Carbon and computers are today’s tools, but at Renault F1 the men who wield them have the same skills as ever
By Rob Widdows
Oxfordshire is motor racing country. Three of the 11 teams on the Grand Prix grid are within what an estate agent might call ‘an easy drive’ of the city of the dreaming spires. There’s Honda in Brackley, Williams in Grove and then there’s the ING Renault team.
Tucked away down a little lane, in fields near the village of Enstone, is the racing pulse of the team that won back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006. The engines come from France but the cars are designed and built in a low-key facility that you’d miss if you didn’t know it was there.
In a previous life this was Benetton, the united colours of the floor in the staff canteen left behind by the team that gave Michael Schumacher his first title. A great many of the staff came from Benetton too, and from Toleman before that. And this goes a long way to explaining the atmosphere of camaraderie, the sense that this is a close-knit outfit.
The man with the mind-boggling task of keeping this ship close to the wind came up the hard way, the way Flavio Briatore likes it, as a mechanic, getting his hands dirty and staying up all night for Toleman and then for Benetton. These days John Mardle sits in an office, grapples with his wall calendar and keeps a thousand balls in the air. He’s reached that point in his life, as many mechanics do, when he had to come in from the road, re-acquaint himself with his wife and children.
“My job is to make sure everything is perfect, totally planned, by the time the guys poke their heads out of the trench at a race,” he begins, “and we all have one aim in life – to make the car go faster. There’s no politics here, we all know each other, we all work together and there’s a very clear mandate, to win races, and that ethos is in all of us.
“I was a mechanic, from leaving school to working with Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, and they know that – there’s a mutual respect. OK, I’m in charge, I’ve come inside, and I had to make that shout after 20 years in the pitlane, but it’s the same thrill, the same buzz, the same passion. We all have the passion, even though it’s more serious now than it was in the early days. We had 25 people at Toleman when we started, there’s 500 and something here now.”
To be precise, there are 537 men and women at Enstone. To put two racing cars on the grid on 17 weekends each year, at a cost of about 300 million euros (some £208m) per year. And that’s not counting a further 200 people at Viry-Châtillon, just south of Paris, the facility where Renault assembles its race engines.
Renault’s Grand Prix history stretches back 100 years. Latterly the cars have been designed and built in England, with drivers from Spain, Italy and Finland. But there remains a Gallic influence, not least the commitment of the board in Paris and team President Bernard Rey. There is a certain lack of absolute formality, a chink in the armour that surrounds so many contemporary GP teams.
“Yes, this is a real working factory, we work hard and we have some fun,” smiles Mardle. “At Benetton we were the first to play music in the garage – Ron [Dennis] was next door and he hated it, asked us to turn it off, but Flavio told us to turn it up. Flavio is a great delegator too – he gives you the job to do and lets you get on with it. He trusts people to do a good job, and we like that. Sure, he comes to see us, reads the riot act when he sees fit, like he gave us a big kick up the arse in the winter of 2004/05 when he brought Fernando in. He’s hard but fair, and he wants to win.”
The management style at Enstone is reflected in the bonus scheme. When the team is victorious the entire staff, including the cleaners, share the payouts. This could be one of the factors that creates an air of contentment within the corridors at Enstone where people smile at you, open doors for you and patiently try to explain the innards of an automatic gearbox made from titanium and other precious metals.
“A mechanic’s life is different these days,” says Mardle, “They still spend about 140 days a year away from home but the all-nighters are few and far between now that the cars have to stay in parc fermé overnight on the Saturday. I remember walking up the hill to my hotel in Monaco at seven in the morning, having a quick shave, and then walking back down again at eight to get the cars ready for the warm-up. It was quite usual to go without sleep. But in those days we were always fixing things, making things. Nowadays you don’t really fix a Formula 1 car, you change the car, fit new bits. The car that’s launched in February bears no resemblance to the car that starts the first race of the year, and so it goes on throughout the season. You have to understand, there are 6500 drawn parts on each car, 900 separate items in the transmission alone and we make about 750,000 parts in the factory in a typical season. We produce 70 per cent of the car here in the factory; the other 30 per cent we source outside, and we’re always striving to reduce the amount we put outside.”
This is a team that is accustomed to winning, two years on the trot with Fernando Alonso, and then last winter there was punchy optimism that changing to Bridgestone tyres, losing Alonso and promoting test driver Heikki Kovalainen would not conspire against them. Some even said that 2007 was Giancarlo Fisichella’s last chance to prove that he has what it takes, to come out of Alonso’s shadow and formally be the number one driver. Executive director of engineering Pat Symonds admits he was concerned at losing his double World Champion driver to McLaren but said he saw many of the same qualities in Kovalainen that he had seen in Alonso, and in Senna, with whom he worked at Toleman. But it hasn’t turned out that way, the team struggling to get near the pace.
