Pat Symonds: Royal Automobile Club Talk Show


Ahead of the Dewar Trophy and Simms Medal presentations the podcast team sat down with Williams‘ chief technical officer Pat Symonds to discuss the winners of the two awards as well as Formula 1’s 2017 regulations. 

We also cover the greatest racing driver excuse of all time, courtesy of Ayrton Senna, and Pat’s time at Benetton. It’s the eighth time Pat has graced the microphone on this site and his ability to distill technical discussions into something even I can understand remains undimmed. Enjoy. 

To download the podcast visit our Soundcloud page here


EF: Welcome to another Royal Automobile Club talk show in association with Motor Sport. We have a very special talk show for you today. We’re here on the morning of the Dewar Trophy and Simms Medal presentations and we’re joined by Williams’ Chief Technical Officer Pat Symonds, who is also on the committees for both of these awards, so we’ll be talking about those in a little bit.

I must also introduce Joe Dunn, our Acting Editor, and Simon Arron, our Features Editor.

There’s a little bit of cold air in the room this morning having made everyone turn up an hour-and-a-half early to this podcast, so I apologise for that!

Pat – a very warm welcome and thanks for joining us at the correct time.

For those of you who need a little bit more information on Pat: he joined Toleman back in the early 1980s which was then taken over by Benetton. He soon became Technical Director and the team was taken over by Renault. He has since worked for Virgin Racing and is now, as I said, the Chief Technical Officer at Williams.

What I want to talk about to start with are the 2017 cars. Could you quickly outline what the big changes are for those who don’t already know?

Pat Symonds: I think it’s worth looking at the criteria that were set, to really precipitate the change in rules. That was a perception, mainly from Bernie, that the cars were too easy to drive and they were too slow. Of course they have got slower, that’s a fact because they’ve got much heavier and historically because of the rate of development in Formula 1 its been necessary for the rule makers to bring the performance back. Normally by putting more and more aerodynamic restrictions on.

So it’s very interesting in 2017 for the first time were going the other way: they’ve asked us to put performance on the cars. It’s not something I’ve been able to do before so it’s quite exciting actually.

So how have we done that? Two ways, one is to increase the tyre width, the second is to really revamp the bodywork regulations quite substantially. The cars are wider to go with the wider tyres. There is a lot more freedom in the architecture of the bodywork and the aerodynamics we can apply. There’s a lot more freedom. There’s still a lot of regulation don’t get me wrong, and regulation I think will, as always, make the cars look very similar because so much of the design space is already constrained by article three, the infamous article three of the technical regulations.

Nevertheless I actually think the cars look very attractive, I was very worried they were going to look retro but actually they look rather good. The wide tyres suit the car, the current cars where the front and rear tyre width is so similar look odd in my view. Both the front and the rear have gone wider but the rear more so, and the styling cues, and I have to call them that, that have been written into the regulations actually work quite well so I think the cars are quite attractive.

EF: There’s a question here about how the cars are going to look, which we’ve covered, but also alludes to something I want to ask about. Are you worried about the racing with these new aero rules, because I’m no expert but the more aero you put on the harder it is to follow a car and therefore get close enough to overtake?

PS: Yes, that is a generalisation and it’s a true generalisation and the answer is no one knows and that’s one of the very unfortunate things about Formula One. We will move into new regulations without enough thought going into them. Sometimes it doesn’t need a great deal of thought, sometimes – for example with the safety regulations – a great deal of work goes in before they’re written. But many of the sporting and, shall we say, the holistic technical regulations are done, in my opinion, without enough research behind them. The trouble is there’s no mechanism for that so when you say “ok, is a 2017 car going to be easier to overtake with?” well no one knows. It’s a shame because I think with a sport like we have, a global sport, a sport that has an awful lot of cash in it, we really should be setting up something that does research these things and gives us a much more long term view, particularly this year it’s been very knee jerk in a lot of regulation changes we’ve done.

