The recruitment of a senior technical trio should allow team principal Ross Brawn to refocus on a kick-start for Mercedes GP
By Adam Cooper
There’s no question that 2012 is a crunch season for Ross Brawn and Mercedes GP. Last year the team finished a distant fourth in the World Championship, and while an opportunistic Nico Rosberg briefly led a couple of races, the silver cars were never really in the hunt. Indeed, neither Rosberg nor Michael Schumacher recorded a podium finish.
Given that as Brawn GP the team won the World Championship in 2009, and that the subsequent arrival of Schumacher and the support of the Stuttgart manufacturer promised so much, the performance has been a huge disappointment.
Two years into the Mercedes adventure – and into Michael’s comeback – there has been little sign of real progress. But there’s a mood of optimism in the Brackley camp, and with good reason. Since the start of last season the team has added not one but three big names to the squad. Bob Bell, Geoff Willis and Aldo Costa have all been technical directors elsewhere, and since that job means different things in different teams, they each bring their own skill sets to the table.
Of course, too many chefs can be a problem as well as an asset and the task now will be to make everyone gel. Bell has the day-to-day job of ensuring that the technical department runs smoothly, but ultimately as team principal it’s Brawn’s responsibility to ensure that everything works and that the team puts a more competitive car on the grid. He readily admits that in the past he had too much on his plate.
“If I’m honest I think probably the biggest thing is that the task was pretty broad,” says Brawn of his previous workload. “We didn’t have a technical director and I was carrying some of that role and not doing it well enough because of the need to cover other things. Now we’ve got Bob on board and, particularly with Aldo and Geoff joining us, we’ve got lots of experience at the top end. That’s what’s going to be making a huge difference.
“It was the same with Ferrari. I went to Ferrari and we had Aldo, we had Rory [Byrne]. I know in Red Bull the focus is on Adrian [Newey], but there are some very strong people there. Adrian alone won’t carry it, the same as I can’t carry it. There’s no one that can carry an F1 team from a technology point of view.”
Bell joined as technical director last April after a decade at Renault that included two world championships with Fernando Alonso and a brief stint as team principal in the immediate aftermath of the departure of Flavio Briatore. Brawn says his impact was quickly apparent.
“It was pretty much straight away. Bob was able to give particularly the factory-based staff a day-to-day reference, which is what they were missing with me, because I was going to the races and then coming back. From day one there was a benefit and with the new car we’ve certainly seen Bob’s organisational influence having a strong effect.”
The simultaneous addition of Willis and Costa to the mix could not have been planned, but when they came onto the market – Costa was dropped by Ferrari while Willis became disillusioned with HRT – Brawn jumped at the chance to bring both on board.
“I think any team in the pitlane will strengthen its position when it gets an opportunity because there’s only ever one team winning and the teams that are not winning have to look at improving their situation. Bob and I were looking at how we could strengthen the group and with two people of the strength of Geoff and Aldo available it was an easy decision.
“Geoff fairly quickly identified areas where we’re strong and areas in which we need to strengthen. That is encouraging. With Aldo, once he’d made the decision that he was prepared to come and live in England I was very excited. That move was obviously critical, that he was prepared to make that commitment.”
Brawn is confident that everyone will work together efficiently as they have different job descriptions: in essence Willis is the factory organiser in charge of the wind tunnel and other R&D tools and Costa is the designer, with Bell overseeing both.
“The first level is for Bob to manage and then ultimately it’s me if there are any major issues,” says Brawn. “But I honestly don’t expect there to be. Everyone knows from the very beginning what’s expected of them, what their roles and responsibilities are. I think it’s healthy if there is, let say, an overlap of debate, but not an overlap of responsibility.
“If Aldo has an opinion about something in Geoff’s area of technology I would expect Geoff to listen and respect it. But ultimately that area is Geoff’s responsibility, in the same way that the design of the car and the engineering of the car will be Aldo’s responsibility, but Geoff will have an opinion. It’s fairly well defined.”
The new technical team has much work to do to pull Mercedes up the grid. One of the biggest problems is that during the Brawn GP season the team shrank and Brawn was reluctant to expand it again on the understanding that rivals would have to downsize in line with the aims of the Resource Restriction Agreement.
“I think we moved forward, we just didn’t move forward enough,” says Brawn of 2011. “Perhaps we underestimated the task at hand, underestimated the resource we needed to get the job done at the right level. It sounds a bit like an excuse, but I think we were outdone in various areas where, with more resources, we could have done a better job.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from it. We’ve added strength to the organisation for 2012, but the important thing was to retain the strengths we already have. Fourth place is not where we want to be, but it’s not easy to be fourth. There are a number of teams up and down the pitlane who would be very, very happy with fourth! We’ve got to make sure we keep all the good things that we’ve got in the team and strengthen and enhance the things that need to be improved.”
