Behind the scenes

We all know that Nigel Mansell won the 1992 World Championship and some of us know that he drove a Williams-Renault FW14B in order to achieve it. Those who are really interested in motor racing know that Renault Sport supplied the V10 engines to the Williams team in order to power the FW14B, and the enthusiasts for the sporting activity of Formula One know that Elf supplied the fuel and oil, Goodyear supplied the tyres, and many other branches of the automotive industry were equally supportive of the whole Williams team. Sponsors such as Camel, Labatt’s and Canon all played their part in financing the team and reaped their just reward.

While the Williams side of the equation was masterminded by Patrick Head and Adrian Newey and their strong team of engineers and designers at the Didcot factory, Bernard Dudot, and his equally strong team of designers and engineers, looked after the supply and development of the Renault V10 at the Renault Sport factory at Viry-Chatillon. Working very closely with the Renault people has been the team behind the racing branch of petrol giant Elf. This close liaison between Renault and Elf has produced spectacular results in the same way that Shell and Honda have worked together for the benefit of McLaren, and Agip and Fiat have worked together for the benefit of Ferrari.

During the 1992 season there has been a lot of misinformed comment about the fuels that are being supplied to the various leading teams. The technocratic journalists who have been writing about such things have been jumping to conclusions, seemingly oblivious of the fact that the specification for Formula One fuel has been strictly regulated for more years than I care to remember. If these fuel specifications drawn up by the FISA technical commission contain loopholes, it is not the fault of the fuel companies if they take advantage of the situation, especially if research in the laboratories has developed ingredients not previously used, though still permitted by the written regulations.

It is like trying to write regulations for airflow and aerodynamics to cover all future research and development in the wind tunnel. Written regulations can only be compiled from today’s confirmed knowledge; you cannot legislate for what might happen. Obviously chemical research by people like Elf, Shell, Agip, BP and others has got ahead of the written regulations, even though the specification of their fuels complies with the existing rules. It should cause no surprise if the regulations are reviewed for the near future.

What has incensed most of the people in the fuel and oil industry, a very powerful group, is that FISA has acted prematurely and rather too hastily, without suitable consultation, in publishing new rules for fuels, and it has made some pretty wild statements. This has caused Elf to come out with a very serious document explaining why it is challenging FISA in public.

First of all, Elf states its history, having come into the sport in 1967, which means it is one of the newer firms. People like Shell, BP and Mobil have been around for much longer, some of them supporting motor racing since the dark ages. Brand names of fuel and oil have been connected with racing from way back before my time, and I imagine even Bill Boddy cannot go back to the advent of fuel company support, but that is by the way. Since 1967 Elf has been a strong supporter in all manner of ways and for every aspect of racing, not just Formula One.

FISA states that racing fuel today is too expensive. Elf feels that this statement has no merit, for the cost of research and development is generally borne by the fuel companies themselves. The next point is that the cost of developing engines to take advantage of advanced fuels is too expensive, to which Elf replies that this is only partially true, but it cannot be corrected by simply stifling fuel development. There haven’t been any complaints from Renault, Ferrari or Honda about the cost of developing engines. FISA goes on to say that F1 fuels give off more poisonous fumes than normal pump petrol, to which Elf replies that the smell of some of the Formula One fuels has nothing to do with poisonous fumes and that commercial pump fuel contains many components that are far more poisonous than anything used in Formula One fuel.

FISA states that laboratory-made fuels for F1 bear no relation to that delivered to commercial pumps, which is produced in refineries. My personal reply to this one would be “So what!” It was never mentioned anywhere that this was a requisite of Formula One fuel. Elf is a bit more serious on this point. After saying that the statement has no merit, it continues: “Until 1970, more than 80 per cent of pump fuel was produced by the simple distillation of crude oil. Nowadays, more than 80 per cent of lead-free fuel contains oil-based products which have undergone substantial chemical transformations carried out at refineries by additional installations which change the original raw components into synthetic components. The components of special Formula One fuels are produced in the same installations.”

Now things get a bit serious. FISA states that research into F1 fuel has resulted in little or no improvement to pump fuel for the ordinary motorist. Elf replies that the statement has no merit. The experience acquired through Formula One has led to the development of lead-free petrol for the public, and manufacturers have been producing new engines developed through close collaboration between the engine designers and the petrol companies: that is one of the great lessons of using F1 as a testing place for research into fuels and oils.