Simon Arron: Can I ask from the calculations and analysis you’ve done so far, how much more load is likely to be on the tyres next year with the extra aero?

PS: Let me answer first by saying I think were doing to see the capability to produce downforce increase by about 25%. That sounds like a bit of a round-about answer but the reason I say it that way is that we are going to see something we haven’t seen for a little while. Certainly since 2009 we have pretty well run our cars on maximum downforce everywhere. Obviously we don’t at Monza, we don’t in Canada and a few other places, Spa maybe, but generally speaking were running with as much downforce as we can get on the cars. The drag coefficient is acceptable at all but those few circuits. The inherent drag in the 2017 cars is greater, they’re producing more downforce, they have bigger tyres and tyres are terrible for drag and the optimisation of downforce and drag will vary a lot more from circuit to circuit than it has done, so while we may have the capability of putting 25%, maybe even a bit more than that on the car we won’t necessarily use that everywhere. So we’ll see a lot more different configurations. The actual loading on the tyres can increase, certainly will increase. We are doing a lot of simulation at the moment – all teams – every couple of months we send all of our simulations in the prescribed form to the FIA, they go through them and pass them on to Pirelli so they know what they’re dealing with. And of course there’s a testing campaign going on with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull where they’ve made some “new” cars we call them, – they’re actually 2015 cars modified to attempt to produce the levels of downforce that we’ll be dealing with next year, but done in a different way. Done in a way that wouldn’t comply with the regulations next year, and those cars are out around Europe at the moment, soon to go to the Middle East, testing tyres and finding out if our simulations are indeed accurate.

EF: So many people I speak to and so many in the questions have referred to the general belief that you want to increase the mechanical grip and not aerodynamic grip for exciting racing. We seem to be going down this road of more aerodynamic grip and of course we are going to have more mechanical grip as well. If Pat Symonds was in charge and writing these regulations, in order to create a better spectacle what would you be looking at?

PS: Firstly you say we are going to have more mechanical grip and most people assume that because we’ve got wider tyres and if you looked at the ratio of widths you’d think there’s going to be a lot more mechanical grip but in reality we are not expecting a lot more. There will be more but more in the order of 5% or something like that. While the contact patch is wider it’s not actually as long – the tyres are a slightly bigger diameter so we won’t get all the grip one might assume if you look superficially at the dimensions of the tyres.

You say that what we want is more mechanical and less aerodynamic grip. But here again we come to one of these unproven myths – why do we want more mechanical grip? What evidence is there? I think if you look at good racing, you often see good racing in the rain, because cars are very difficult to drive, they’re very low grip, it’s easy to make a mistake, you have long braking zones, things like that, so I’m not convinced more mechanical grip per se gives you better racing. No grip, no aero, lots of power, I’m sure that would give you great racing.

SA: Bring back steel brakes!

PS: Steel brakes I’m afraid probably have the performance of carbon brakes these days.

Joe Dunn: Taking both the tyres and aerodynamics, what do you think the cars will be like to drive and what will the effect on the drivers be? There’s been a suggestion they will be more difficult and pull more G?

PS: They will be pulling more G, I don’t think they’ll be particularly difficult to drive. The steering loads are going up a little but a Formula One car has power steering so we’ll simply compensate for that. I spoke earlier on about this premise about what we wanted to do is make the cars five seconds quicker. I never understood why but nevertheless that’s what was decided. If you think about that what’s it really mean? Is a car that’s five seconds a lap quicker more exciting? Is it more difficult to drive? You see the answer every Friday, when we go out in second practice, were all doing the same thing, we run two sets of tyres we run first on quite low fuel then we fill the cars up with duel to look at race performance. The difference in lap times is about four seconds, there are some circuits where I think this year we’ve actually lapped around five seconds quicker than we did a couple of years ago and does anyone really notice it? It’s not the lap time per se, if you want Formula One to be the pinnacle of motor sport there is an argument that on any given circuit a Formula One car ought to be the fastest lap time that can be achieved at a circuit. But that’s only a perception thing, it’s not necessarily spectacle. What’s more spectacular round SIlverstone? British Touring Cars or a Formula One car? I’m sure there be many people that would not go with my branch of the sport.