“Yes, but it hasn’t brought the place down,” says Mardle. “We have all had to dig deeper, work harder to resolve the problems – and we’ve had to speed up development, design and make new parts even faster, reacting to the information that gets passed back to us from the testing and from every race weekend. Now we focus on next year’s car; even now Nelson Piquet Jnr is pounding round Jerez, evaluating new parts, the test team reporting back every day. We know what went wrong and we know how to get it fixed.”
The last three races of the season take place on the other side of the world, completely changing the logistics. The trucks are back home, unpacked, washed, polished and resting in the Oxfordshire sunshine – redundant now that the endless trips across the Channel are over for another year. The brave new world, one increasingly ruled by bureaucrats from Brussels, no longer allows the team’s truck drivers to drive the trucks.
“Odd isn’t it?” laughs chief truckie – sorry, number one support crew – John Massey. “We do miss the driving, and this new Magnum,” he says, looking around the airy truck cabin, “is state of the art – 500bhp, fully automatic eight-speed gearbox, air conditioning, leather seats, built-in fridge and a couple of decent beds. And now they’re taken to the races by agency drivers because the new EU working time directive says we can’t drive to the race, then work at the race and then drive back again. Funny thing is, most of the agency guys are race team truckies who gave up the job and then came back to it with the agency. Now they take the trucks to the paddock, wash them and fly home again. Then they fly out on the Sunday and drive them back for us. So my job is now garage and systems support, setting up in the pit lane, fuel rigs, building the garage and then looking after the engineering and data team, keeping the generators going, stuff like that. And there’s plenty going on – we take five trucks to a race, that’s just for the race team. The engineering truck, with its 65 data screens, the car transporter, the garage support systems, the fuel rigs and systems, the support truck and then a smaller rigid that scoops up all the toolboxes. Then there’s another five for the catering operations. That’s a lot of freight.”
Getting the picture? This is 21st century Grand Prix racing, or the world going mad. But, as they say, if you’re going to do it you may as well do it properly.
Back inside the factory the fabrication shop, the machine shop and the stores are all pulling together – day and night – to keep the show on the road. It feels pretty much like any other manufacturing business really, smells the same, looks the same apart from the heavily-guarded wind tunnel. And it’s not manically, obsessively clean – more a race shop than a private hospital, with kettles, coffee cups, dodgy calendars and radios playing. Hidden away in a corner of the fabrication shop, surrounded by pictures of his Bentley and his snapshots of the Peking to Paris rally, sits Robin Grant. He’s making an oil tank for the 2008 car.
“I make lots of bits and pieces, it’s what I do,” says Grant in his languid public school drawl, clearly puzzled by why a magazine wants to pry into his world. “I’ve always made things. I reckon I can make anything out of metal, but this is very much precision work; you cannot afford to make even the smallest mistake. Every single part is checked and checked again, but yes, you are aware that whatever you may be making has to be absolutely precisely to the drawings, every weld perfect.” Except when he’s racing his beloved Bentley, this is Grant’s domain, working away in a busy area of the squillion-dollar jigsaw that is a GP team.
“We make 70 sets of exhaust systems during a season. They’re hard work, very labour intensive, and they’re changed after every race. We make about 30 radiators, fewer than we used to now they’re further away from an accident, and then there’s the oil tanks, the tea trays [forward section of the floor between the tub and front-wheel axis], the brackets, the ballast weights, the brackets for those, and so it goes on. Eighteen people with me, day shift and night. What else would we do? We like making things, there’s always something new coming along.”
Next door, in the machine shop, 41 men are working seven days a week, day and night, to produce the pieces that will go together to make up the new car for 2008. In charge of this reassuringly noisy, oily and gritty area is another ex-mechanic who came indoors after a decade on the road with March and Toleman. He’s Jeff Fullerton, whose first race as a Formula 1 ‘spanner’ came at Monaco, a notoriously difficult place for mechanics in those days. “A baptism of fire,” he laughs, “and I reckon I can handle anything after that.
“We machine about 30,000 components in an average season, such is the complexity of the modern F1 car, and the trick is to get it done fast while always getting it right. Getting the right kind of people in here is important and we’re lucky in that Oxfordshire is a good area for racing people with these kinds of skills, and attitude. The emphasis is on quality and luckily we have a happy workforce, and they help each other when we’re under pressure, which we often are with new developments constantly coming from the wind tunnel.
