F1 – beware of the dog


By Perry McCarthy

A new race car’s first day on track is a nervous one for all. It’s akin to being in a hospital delivery room as your wife gives birth – you wait, hoping and praying for a healthy baby to pop out rather than, maybe, a Labrador. Tense times. Try telling a designer, pre-test, that you’re sure it’s all going to be great – and the resulting stare will tell you to shut up. I said a similar thing when my wife Karen was struggling after eight hours in labour. I held her hand and told her that we’re sharing the experience. That didn’t go down too well. “Really?” she said, “unless you’re currently passing a crash helmet, I don’t think we’re sharing the experience.”

So, in these situations most of us are reduced to the role of a spectator; there’s a helplessness about it, but unlike the long gestation period needed for both, you get to know the result pretty quickly. If the race car sets a lap time on target there are smiles all round. If the baby cries after a small slap on the botty there’s relief. Conversely, there’s an obvious problem if the car takes three hours to return to the garage, or if something starts barking and runs off with the medical chart.

So, babies to one side, how could a brand new, state of the art race car possibly be slow? Today’s teams have got it all. Wind tunnels, computational fluid dynamics, genius designers overseeing an array of brilliant minds giant buildings and great reception areas with really large ponds out front, where even the fish have IQs of 140.

Well, there’s a bunch of reasons why a design concept, adored over the winter, can become what we term ‘a dog’ several months later and the knock-on consequences will bite pretty hard way past the first race. Remember, a dog is for the season, not just for Christmas.

Sauber often shone in pre-season testing only to slip back when proper fuel loads were added

Playing technical catch-up is tough – very tough. It takes a lot of stamina and determination to fight back. When leading teams with high expectations find themselves off the pace, they are forced to apply all their resources, in an often vain attempt to just match performance levels of the quick boys. In the meantime the quick boys try not to wet themselves laughing at their rivals’ pain and disappointment before applying their own resources to going even faster.

This is hardly news to most of you, but I’m just setting the scene to discuss a current trend in F1 that has my interest. Fingers crossed I get to it before the end of the article.

So, if it’s all gone wrong, what indeed has failed to produce the dream machine? What questions will be asked? Is the designer really a genius? Did one or more of the brilliant minds have an off day? Are any of them known alcoholics? Was the initial philosophy flawed or did the fish have anything to do with it?

They’ll continue and fully investigate their hardware and software. Can that CFD thing be trusted and is our wind tunnel telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Ferrari struggled with a wrongly-calibrated wind tunnel

It’s no good just owning this stuff, it has to be tuned to deliver and used in the right way. But, as the teams are more than aware, there’s an old adage in the computing world: ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’. Loading faulty data into a computer, you will get results, though not exactly the ones needed. Bad data is easy to come by if the number crunching gizmos are not correlated correctly. Critically, ‘rubbish out’ information is dangerous when it’s trusted as an answer because those errors will go straight on – or in – the car. Result: a slow dog with an ugly nose.

We’ve heard about this many times before from different teams across the years. As intellectually gifted as our Grand Prix operations are, the elimination of mistakes is as necessary as innovation. So, yes, they know, get great personnel, great equipment and make sure the equipment is doing what you’re hoping it’s doing. This has all been pursued in a relentless quest for perfection for a long time but has no stone been left unturned?

For a while now a slightly new story has emerged and the practice behind it is being increasingly adopted. It appears to be F1’s new Holy Grail and as far as I can tell, it started fairly quietly last year. Here are a few headlines before I finally get to the point:

2013: Williams F1 was not having an awful lot of fun. Midway through, they appointed Pat Symonds as Chief Technical Officer. Pat took a close look at the operation of the team and made changes in staffing and the way people and departments worked together.

January 2014: Ron Dennis returned to the helm because McLaren hadn’t exactly had to reinforce its trophy cabinet either. He instigated some immediate changes to management. Again, the focus will be on the operation of the team and the way people and departments work together.

April 2014: Marco Mattiacci replaced Stefano Domenicali at Ferrari. Staff changes have already been made – he says they need a 360 degree improvement. “We are redesigning the team’’. Late last year, James Allison joined from Lotus to ensure the chassis and engine departments work together more closely.

Sensing the pattern yet?

Paddy Lowe at Mercedes has talked about structure, as has Toro Rosso’s technical director James Key and probably many others in similar roles.

The current vocabulary in F1 centres on procedures, processes, restructuring, leadership, foundation, change and achievable targets. The push is on like never before to build an operation that operates!

Rather than just top notch kit and signing any engineer related to Stephen Hawking, the trend right now is to design for management and communication, which is how you create a unified, tight and responsive business.

The teams continue to evolve. They’re looking at everything. It’s not all about who has the biggest budget. Sure, it helps big time, but like the use of any tool, if it’s not used intelligently you’ll get a lot less bang for your buck. You may recall the car at the back was a Toyota. As I’ve mentioned before: It’s not always about finding something new, it’s sometimes about understanding what you’ve already got.

I am, as always, fascinated by nearly every aspect of Formula 1 and the talented and determined people within it. Just one incy wincy thing though. Who’s to know right here, right now, which of our team leaders will make the right decisions for the future? If it was all as simple as issuing a ‘we will return’ press release, they’d all be at the front wouldn’t they! It’s going to be interesting to see who succeeds or who’s producing more hot air than a wind tunnel.

One thing’s for sure though, there’s still going to be winners and losers, some very fast cars and some very nasty, mangy, flea bitten dogs – no matter who’s barking.

You may also like