SA: When the hybrid cars first races in 2014, the first time I saw them in action in Barcelona I really liked watching them. Right the sound thing I was in the minority that I didn’t mind being able to hold a conversation track side, but because they had so much torque they were moving around – this was before they’d been properly developed. They were great to watch, they weren’t as quick as previous cars had been around the corners but because the power was being distributed in a different way. You could see all the drivers were working. Obviously with development over the past couple of seasons they’re more refined, but the rawness of that first year I thought was good.

PS: I completely agree with you. I saw exactly the same thing when we were testing in Barcelona. We had a lot more torque than we’d ever had before. The torque was smoother than it was on the V8s and the V10s so they made the cars a little but easier to drive and one thing that has developed a lot in the last couple of years is the torque curve on these current hybrid engines is fantastic. It’s like road car torque, it’s so smooth now so that’s made them a little less spectacular to drive. I agree: what you want to see is a car moving around. I’ve drawn a parallel before – when I watch a rally driver I have so much respect. I think “wow I couldn’t do that” and I’ve tried believe me!

But when you watch a well set up Formula One car there’s not a lot of steering correction. Don’t get me wrong, they are incredibly difficult to drive, they’re more difficult to drive and there’s no way any of us could drive one but it doesn’t look that way. It would be nice to see them moving around a little bit more as we did in early 2014 I agree.

EF: Do you think that will be the case next year?

PS: No I don’t. I think we’re going to have a bit more grip, the engines get ever more sophisticated, we continually use the electrical power more and more seamlessly with the power from the internal combustion engine. It’s an amazing bit of engineering, they are absolutely fantastic these power units. Just five or ten years ago I wouldn’t have belied we could get the efficiencies and drivability we get from these engines.

EF: The rate of improvement of the hybrids. Mark Hughes did a piece for the Motor Sport website recently on the direction of Formula One and he was arguing that the hybrid decision was made in order to tie in with what manufacturers were looking at and it’s become apparent electric cars are the way a lot of manufactures are going that way. Formula One is not going to become electric, so should Formula One be tying itself to what the road car industry should be looking at or should it go out on its own and be spectacular and excite fans and make drivers want to jump in the cars and drive them properly.

PS: I read Mark’s article as I always do. Mark writes very well indeed. I think there are two aspects to this and you have to set the scene a little bit. If you go back to the time we were talking about introducing these engines and although they did come in for 2014 they were originally targeted for 2013. We started talking about them in 2008. In 2008 the political scene was so different to today, there was an awful lot of concern about security of energy supply, problems in the Middle East, fracking shale gas etc. hadn’t really taken off in America, fuel prices were very high, I think we were $130 a barrel or something like that. Everything pointed to the fact that we should be looking at more efficient engines and the quick way to efficiency is hybridisation, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve seen it in road cars as well.

At the same time we were riding an economic bubble which was shortly to burst and of course in 2008 manufactures were selling a lot of cars in spite of oil prices, profits were high, sponsorships were good, life was great. Then of course things changed, the motor industry took an enormous hit in the recession as did advertising budgets and certainly Formula One was now committed to this path of what was going to be an expensive power unit. It didn’t need to be and there were some mistakes made along the way. I hate to say it but I think the engineers were given too much free reign.

EF: It’s always a disaster when that happens.

PS: Occasionally! We could have produced a very sophisticated hybrid unit, perhaps quite not as sophisticated but at significantly lower cost. But by the time that engine came into use life had changed. That’s a fact, Look at it the other way, what would have happened if we hadn’t done it? If we had continued racing these gas guzzling V8s or the V10s or whatever? I think people would have been looking at us and saying “are you as socially responsible as your CSR [Corporate social responsibility] programs? How can they sit alongside doing this sort of activity?” I think we did the right thing.

