Mercedes AMG F1’s technical director James Allison on the season ahead… and the unseen side of Lewis Hamilton
Last season was Formula 1’s first with its radically revised regulations. At what point do you start chasing significantly diminishing returns with a new rules package?
“We’ve some way to go yet. These are still very new rules compared with the size of the change that was made for 2017. It’s still pretty fertile ground. Everybody will have jumped forward a chunk over the winter and will continue to do so throughout the year.
Last season’s T-wings and ‘shark fin’ engine covers have been outlawed. Is that going to make a great deal of difference?
“The losses aren’t very substantial and will be dwarfed by the winter gains. You can’t have a fin or a T-wing the same size as those we saw in 2017, but the rule leaves some freedom for engine cover extensions. It has been reduced considerably in terms of size and scope, rather than removed completely.”
Is there still the opportunity for visually striking aero innovations, or are the regulations too proscriptive?
“Over time teams figure out what sort of things are necessary to make a quick car, but the rules per se are not super-proscriptive. They don’t proscribe the dazzling complexity of some of the aerodynamic solutions we’ve seen in recent seasons. It’s more a case of teams figuring out what works. If the rules were all that proscriptive the cars would have the same performance, which definitely isn’t the case. There is lots of room within the regulations to do a good job, but I think it’s unlikely we’ll see any cars breaking the mould visually, compared with what we’re used to looking at, because we’ve had a few years to fathom out the shapes that work. Within that broad canvas, there’s a world of detail that makes them fly – and that’s where most teams concentrate.”
The halo is upon us. How much did that disrupt cockpit airflow and how easy has it been to integrate?
“The numbers are going to sound so pathetically small that you’ll think, ‘Why are you even bothering?’ In the opening salvo – just plonking a halo on a car, unoptimised, and seeing what you got – the loss was probably 0.1sec per lap, something like that. Then after working on it, the net effect has become much lower – probably about 0.03sec. I know that sounds small beer, but it’s the kind of beer by which we’re obsessed.”
How much effort was required to optimise the shape?
“A fair chunk, but it’s not worth over-egging it. By far the bigger job was trying to make sure that it fitted nicely on the chassis, that the chassis was strong enough to take the loads and that we saved enough weight – that’s where the effort has been. The increased centre of gravity has an effect on lap time, but that’s the same for everybody.
“The halo will certainly take some very heavy loads. Hitting a wheel and tyre at full racing speeds is a very nasty event, so it needs to be very strong to stop it – and the thing to which it’s mounted needs to be even stronger. That’s quite a challenge. Although the halo without its fairing looks a bit like a piece of scaffolding, it’s a fairly impressive piece of engineering. It’s several kilos of gun-drilled titanium, bent quite accurately into the correct shape, then welded and machined to tolerances that allow it to come straight from the manufacturer and drop onto the car with a very precise fit. It’s not a trivial thing to make.”
“It will impose some changes. The drivers will have to be more careful when getting in and out of the car as part of normal garage routine, because the fairing around the halo is deliberately thin and flexible, so that it wouldn’t have any adverse effect if their helmet were ever to come into contact with it. If they need to get out in a hurry, that obviously won’t matter.
“All drivers love having monitors on their dashboards as soon as they finish a run, in order to study their data overlays and comparisons, so we’ve also had to organise different mountings that will allow them to see what they need to see.”
There is still a lot of anti-halo feeling among racing purists. Do you think everybody will get used to it after about five laps in Melbourne, which is usually what happens when the appearance of the cars changes?
“I think we will get used to it, but I think there will be a desire among us – and the fans – to keep working on the concept to make it prettier. Getting used to it is one thing, looking beautiful from the outset is another and we would want it to be easier on the eye.”
From this year drivers are limited to three engines per season rather than four. What effect has that had?
“You can’t absorb engine-duty changes of that magnitude without taking some kind of action. There has been a serious effort at Mercedes AMG HPP [High Performance Powertrains] in Brixworth to make sure we’re ready to run an engine for about 30 per cent longer than its predecessor, without surrendering performance. That’s a very fierce challenge. You only have to look at last year’s grid penalties to see how tough it was to cope with four engines, so three is a real demand – the sort of task that’s part and parcel of this sport and our colleagues at HPP have tucked into it with glee.”