“At this stage of the year we’re into a lot of experimental stuff as we move into the build of R28 and as developments come from the wind tunnel. We have machined 35 carbonfibre nose boxes so far this year, not to mention the ever-evolving wishbones and all the ancillaries that go with that. When I was a mechanic in Formula 3 we had one nose box, and one spare, for the whole season.”
So who on earth keeps tabs on all this outpouring of components, some for the race team, some for next year and some for immediate dispatch to a circuit on the far side of the planet? Stores, of course, just like in a big old-fashioned motor dealership of days gone by. “They want it – we’ve got it,” says Renault’s stores manager Peter Aldridge. “They make it, they inspect it and we store it, that’s the way it works. I know every single piece of the car, I could build you one,” grins the former Benetton mechanic who looked after Michael Schumacher on the test team. “And things haven’t changed as much as you might be thinking. The basics are still the same – washers, spacers, nuts, bolts, brackets, springs, valves, hoses and more washers. There are about 3000 car parts in here, plus tens of thousands of other bits and pieces. I’m really not sure exactly how many, but they’re all numbered, all bar-coded and logged in the computer. The mechanics come to me and say: ‘You see this bit, well I don’t want this bit, I want the bit that goes with it.’ That sort of thing goes on every day, typical mechanics.
“Getting the right parts and pieces to the races is obviously vital; it’s crucial for us not to miss anything out when the trucks go from here. We get late calls, of course, like all racing teams, and then someone has to get on a plane, stuff the bits into their hand baggage. There’s a list of guys who don’t mind doing this, we call them the visa victims. The real difference with racing stores is that we only make what we need. Every race brings up different demands, different calls, so we make and store what we’re sure we need.” He gestures at row upon row of bins, boxes and shelves. “Brake ducts and brake shrouds, they’re always in demand, they get damaged and they’re constantly changing the detail of the design. I reckon we’re on about our 24th or 25th different brake duct this year.”
Every job has its perks and Aldridge treasures his memories of working with Michael Schumacher. “He took time and effort with you, he made sure he got to know you, and he never forgot you. I remember one year, we’d all been to the works Christmas party and then we got called in for a seat fitting, it was late at night, and Michael was there of course. He gave us all a signed wristwatch.
“We’d been testing right up till the Christmas break in 1994 and we all wanted to get back home. We were tired and we told Michael we’d like to get back soon as we could. He said ‘OK, as long as the work is done, we can go’. Then, after lunch on the last day, the car suddenly stopped half way round the lap, out of our sight, and we thought ‘Oh no, more stuff to fix’. But, when we went out to bring the car back. Michael was nowhere to be seen. We looked in the cockpit and there was a card on the seat – ‘Happy Christmas from Michael’ – and we could all pack up and go home. Nice one, that.”
So do they miss Fernando? You bet they do, and not just because of those bonus payments. A racing team loves a driver who gives his all, lap after lap, race after race. Mardle, like so many of his men, is a fan, a racing enthusiast still, after nearly 40 years in the business. “There’s three I’ve worked with who stand out,” he says. “Senna was out on his own, I think, and Schumacher was the first to get to grips with what I call the PlayStation era, to grasp the new technology, while Fernando is more gritty, a more animal character, a truly natural driver who is very cool under pressure.”
Would Fernando be back at Enstone next season? We didn’t know then and there were shrugs all round. But they wanted him back, no question. The rumour mill had recently been working overtime in Brazil, declaring that the deal was already done, that Alonso had signed, been bought out of his unhappy contract at McLaren-Mercedes.
The love of racing, the thrill of the chase, the love of their work just oozes from these people. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life, it’s almost life itself. Sir Jackie Stewart, chairman of the Grand Prix Mechanics Trust, says he considered his mechanics to be better at what they did than he was at what he was doing.
“I’ve always said that the mechanics were the only real professionals in the sport,” he told me recently. “Most of their lives were dedicated to the job. You can’t say that about drivers, or team owners, and they don’t get the recognition they deserve. Drivers get the glory but the mechanics give you the equipment, and to finish first, first you have to finish. And they are the same animal today, the same quality of people, they are the heroes. Life has changed, there are not so many all-nighters, the hours are better, but still the great tradition of mechanics continues.” A day at a racing factory supports this view.
As you read this, a month before the Christmas break, all eyes at Enstone, and at Viry-Châtillon will be focused on closing the gap to Ferrari, McLaren and BMW. Meanwhile in Maranello, Woking and Hinwil another few hundred people will be hell-bent on keeping Renault, and everyone else, firmly behind them. It is relentless. It is Grand Prix racing as we know it today, and pretty much as it’s always been. But now with more people, more technology, more money – just like the rest of life on large parts of the planet.