The other interesting thing when you talk about the motoring industry is in those days, and you can go back to when we introduced the KERS system, I think the perception amongst motoring enthusiasts – and I would include myself – I would call it a misconception, was that hybridisation was for the Toyota Prius, for people who didn’t have enthusiasm about driving. All they were interested in was economy, ecology things like that. As soon as I started working on those first hybrids on the early KERS systems, at Renault at that time we were doing a lot of work on the power train, it wasn’t just left to the engine department, I soon realised that actually you had a perfect marriage because the internal combustion engine is a marvellous device. It’s been developed very well with a lot of money put into its development for over 100 years and its arrived at this state where it is a) quite sophisticated, b) quite efficient – I say that guardedly – economical to produced etc. but it has a lot of drawbacks. The only reason you’ve got a gearbox in your car is because the internal combustion engine isn’t very good at producing torque. You have to run it very fast to produce torque. An electric motor on the other hand is marvellous: maximum torque at zero speed, but it loses a little but as you get to the higher powers and power densities, particularly in terms of the energy storage because fuel is marvellous. The chemical energy stored in fuel, the specific energy per kilogram of fuel is way beyond anything you can do with battery capacity etc. But if you marry the two together you get the best of both worlds. It soon became apparent to me when we were working on those early KERS cars that I thought the people who really need to adopt this are not the city car or local car manufactures, it’s the supercar manufacturers because here you’ve got the perfect combination. And of course a few years later all the supercar manufacturers realised that was the case: you could get this enormous performance from a hybrid power train.

SA: Do you wish Formula One had been a little faster to react, because in comparison to other things like British Touring Cars were experimenting with biofuels and LPG in the past, Le Mans we’ve seen biofuels, diesels, all sorts?

PS: I think Formula One is quite conservative, that maybe reflects the age of the management. However we did talk about biofuels and we looked at them quite a lot and indeed if you remember in those days, in fact still, there is a reasonable biofuel content in the race fuels. But to go totally biofuels was absolutely the wrong thing to do and I was very pleased that we didn’t do it. I argued very strongly against a faction that did want to go biofuel. The first generation biofuels were socially irresponsible, there is no doubt about it. The whole way of producing those biofuels was wrong, it was taking out land space and food sources. It was the wrong thing to do. Of course the second generation biofuels which were just coming on stream then and I think some were used at Le Mans, were a different matter. But still now we look 10-12 years later I think my opposition was justified because everyone has seen the first generation biofuels were a bad thing.

EF: Simon mentioned Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship and there’s lots of different ways to get to the same solution. Formula One has the topic of a budget cap and keep costs in check has come up time and time again but the WEC seems to manage that to a certain level. Why can’t Formula One manage a similar model?

PS: I think it could if the will was there. It’s quite impressive with the WEC cars – they went to a hybridisation programme at the same time as us, without so much publicity around it. It was very interesting because it was a much more open set of rules and of course we saw quite different solutions from Toyota and Audi and Porsche and I think that was a really good thing because they had got the equivalence about right. You didn’t know who was going to win, there wasn’t a walkover, and they did seem to get that equivalence correct. Now in Formula One we didn’t actually look at any form of equivalence, there’s a very prescriptive set of rules for the power unit and article five now, together with some of the technical directives that discuss how the control the electronics etc., really do lead you to one design of engine. It very clearly leads you to a V6 so you are not going to get that diversity you get in Le Mans. I think the diversity in Le Mans is great, I think the whole encouragement that Le Mans gives to innovation is fabulous. In Formula One we’re very nervous of it I think, I guess the trouble is that we are so commercial. Is there a manufacturer out there who has the courage to go a different way? I’m not sure there is.