Last year’s grid penalties caused a fair amount of confusion among the public. Will this year’s simplified system* help?
“I suspect it will be easier to describe to the public, though the net result – in terms of where people end up on the grid – will be almost identical. Giving someone a 70-place grid penalty is a bit like handing out a 500-year prison sentence… The vocabulary with which the penalties are expressed will be easier to understand, though the outcome will be much the same.”
[* – Any driver who accumulates a 15-position penalty will automatically start from the back of the grid. In the event of more than one being affected, they will line up in the order they were sent there.]
You were very aware of Lewis Hamilton’s ability, having competed against him with Renault, Lotus and Ferrari from 2007 to 2016. When you began working with him, how close were your perceptions to reality?
“He certainly surprised me – right from the outset. Although we’d worked in the same sport for a decade or so, we only shook hands for the first time on the first day of Barcelona testing in 2017, after which he went off to drive and I sat down to look at my computer. Our paths didn’t cross again until later in the day, when he wandered over to be friendly.
“He’d just finished a run during which he’d had quite a big moment at Turn 4. By way of saying ‘hello’ he asked whether I’d seen what happened and I sort of know the etiquette in these circumstances. You generally coo a bit at the driver for being super-brave, but I didn’t want my first conversation with Lewis to be one of that nature. Equally, I admire the way drivers seem to be carefree about their own health in a way I never could, so I chose what I thought was a well-calibrated middle ground and said to him, ‘Yeah, I saw it, but the thing that always surprises me about you fuckers is that you come back the next lap and do it all over again.’ I thought that would be mildly funny, but I could see from Lewis’s face that he didn’t receive it in the way it was meant and he skulked away to the garage.
“A bit later Toto Wolff came up and said, ‘Lewis mentioned that you were a bit rude to him…’ I promised to sort it out.
“Back in the factory after the test, I sat down with Lewis in the canteen. I apologised for what I’d said, explained why I’d said it, told him I never swear when I’m cross but that I did it because it mildly amuses me and that I’d tone it down in future. He was laughing by then, told me not to worry and that I’d just caught him a bit off-guard.
“He then caught me completely off my guard by telling me how sorry he’d been to hear about what had happened to my wife [Becky Allison succumbed to meningitis in 2016]. People don’t always have the confidence to be straightforward about these things, but I thought it was lovely that he mentioned it. In your head the loss churns around and around, while the rest of the world carries on as though nothing had happened.
“He added that from what people had told him, the sadness never leaves but over time things would become easier and I’d learn to live with that sadness. I absolutely wasn’t expecting a conversation like this. We see the public face of Lewis – the Tweets, the fashion, stuff like that – but this was a mature, sensitive, confident conversation. Drivers aren’t known for their emotional sensitivity, but he said he hoped I’d be lucky and find happiness again in the future. I was very grateful for that. I thanked him and said that any such happiness would probably involve me having to speak to a girl – and that I was really crap at that. He laughed and said, ‘Well, maybe just don’t call them fuckers…’ That, I think, gives you a much better sense of what he’s like than anything I could tell you about his work ethic, his driving or his determination to win.”
How impressed were you last season by Valtteri, particularly in terms of his mental resilience in the face of what he was up against?
“I think all of us in the team are far more impressed with him than appears to be the perceived wisdom in the paddock. He finished not too many points behind Sebastian Vettel – and without a DNF, which was not of his making, he’d have been in front of him. If you take away that DNF, he’d have been on average about two points a race worse off than Lewis – two points for which Valtteri would not excuse himself, but let’s remember who he’s up against. Lewis is one of the all-time greats – and might even be the greatest by the time he hangs up his helmet. Throughout last season Valtteri was indefatigable – a fantastic person to have on your team. He is so calm and projects that onto the rest of us. While being so calm he also drives pretty quickly – and things will only get better this year. I’m pretty confident he’ll go from strength to strength.”
We’re talking before testing has commenced, but does instinct tell you that the balance of power will be much the same this season?
“I might live to regret this, but I’m hoping there will be a three-way fight between titans, teams comprising powerful, competitive, skilful groups. You have to be careful what you wish for, but if we can have a season like that, rise to the challenge and prevail, how marvellous would that be? At its best, and for a good chunk of last season, that’s how it felt with two teams going at it hammer and tongs. Imagine how that would feel with three…”