How Ferrari recovered its old energy

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Now in his second spell at Ferrari, Englishman James Allison is a key cog in the team’s bid to get back to regular winning ways… but there are other, broader reasons for its recently improved form

The cull was bloody last year as Ferrari finally succumbed to the accumulated pressure of years of dashed hopes, of aspirations made folly by hard reality. But behind the headline firings and the playing out of Italian politics, there was a tight core of technical staff held together with calm authority by the slightly offbeat Englishman James Allison.

Now, what do you know? The 2015 Ferrari has proved a huge improvement on the mediocre F14T, doing in its second race what its predecessor had failed all season to come anywhere near – ie win. In Malaysia Sebastian Vettel inflicted the first fair and square defeat upon Mercedes since the hybrid formula came into being and the signs are that it just might be a viable world championship contender. The transformation came after the management cull – Marchionne in place of Montezemolo, Arrivabene replacing Mattiacci – and naturally the two things are being linked.

But actually, the transformation would likely have happened anyway, as it was largely about the technical changes already initiated and overseen by Allison.

In September 2013 he was re-recruited to the Maranello factory at which he’d worked in the aerodynamic department between 2000-05. He’s a guy that wears his stature lightly, a purist of an engineer, a reluctant front man in many ways, possessed of quiet strength and a competitive core; he’s made of the right stuff to prosper, even within the intensity of F1. He claims never to lose his temper and has a shyly affable, slightly quizzical outlook and there is absolutely none of ‘the big I am’ about him. He understands deeply the notion that he’s only as good as the people around him and has developed over the years an increasingly big-picture perspective of how to organise and get the best from those people. He makes no secret of how enormously influential the technical management style of Ross Brawn – under whom he worked at both Enstone and Maranello – has been upon him. “Ross had a very light touch in how he directed you,” he says, “and I try to emulate that. There are lots of very talented people here and my role is to identify how to distribute the available resource and energy for the maximum gain in performance – and that’s something else Ross did exceptionally well.”

Allison joined as technical director, having fulfilled a similar role at Enstone (under Renault and Lotus guises), bringing his trusted chief of aerodynamics Dirk de Beer with him. The scale of challenge came to him in stages. What first struck him was the vicious circle the pressure of performance had imposed upon the design and aero teams. “There was a culture of throwing everything onto the car as fast as possible after finding its shortfalls at the start of the season. It was a manic development cycle where everyone was under big pressure and that would take focus off the following year’s car, which as a result would begin the year off the pace, triggering the whole process all over again.” Allison brought a calmer approach. “If I’ve had any effect it’s to try to say which bits are worth lots of effort to make sure the pressure has been taken off people to deliver things and to work with a slightly longer timescale in mind. That frees up your hand to do a good job. It’s very hard to do anything in F1 in a two- to three-month timescale. You have to build a programme over months and years, and not weeks.”

But however much Allison’s calming influence had a positive effect on a team predisposed to emotion, there was also the fact that the F14T was so badly and obviously flawed it was always going to be relatively easy to make a big improvement.

The timing of Allison’s arrival meant he had no direct input on the philosophy of 2014’s car, though even before the season began it was clear that Ferrari’s knowledge of turbocharged direct injection engines was far from the cutting edge. Nor was there any significant hybrid expertise in-house, in contrast to Mercedes. Two basic flaws were designed into the 2014 car and neither could be rectified: 1) In the trade-off between aerodynamics and horsepower, Ferrari had failed properly to reassess the new authority of engine power under this formula. The design was skewed around maximising aero performance, just as everyone had done in the naturally aspirated era. So low heat rejection figures were prioritised, minimising the size of the radiators and shrink-wrapping the car around them. That in turn forced compromise upon engine power. 2) The turbo-compressor-ersH layout and size was hopelessly inadequate. As a result the ersH could not recover anything like enough energy. This was understood even before the season began, but such were the engine homologation regulations that they were stuck with it for the year.

The two most fundamental flaws of the old car were therefore easy fixes for 2015 – and so the performance jump was always going to be big, regardless of which management team was in charge. The actual influence – good or bad – of the management changes in the team’s fortunes will only be seen over the longer term.

With the performance authority of the power unit reassessed in the concept of the SF15-T, a big part of Allison’s task now became to invigorate a somewhat battered and bruised engine department, the chief of which, Luca Marmorini, had been lost in the panicked cull of the old management. Mattia Binotto assumed his former boss’s role and was encouraged by Allison to be bold. “Having realised we were off the pace on the engine side, the vigour with which the problem was attacked has really been a splendid thing,” says Allison. “We’ve got good performance there and they’ve had to do that a) by showing a lot of engineering skill and b) with a huge amount of courage, because engine stuff has an extremely long lead time and if you make a mistake you pay for it forever. Compared to a chassis person, engine people are, by necessity, more conservative. But they were extremely courageous and we are benefiting now from both their skill and their courage.”

Modifying the turbo/compressor/ersH layout – the obvious change they would like to have made last year, but were prevented from doing by the regulations – brought significant gains, as did increasing the size of the compressor. The aerodynamic pain of doing that was counterbalanced by a highly original piece of technical thinking: the exhausts are routed through a hole in the gearbox casing (see illustration, below), taking them through a far less aerodynamically damaging route than the conventional layout.