EF: Something we worked out yesterday, I think this is your eighth Motor Sport podcast. I think a couple of other people have been in twice! I think it’s more than you’ve done Simon!

PS: Must mean I have little to do I guess!

EF: It goes some way to explaining how good you are at explaining very technical issues in a way even I can understand, which is quite a challenge. I want to talk about this year and Williams’ performance and what you’re talking about for next year. I want to touch on Ross Brawn and the talk of him taking over the future direction of the sport because that’s what we’ve just been talking about. Apparently it is agreed but the sale of Formula One needs to go through which is hasn’t yet.  If this happens, is it a good thing for Formula One?

PS: Absolutely. Just a few minutes ago we were talking about what’s wrong with Formula One, the knee jerk reactions, the lack of research etc. I think this is an excellent first step but I do think it’s a first step. Ross is a really good guy, I worked with him for a long while, I have immense respect for him. He’s a good thinker, he’s logical, he’s not scared to form opinions, he’s not scared to fight for his opinions. But I don’t think he can do it alone, I really think what we need to do is set up something rather like the technical working group but it needs to be separated from the teams. By all means listen to the teams, get opinions, there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly in sporting matters, but you must have a level of impartiality and you need to have people who you can trust. It’s like Government isn’t it? Do we really want a referendum for everything that’s going on? We don’t seem to have done very well in this country with that way of Government and yet in Formula One we have  referendum every few weeks about what are we going to do about qualifying, this regulation, that regulation it’s not the way forward. Get good people in there, find them because they need to do research. We were talking about overtaking, the reason no one knows is because the work hasn’t been done. Throw some money at it, put it in a wind tunnel, you can go over to Toyota in Germany and hire one of their wind tunnels, put together a programme and start to understand what really matters – then you’ll improve the sport. So I think Ross coming in is a really great thing, but I hope that it’s not just in isolation, because there are a lot of people who do know what’s going on and we had a great example at the beginning of this year that I hope people have forgotten about: the qualifying,

EF: It seems like a distant memory now

PS: Its best left as a distant memory. It was so sad because when that was proposed through the strategy group, the minute it came to the teams we looked at it for about 15 minutes and said “this is what will happen” it was very obvious there would be no cars running at the end of every session. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to work that out. And yet no one listened.

I’m not advocating that the teams produce the rules but you need people who have operation acumen who know how you go racing, who know how you exploit rules, who read a set of rules and say right, “this is how we get the best out of it.” Ross is good at that, Ross has been exploiting the rules for as long as I have!

EF: Moving on to this year and Williams’ performance. You’re still very much in the season and the final championship standings are not decided yet. How would you rate Williams’ performance this year because from the outside it looks like Williams were stronger last year?

PS: From the inside it looks that way too unfortunately.

EF: I didn’t want to be too bold Pat!

PS: We’re looking as the same pictures so we can’t see two different views of it. I think it’s disappointing but I would qualify that by saying we really have punched above our weight for the last couple of years and two third places in a closely fought world championship, beating teams with two-and-a-half, even three times our budget in 2014 and two-and-a-half times our budget in 2015 is not to be sneered at. Of course we want to keep it going like that but it’s a tall order to keep that level of performance up. I think this year I made some decisions quite early on that with the changes to the 2017 regulations we needed to spend a lot of time on them. We’re limited in how much wind tunnel work we can do and of course most of the performance of the 2017 cars is going to come from aerodynamics: that’s where the big changes are and where the performance comes from anyway. In the early days of working with a new set of regulations you get a very steep learning curve. You put a lot of performance on per run in the wind tunnel. Were all limited to 65 runs a week and that’s quite different to when we did our last change in 2014 which was our last big aerodynamic change where the 2014 cars started effectively unlimited and we were running tunnels 24/7 but even when we went to what was called the 80/80 rules we could do 80 runs a week. That was stretching wind tunnels anyway, and now we’re down to 65 its quite a lot more difficult so you have to make a decision “am I going to stop development on the current car early, while I’m working on a relatively flat part of the development curve and start on a very steep part of next year’s curve, or am I going to keep fighting my way in the championship?”