FISA appears to be moving towards a pre-set list of fuel components and concentration limits, similar to those which apply to commercial pump fuel. If this is the case Formula One fuels would be derived from yesterday’s pump petrol, instead of F1 testing tomorrow’s pump fuel today. In which case there would be little incentive for fuel and oil companies like Elf, Shell, Agip and so on to put any effort into research and development, or support racing in any way at all.

All the foregoing is about one particular fuel and oil company, notable at the moment for the part it played in helping the Williams Renault FW14B to sweep the board in the constructors championship, and doing its bit towards allowing Nigel Mansell to achieve his goal. Similar situations could exist with all the engineering suppliers that do so much work behind the scenes to make Formula One cars possible. A list of all those that make parts or supply components for a GP car would more than fill this article. They range from obvious things, like tyres, to unseen things, such as the chemicals involved in making a carbon-fibre composite rear aerofoil. Rest assured they are not doing it all for fun. It is serious research and development in whatever subject they are involved with, for there is no harder test-bench than F1 racing.

It is difficult to describe adequately the part that Renault has played in this year’s victories for the Williams team, just as in past years Honda, Porsche and BMW played their vital parts with teams that they partnered. All season the press department of Renault Sport has been putting out some very interesting information about the current RS3B and the RS4 engines, of which the power and reliability have been so impressive. Put simply we could say that Renault has won the 1992 engine race, its only real opposition coming from Honda.

The latest information from Renault described what goes on in one of the test-beds at its Viry-Chatillon headquarters. There are six dynamometers for looking after all research and development on the V10 racing engines, but of particular interest is number four. On this one, the engine is coupled to a five-speed gearbox, driveshafts and brakes as on the real car. The test bed is in a closed room, with a large observations window, and all the controls are outside. Although the chamber is soundproofed to a high degree, it does not kill the glorious noise of a V10 on full song at around 13-14,000 rpm.

The purpose of this test bed is to simulate, as closely as possible, conditions on a racing circuit. The engine is controlled as it is in the actual car, the operator sitting in a racing bucket seat with pedals and a gear lever: the only thing missing is a steering wheel. The technician drives the engine as if he is driving the car, with an assistant to keep an eye on various special gauges and instruments, for there is a lot of information coming from the engine that a driver normally does not need to know about. The man in charge of this test bed is Fabrice Melandri, who joined Renault Sport in 1989, having come from another firm where he was doing normal test-bed work. As he puts it: “The Renault V10 engines are light-years from what I had been used to. The power output, the torque and the rpm are hard to imagine. It is as though I had been riding ponies and suddenly found myself on a thoroughbred racehorse.”

He had to undergo six months of training before he was allowed to ‘drive’ the test bed. Nobody is simply let loose at the controls of a Renault Grand Prix engine, even though it is bolted securely to the floor. The work can involve straightforward test runs, 90-minute ‘races’ and even endurance runs to destruction. All the time that it is running, controlled in the normal way by its ‘driver’, the engine is sending out information which is gathered, collated and analysed. Individual parts are also endurance tested. The sound of the engine on full song is muffled to a point, but can be heard throughout the factory, and when an endurance run is underway everyone in the racing department tends to hold their breath, for it is their baby that Melandri is putting through its paces.

During the endurance run, most of the engineers and technicians pay a visit to test bed four to see how things are going. Destruction testing is something else altogether. The object is to take the engine to breaking point, not beyond it. The aim is to break the engine, not destroy it, and this distinction is very important. Breaking a component in an engine allows the engineers to establish the relative weakness of the parts. Simply destroying the engine doesn’t teach the engineers anything at all. The difference between breaking and destroying is a very fine line, and the driver of the test-bed plays a very important part. He really needs to know what is going on inside the engine, detecting things by eye or feel, because when a needle on an instrument goes into the red it is usually too late. The operator really has to concentrate because one tenth of a second can be the difference between breaking and destroying, and there is no second chance!

If the man in charge does not have a love for engines, amounting to a passion, he would probably suffer a nervous breakdown. He certainly would not keep his job for long. This is just one small but important aspect of the effort that Renault has been putting into the Williams team to help it win. The same things are happening in any engine firm intent on winning races, the degree being larger or smaller dependent on the firm’s resources and commitment to the whole project.

One world famous engineer was asked the size of his budget for the racing department. He smiled, and said, simply: “Big enough to succeed in our endeavours.” Don’t ask Renault how big its budget has been in the F1 season. It won the constructors’ championship by an overwhelming margin, beating Honda, Ferrari, Cosworth, Ford, Lamborghini-Chrysler, Ilmor, Judd, Yamaha and Mugen-Honda, so it was obviously big enough.