.

But consider an aerodynamic change merely to the Mercedes’s rear-view mirrors, to enhance airflow around Lewis’s or Valtteri Bottas’s cockpit. The mirrors on recent W-series cars are not mere bolt-ons. Instead, their carbon supports sprout integrally from the moulded monocoque fuselage. Fitting redesigned mirrors entails sawing off their predecessors and then preparing the carbon surface of the tub to receive the replacement. That ruins the thinly applied but exquisite paintwork. The new mirrors are attached using Scotch Weld 9323 bonding agent, followed by a painstaking – yet lightning-fast – total strip, prep and repaint. And that includes the tub’s subtle Petronas side stripes, which aren’t just stick-on decals – oh no – they are actually air-brushed there, by skilled hand…

And then the aero department might come up with a tweak to the barge-boards, or the floor tray finlets, or the underfloor’s leading-edge bib, or to the keel above it. A new tweak that might find some fleeting extra split-second in lap time could entail, say, only a 3-4mm change from what was used the week before. But even that might no longer fit against a neighbouring panel, or with the original underfloor or diffuser. So they in turn must all be modified, remoulded to fit… The quest for lower lap times never ends – so obsolete parts proliferate. Last Thursday’s £250,000 nose wing can become this Monday’s discarded scrap – but race team chief mechanic Matt Deane (who doubles – I think uniquely within Formula 1 – as Mercedes’s Head of Heritage and the Heritage team) ensures that every change and every set-aside component is logged and preserved for potential retro-use in future. 

Once the 2018 cars were flown to Singapore in September they didn’t return to Brackley until after Abu Dhabi in late November. The Gulf states are an important Mercedes market. The cars had to look their best, so pre-race they were stripped back to bare carbon and the team’s painters used a local Mercedes dealership’s spray booth and oven to apply fresh livery… including those air-brushed stripes. After Lewis’s celebratory champagne on the podium, Matt agonised about how to preserve W09-05’s dried rings of splattered fizz. While this world champion team is presently working flat-out for 2019, its tiny heritage unit is just as intent upon preserving its genuine and tangible history.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s