Mercedes has now increased the size of its production staff, filling gaps created during the Brawn downsizing, when a lot of the work was outsourced.
“Doing work outside is expensive and sometimes takes longer, and sometimes you struggle with the quality. We want to be able to react quickly to improvements which we want to make to the car, and we need to do that in-house.”
The team’s poor form in the first half of 2011 did have one advantage, in that it was able to write-off the season and turn its attention to the 2012 car. While other top teams were also able to make the switch to some degree, given that the championship didn’t exactly go down to the wire, Mercedes did it particularly early. A similar focus on the future during Honda’s awful 2008 season paid dividends in spectacular style the following year, although Brawn plays down the comparison.
“In 2009 there were fairly dramatic new regulations and there’s less of that this year. We’re obviously doing away with the exhaust technology, but there’s easier carry-over from what we’re doing in 2011 to what we need in 2012. It’s a slightly different programme. But we did start the 2012 car as early as we could. Certainly in the last three months of the season we didn’t use much resource at all to keep the 2011 car going.”
While the technical team is new, there are no changes on the driver front, as Rosberg and Schumacher head into their third season together. Indeed the former has now been signed up well into the future, although for the moment, Michael is on board only for 2012.
“I enjoy having continuity with drivers, you can debate about who’s the best. We’ve got two drivers who are more than capable of winning races with the right car and having continuity means that from the day they sit in the new car and drive it we can judge their comments and their feedback without learning how to work with a new driver. That’s very important to us.”
The jury is still out on Rosberg’s ultimate potential, and it remains to be seen whether he can elevate himself to the exclusive club of contemporary superstars that includes Messrs Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton and, after his stellar 2011 season, Button. It’s been hard even for the team to judge Nico against Schumacher.
“You’re never completely sure, and it’s true that the reference of Michael is not an easy one, because he was away for a while. But I think Nico is very, very good. We wouldn’t have signed him again if we didn’t have faith that he was special.
“He’s shown already that in times when he’s had an opportunity to lead a race it hasn’t fazed him, he’s dealt with it. We’ve not managed to keep him there unfortunately, but it’s not been a problem for him. I think he’s first class, and we’re going to give him a car to demonstrate that to everyone in the future. And I hope that we can give Michael a car that he can have a lot more fun in.”
Schumacher was given the benefit of the doubt over the course of his first comeback season as he found his feet again, and while last year there were signs of real spark, Rosberg still had the upper hand more often than not. Inevitably, the clock is ticking – still ‘only’ 40 when he first signed for Mercedes, Michael turned 43 on January 3.
“Race-wise he’s been excellent, first-class. Probably in the first year our expectations were too high, but we didn’t have a great car and coming back after three years is still a mighty challenge for anybody. With Nico in the car as well and obviously demonstrating he was pretty quick, it was a tough year. But I think Michael can take a lot of reward from his race performances in 2011.
“He’s making a massive effort to support the team and do everything he can to make this team work and I think when the team works he’ll be able to take some pleasure from being a part of getting it there. If we give either of them a good enough car I’m convinced we’ll become very excited about the results they’ll give us.”
The danger for Michael is that if Mercedes moves up the grid this year any discrepancy in qualifying performance will be even more apparent.
“Let’s see if we have that problem! You balance speed and experience, and there are very few people as experienced as Michael in F1. I’m sure he uses his experience to the maximum and, as I say, his race performances have been a delight to see. Let’s carry them on in 2012, but from higher on the grid.”
It’s easy to be optimistic now and the real picture will emerge during testing and at the first race in Melbourne. The Mercedes board, who took a big gamble just as BMW and Toyota pulled out of F1, expects results. The burden is on Brawn’s shoulders.
“First of all the pressure is on me, but it’s also on a number of people. One of the good things about the team is that we do share the pressure, and that gives you some strength within the team.
“I think I’ve probably been involved long enough for the pressure to be largely internal. I’m not involved because I have to be, I’m involved because I have a passion for the sport. I have a passion to try and win. So the pressure comes from that.
“As Mercedes we have a strong heritage and we want to live up to that. We want to be able to create some history to be proud of. Mercedes is a world-leading brand and we want to demonstrate that in the field of F1, as well as elsewhere.
“The good thing is that our board members have been involved in motor racing long enough to realise what it takes, that it isn’t a five-minute job and you don’t solve the problems by making chops and changes. I can’t ask for any more than what we’re getting in terms of support from the board.”
If the clock is ticking for Schumacher, it is too for Brawn, who turned 57 in November. However, the sabbatical he enjoyed in 2007 between leaving Ferrari and joining Honda has undoubtedly extended his working life and he’s in no hurry to stop.