It’s not something you can decide based on the results of the last race, it’s a strategic decision, it’s not a tactical decision, so I took that strategic decisions quite early on that we would have a very clearly defined programme on our current car and start our work on next year’s car. I think it’s coincidental and perhaps a bit unfortunate that that programme that we did for development on this year’s car was not as productive as it has been. So it was not as productive as the development programs as the ’14 car which had been particularly good or the ’15 car which had been about average but it kept us fighting to the end. This year it didn’t, it wasn’t as good, we have fallen away from Mercedes, who we take as out benchmark – that’s the development standard we want to keep up with. It’s been compounded by the fact that Force India have had the reverse happen and they’ve done a very good development job, I think they probably haven’t done any more than we have they’ve just done it more successfully. So it’s left us in a position where fourth in the championship, I won’t say is a target, we never have a target like that, but it was what we were budgeting on put it that way. But with Force India coming up having done a great job this year and they’re fighting us, we could be fifth. We’re still fighting.

SA: I imagine there must be very healthy respect between yourselves and Force India. Force India doesn’t have Williams’ F1 pedigree in terms of past glory but the pair of you are both punching well above your weigh in terms of consistency of results. What’s your relationship like?

PS: I think it’s good. We certainly have respect. I have respect for all our competitors believe me, they’re all pretty good out there. I think we do have a close bond because we are independent teams therefore politically we are fighting for many of the same things and we know the difficulties each one of us faces. Apart from the fact that actually there’s some damn good people in Force India as well

JD: You mentioned you took and early strategic decision to being focusing on next year’s car. When was that?

PS: It was pre-season. It was before we’d laid out our stall if you like for 2016.

EF: It’s not a public forum we are on, and no one is listening. Would I be safe to put £10 on Williams winning a few races next year?

PS: I don’t encourage betting. It’s a terrible thing!

EF: Now is a good time to talk about the Dewar Trophy and the Simms Medal. The Dewar Trophy was obviously given to the club in 1904 by Sir Thomas Dewar the MP, and it is awarded for outstanding British Technological achievement in the automotive industry. The Simms Medal is a similar thing that sits alongside doesn’t it? The winners this year are: Gordon Murray Design for the Dewar Trophy and the Simms Medal was awarded to Mr Hugo Spowers and the team at Riversimple.

Something I discovered through Joe, Hugo Spowers was a member of the dangerous sports club at university and he undertook the first headfirst bungee jump, which is an interesting one, thought there are some tribes out there who have been doing bungee jumps for many centuries. He is also someone who has gone down St Moritz ski slope with a Grand Piano fitted with skis. Who knew?

PS: Why wouldn’t you?

SA: And he also built a Formula Ford car called the Prowess?

EF: With a canopy yes.

What’s the criteria for these two awards? These really are the two most prestigious awards in engineering. Why did you select the winners?

PS: I’ve sat on the committee now for several years and it’s a great privilege to be asked to be on the committee because we do look at some very interesting things.

It has to be British because we are looking at British engineering in the automotive field and with the Dewar Trophy it is just that – we are looking at the engineering side of it, so past winners have included Ford Motor Company for that marvellous little three-cylinder engine a few years ago, Mercedes HPP for the Formula One power unit, so we are looking at that proven technology. Not at ideas or concepts, things that have been actually brought into the marketplace – not necessarily into mass production like the Ecoboost engine, but something that has proven it can stand on its own two feet and is innovative.

The Simms Medal is different because we have a slightly broader remit with that and we can look at the sort of entrepreneurship of the person. It doesn’t have to be a company, we can look at someone who’s doing something we feel should be recognised. It’s great, we talk to these people, we visit their companies, we look at the technology they are employing. I learn from it all the time, I don’t just have a passion for motorsport, I have a passion for engineering and this allows me to indulge my passion away from motorsport which is a great thing.

