Unwanted experience

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Designer Frank Dernie laments the disappearance of the practical career path for talented young engineers that he followed

The first involvement I had with F1 was a little bit of suspension geometry optimisation for March at the time of the 721X, the infamous low polar moment of inertia car. From that I learned that a low polar moment of inertia makes bugger all difference, and you shouldn’t waste five minutes on it! 

I started travelling to grands prix in 1976, with Hesketh, and I joined Williams in January ’79. I spent the first two hours waiting outside in the snow for Patrick Head to turn up with the key! After spells at Lotus, Ligier, Benetton (where we won the championship with Michael Schumacher) and Arrows I went freelance. I worked for Lola on Champ Car and sports cars for a while, and returned to Williams in 2003. I left again in January this year, and I’m now on six months’ gardening leave.

The biggest thing that’s changed over the years is the amount of money that’s come into the sport. My opinion is that the roots of motor sport are technical – Louis Renault built his racing car and drove it himself. Over the years the sport developed, and it became a pretty good spectacle in the seventies. Some very clever people exploited it, and it’s been to all our benefits. Unfortunately now the marketing people seem to think that motor racing is a marketing exercise.

The people who used to watch the sport in the old days and for whom it was a great spectacle were the real car fans, and I still think they should be the people that motor racing should pander to.

One of the problems now is that there are lots of people in powerful positions who think that one-make formulae are a good idea. But the fact is that a one-make formula isn’t good for driver training, engineer training, or designer training. Even Champ Car has died for that reason. I don’t see any value in one-make formulae, and from a technical point of view, it’s a great detriment.

When I first started there would be one or two people in an F1 team’s drawing office, and now there might be over 100. But the problem is that people who design racing cars nowadays don’t know as much as the people who used to do it. There’s less general knowledge about racing in drawing offices, because there’s nowhere to train any more.

People used to come into F1 from companies like Lola, March, Reynard or Ralt. Those places were marvellous training grounds for designers and engineers. F1 teams get loads of letters every week from graduates asking for jobs. I used to say why not contact March or Reynard? If you can get some experience there, write back to us. That’s no longer something you do. 

To some degree it comes back to the one-make formulae. If you’re not allowed to upgrade a car for three years or whatever, then nobody can afford to pay the salaries of the model makers, designers, or suspension engineers who would do development parts, or develop the next year’s car.

Effectively, most of the remaining constructors, with the possible exception of Dallara, no longer employ designers. They might have one key guy who stays on, and then three years later they hire a bunch of contractors to do the next one-make car. It’s a tragedy in my view that there is no longer any sensible training. It’s just not possible to get a breadth of experience any more, coming out of college, being a junior, taking on a small car, then a big car, and eventually becoming chief designer – that career path doesn’t exist.

There’s no shortage of young guys with good degrees who are desperate to work in motor racing, and you can train them to do what you want them to do. The problem is for them to get any experience before they get in. And of course they don’t actually know what they don’t know yet!

Current and future generations of technical directors don’t know as much about racing cars as they should. Someone might have superb aerodynamic qualifications, then he becomes a technical director, and all of a sudden he’s at a race meeting.  Then something goes wrong, and everyone’s looking at him saying, ‘what should we do now?’ 

There’s absolutely no chance that he’ll have any idea what to do. He’ll learn, but the problem is that rather than learning when it’s not crucial in his career, the first opportunity he has to learn is after he’s become technical director, which means the first mistake is probably a catastrophe.

As for my own future, F1 is the only thing I know how to do. I will miss not being at the races, and I think I can offer a big contribution to a team. There are several major teams that could use the knowledge I’ve got about running cars and trying to win. But those that need it don’t necessarily realise that they lack it – and those that have that knowledge don’t need me!