“I’ll do another few years, for sure. I still enjoy it, still get out of bed in the morning, still put up with the flights. But there will be a need to pass the baton on, even if it’s in small pieces.
Who knows? You follow your instincts on what’s the right thing to do. I certainly wouldn’t want to be hanging around unless I can contribute something.
“Some of the people we’ve got, Bob, Aldo, Geoff, probably have at least 10 years on me so they’ve got more scope for the future. It will probably be a gentle process and there will come a time. But not yet.”
The tech triumvirate
Brawn’s team of new aides provide much-needed experience and expertise
Age: 53, joined: Apr 2011
An aerodynamicist by training, Bell joined McLaren in 1982 before moving to Benetton in 1997. After a spell at Jordan he rejoined the rebadged Renault team in 2001. He became technical director in 2003 and held that job during Alonso’s title years. After the departure of Flavio Briatore he was steered into an unwanted management role and he left in October 2010.
Age: 52, joined: Oct 2011
From a background in yachting, Willis made his name as head of aero at Williams before joining BAR (later Honda) in 2001, where he was technical director. He was dropped by the team in 2006 but later emerged at Red Bull as technical director and, in effect, no2 to former Williams colleague Adrian Newey, where he played a key and largely unheralded role in creating the structures that allow Newey to flourish. He’s spent the past two seasons with HRT.
Age: 50, joined: Dec 2011
Costa was chief designer and later technical director of Minardi before joining Ferrari in 1995, initially under John Barnard. He was then no2 to Rory Byrne, taking on the chief designer role before the 2005 season. He later became head of design and development and in November 2007, technical director (chassis). He lost the job last summer after the team’s poor start to the season.
KERS gets smaller, better, faster
Power-recovery technology is here to stay, and come 2014 Mercedes aims to turn up the heat on its rivals
By Ed Foster
Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems. They’re a controversial topic. Some teams in Formula 1 have them, others don’t. They’re expensive, and questions about their real-world value still loom large after they were used during the 2009 and 2011 seasons.
But talk to anyone at Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, which supplies KERS to the Mercedes team itself, plus McLaren and Force India, and they’ll tell you that isn’t necessarily the case. The company built the SLS AMG E-Cell power pack, a road-going electric prototype that wouldn’t have been possible without the lessons learnt in F1. It’s also adamant the technology, which harvests kinetic energy from the car’s braking process and turns it into a boost in power available at the driver’s discretion, has greatly improved the racing.
Take the Indian Grand Prix as an example. Michael Schumacher had qualified a lacklustre 12th, but come the end of the first lap he was up to eighth. It was certainly a good first lap, but what many didn’t realise at the time was that those four places were all made up on the long back straight thanks to his KERS. The Mercedes driver made the decision to not use any of the extra 60KW (80bhp) of power off the line, instead deploying all 6.7 seconds of it coming out of turn three. The 11.2mph advantage over cars without KERS – and the 7.4mph gain on those with the system – meant that he could cruise past the Toro Rossos, Adrian Sutil’s Force India and Vitaly Petrov’s Renault.
“The problem with KERS is that from a spectator point of view you don’t recognise the value of the system,” says Thomas Fuhr. The company’s managing director is taking a short break in the run up to the 2012 season to talk to Motor Sport about KERS, and is flanked by Andy Cowell, the engineering director.
“The only thing you hear”, he says, “and the bit that sticks in everyone’s head, is that ‘so and so had a problem with their KERS’. The only time you hear about it is when it’s not working!”
Mercedes may not have made it onto the podium last year, but one place where it is considered to be a market leader is in KERS technology. Indeed, the group in Brixworth in Northamptonshire was awarded the prestigious Dewar Trophy in 2009 by the Royal Automobile Club in recognition of their system.
Mercedes started working on its first KERS in the summer of 2007 – when the components weighed an unwieldy 120kg – so that partner team McLaren would be able to use KERS, competitively, at the start of the 2009 season. By the time the Woking-based outfit tested it in 2008 it weighed 40kg, and by the first race of 2009 it had shed another 15kg. “We are now down to just under 24kg for the entire system,” Cowell says about the 2011 version. Whatever your views on the expense of Grand Prix racing, you can’t deny its ability to improve a product.
There are two main types of KERS – mechanical and electrical. The mechanical version uses the braking energy to spin a flywheel at over 60,000rpm, which is then connected to the rear wheels when the extra power is needed, while the electrical version converts the braking energy into electrical energy and stores it in a battery of some sort. The process is then reversed when the driver needs the extra boost. In 2011 – thanks to the better packaging – every car equipped with KERS on the F1 grid used the electrical version.