There was original thinking in last year’s car too, but it was misdirected. For example, the space in the gearbox casing now used for routing the exhaust was previously used to house the oil tank. This had been an intrinsic part of the old car’s aerodynamic philosophy; moving the oil tank from between the rear of the cockpit and front of the engine allowed the engine to be shunted forwards within the wheelbase, creating a bigger diffuser venturi. This cleverly attempted to use the extra length of the gearbox casing – which had been necessary to create the longer wheelbase needed to accommodate the extra components of the hybrid units – for a secondary benefit. It turned out not to be achievable because the necessary volume of underfloor airflow could not be generated from the front of the car to take full advantage. For 2015, with the oil tank relocated to the conventional position, and the exhaust routed through where the tank used to be, that extra gearbox length has still been utilised to form a benefit.

Allison guided his team into creating a more aerodynamically benign car, with an emphasis on consistent downforce through a range of yaw angles, ride heights and rake angles, even at the expense of theoretical peak downforce. At the same time the engine department was working in close collaboration with Shell to create a more knock-resistant combustion – the absolute key to engine power under this formula. Together, the efforts of the engine, aerodynamic and design departments have created a powerful, benign, driveable car that Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen can lean on with confidence – and which is kind to the delicate Pirelli tyres.

This latter feature characterised the James Allison Lotuses of 2012/13 and, just as surely as those cars contrasted sharply with the dominant Red Bulls in their traits, so the SF15-T does with the Mercedes – and in much the same way. The Allison Lotuses and this Ferrari each struggle to generate tyre temperature quickly enough for the one lap of qualifying, but come on ever more strongly through a race stint as they hold onto their performance for longer than the qualifying pace-setters. There is a complex tyre mechanism driving this pattern, one that has allowed Allison to create competitive cars relatively quickly by following a slightly different philosophy.

Essentially, the Pirelli control tyres define much of the cars’ limit. Beyond a certain point, more downforce creates tyre stress that limits stint lengths. The quality of the tyre puts an artificial ceiling on the benefits of more downforce. The extra downforce still delivers better one-lap pace, but beyond a certain point the benefits of that extra pace are negated by the shorter stint lengths needed because of the greater tyre degradation. Many times Red Bull would have to sacrifice some one-lap pace in its set-up in order to get competitive stint lengths. Now Mercedes has arrived at a similar point under the current formula. Just like the title-winning Red Bulls, the Merc is the outright quickest car but is now at that awkward point where accessing that performance in both qualifying and the race is exceptionally tricky – and leaves them vulnerable in the race to an Allison car with a much rounder, more accessible performance profile. Essentially the Lewis Hamilton/Sebastian Vettel Merc/Ferrari contests in the early part of this year are re-runs of the Vettel/Romain Grosjean Red Bull/Lotus contests of the latter half of 2013, with Vettel this time in the Grosjean role, terrorising an ostensibly faster car through better tyre usage and Hamilton in the former Vettel role of trying to eke out his car’s greater performance sparingly.

At Lotus Allison’s constraint was budget. At Ferrari it has been time. In both instances he’s circumnavigated his constraints by configuring cars around the delicate traits of the Pirellis – a simpler and cheaper thing to do than creating from scratch a car with downforce levels that would work the tyres harder but give the track position advantage of starting from pole. In the longer term, he can build up the resources and initiate the programmes that might allow Ferrari to create such a car (if he decides it’s preferable), while the competitiveness of this simpler car takes off the immediate pressure.

Certainly budgets are not a concern here, Marchionne reportedly having allocated an extra £150 million to the team this year – and the development programme coming on stream for this car is aggressive, and excites Allison. The new-spec engine, using the token system to reconfigure the cylinder head, is set to make its debut in Montréal and reportedly has an extra 20bhp over a unit that is already vying with Mercedes as the most powerful. If there has been a benefit of the managerial changes it has been in creating a mercurial, transitional environment, with old boundaries knocked down, new habits not yet formed, the bravery of a new broom. In this environment, it’s probably been relatively easier for Allison, as someone entrusted with the responsibility of improving things, to get pretty much anything he has requested.

Certainly, he gives the impression that much of the cull might have been necessary. “Any changes like that are not done lightly and not easily done, but they are done looking to the long term to try to make sure we have a team of people that we know can build for the future and just make us stronger month by month.”

His excitement at what’s coming is palpable. “There is something absolutely fantastic about this team. Every team works hard but at Ferrari they work especially hard and also have history and tradition bearing down on their shoulders. Everywhere you go in the factory there is evidence of their massive success in the past. Anyone who works there in a period when it is not successful is sort of cowed by that fact. They have that and then they have the weight of expectation of an entire nation and those pressures are something they soak up. And then when those pressures are released, boy does it feel good!”

With everything still malleable, roles not set in stone, everyone feeling their way after the cull, it has created the vacuum of opportunity for Allison to mould things the way he wants them – at least within whatever limits to his autonomy have been defined by the management. There is a deeper part of being in technical charge at Maranello though – and perhaps the most challenging one. Right now, he’s delivering. He’s turned things around, got the Scuderia back on the curve. But when things are going less well – as inevitably happens to all teams – the support, patience and autonomy he receives from the management will define whether this is the dawn of a new era for the Scuderia, or just a short-term flash. If Marchionne is wise rather than merely clever, he will recognise how these dynamics work and what his relatively small – though crucial – role should be.