“We spent a lot of time working with the Daimler hybrid group trying to understand where they and their technology were at,” Cowell says, referring back to 2007. “We looked at the regulations and it was clear that some of the road car components we could use and others we would have to adapt and evolve.
“Some of the Daimler people actually came to work here on secondment, which was really useful. We’ve employed some specialists, but also a considerable number of the [KERS] team used to work here on things as diverse as connecting rods on engines. They’ve just applied themselves.”
“The challenge was to come up with a hybrid system that had very good power density [storing the power in the smallest space]. In the road car world it’s all about energy density [how much you can store and how far you can go on the charge].”
“The basic problem with hybrid systems,” Fuhr cuts in, “is that they are big and heavy and therefore difficult to package – even in a passenger car. Whatever you can do in terms of getting it as light as possible and the [battery] chemistry as suitable as possible, you are going in the right direction. This is what they’re trying to do on the road car side and what we’ve been doing in F1.
“One of the big challenges was trying to get the electrical energy to flow well without loss. Energy is very precious and the rate at which we wanted to transfer it meant we ended up losing a lot. We’re now running at about 80 per cent efficiency so we only need to harvest 500KJ a lap to have the 400KJ to deploy.” The KJ measurement is what some call the size of the ‘tank’ of energy, whereas the KW figure is the power that is deployed.
Even though there is an energy cap – at 400KJ – KERS is another area on an F1 car that can be improved all the time. As Andy points out, “if you say something’s perfect it’s probably time to retire.” As well as the weight dropping from 120kg to 24kg, the volume has been dramatically reduced.
The first battery pack Mercedes used in 2007 was the same size as a fridge. Although Cowell and Fuhr are not keen to talk about the current system, they don’t disagree when I suggest it is the same size as an Oxford Dictionary. That’s not just the battery pack – that’s the entire system.
However, given there is a specified minimum weight of 640kg for the car, can saving weight and volume really deliver a better lap time? “Reducing those as well as improving the round-trip efficiency does reward you with lap time, but not to a huge degree,” admits Cowell. Of course, if the system is smaller – as it had to be last year thanks to the ban on re-fuelling and subsequent larger tanks – then the packaging is made easier. Even with the energy cap Andy says that a car with KERS has a 0.45-second advantage over a lap on a car without the technology.
Whether or not this advantage is enough to warrant the millions of pounds that have been spent up and down the grid is a matter of opinion. In 2014, though, there will be plenty of changes in F1 and KERS will then become much more important. The V8 engines will be replaced by turbo-charged V6s and more importantly for KERS enthusiasts, the system’s impact on lap time will be a lot more significant.
“The big thing [for 2014] is that KERS will become ERS,” says Andy. “The ‘K’ stands for kinetic – harvesting energy from the velocity of the vehicle under braking – and even though this will still be allowed there will also be heat recovery, too.
“You are permitted to connect an electric machine to the turbine shaft [on the turbo] to recover heat energy that would otherwise go into the atmosphere through the exhaust system. That energy is absorbed into the electric machine and can go freely back into the system.
“With the two processes combined – the current system and the heat recovery – it will have a significant lap-time benefit. Not only that, but you’re not allowed to burn any fuel in the pitlane so it’ll be purely electric power there. The system must be capable of doing that and the battery pack must also be capable of having enough energy and power to do that.
“The other major change for 2014 is that we will be allowed double the power for propulsion.” At the moment F1 teams are restricted to 60KW, but this will become 120KW when the 2014 season gets underway. As well as that the total amount of energy going into the propulsion machine has been increased 10-fold and will be 4MJ rather than 400KJ.
“It’s a nice challenge for us,” says Andy. “As in 2007 there is support coming from our Daimler R&D facility and I’m pretty confident that there will be more road car projects spinning off from what we do in F1.”
When KERS was first introduced in 2009 it was done in order to make F1 more environmentally friendly. Some laughed; however, with the new rules in 2014 including a limit on fuel usage – 100kg per hour – the emissions will be reduced by 35 per cent. This – unsurprisingly – is exactly what the road car industry is aiming for in the same amount of time.
“At the moment,” says Fuhr, “KERS technology is confined to small-volume road cars because it is very expensive. In series cars you just can’t afford it. The rules learnt in F1 do apply to everyday cars, though. Everyone is working in the same direction – smaller volumes, lighter weight, higher efficiency. And the usual process is for a technology to be tested in F1, then fed into the supercar world. After that it does gradually feed back into everyday cars.”
Whether you like KERS or not, it is here to stay. Not only that, it will become an even more important part of F1 in 2014. It’s safe to say that it will also become a more important part of everyday motoring, thanks to the work done by the engineers in F1.