EF: So the Dewar Trophy was awarded to Gordon Murray Design but specifically for his iStream® chassis concept and the OX all-terrain vehicle which is this incredible all-terrain vehicle which comes flat packed.  What attracted you to those two?

PS: We’d actually been watching Gordon for a few years because with the Dewar Trophy as I said we do need to see it get to a level of maturity, something where we believe it is going to fly, it is going to be mainstream. We’d been watching what Gordon has been doing particularly with the iStream® particularly and for a few years it’s been on the cusp, we’ve discussed it every year but we really felt this year the whole thing had got to a point where we said “yes ok, we are now confident this has got to a technology readiness level that we feel comfortable to make the award.” I’m quite sure, I know that we are going to see the iStream® technology employed in a low production volume car quite soon and I think Gordon has always been a great innovator from his days in motor sport and he’s carried that innovation through into mainstream now.

EF: It is worth mentioning that the Club doesn’t award the Dewar Trophy and the Simms Medal every year. It isn’t a given, there has to be something out there worthy of both of them.  The Simms Medal went to Hugo Spowers and the team at Riversimple and that’s for their development of the Rasa hydrogen fuel cell range extended electric car. You were saying earlier that you look more at the business beind it, what was the winning thing there?

PS: There were two things, in our final judging meeting I think I sort of summed it up by saying “let’s cast our minds forward 20 years and look at what’s in the car park. Is it going to be the Riversimple type of vehicle?” and we all agreed it was. It’s a very interesting concept, they’ve put it together well, the engineering is interesting, a mixture of fuel cell, electric capacitor storage with batteries – all the things I believe we are going to see in the electric vehicles of the future. Then on top of that they were such an interesting business concept. You would never own the car, you would always lease it. I think it’s a very bold idea and the more we all thought about it we thought “actually that does make a lot of sense.” There was great engineering there and also an interesting business concept and it was out of ordinary, it’s about things that are out of the ordinary. Not crazy. Lateral thinking.

EF: They have been awarded, it seems strange saying that before the awards ceremony at lunch, but there is lots of information on the Club’s website if you want to know about the history of them and past winners as well.

We’ve got loads of questions on your history and the history of Formula One. They’re going to come out quite randomly as they sometimes do, but I thought I’d start with someone you may know; Karun Chandhok who has tweeted in.

Do you feel at Silverstone 1994, Damon Hill drove those formation laps slower than usual thinking it would interrupt Michael’s start procedure or was it Michael’s gamesmanship? Karun is asking why Michael overtook him twice.

PS: Karun hasn’t asked that question as many items as I have. I’ve always wondered! Funnily enough I saw some video of that a few months ago and I thought “what was he thinking?” ’94, what an awful year that was, but I do feel that the penalty that was applied was incredibly harsh. I think the way the team management handled it was incredibly stupid, there were lots of extenuating circumstances and I think we’d seen that sort of thing many times before and we’ve seen it many times since. Yes, the rules did say you don’t overtake on a formation lap but it used to happen. Michael did take it to the extreme, he might as well have waved a flag saying “Here I am”

Was it gamesmanship? I must admit I haven’t thought of it what way, I think it was “I want to get my tyres warm, I want to get everything in the groove, Damon’s driving slowly, never mind” equally I don’t think Damon was driving abnormally slowly or deliberately slowly or anything like that. Maybe I’m naïve but I think it was one of those things, a perfect storm that came together and gave various people who had political power the ability to do things that they might not have otherwise done.

EF: Saying on 1994, can you talk about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Benneton and Williams cars? Where was one stronger than the other and vice versa?

PS: That’s surprisingly easy to answer. ’94 was our first year with passive cars, we’d come out of the active era, and Rory [Byrne] and I at Benneton had, although wed taken the active chassis technology quite a long way, we hadn’t exploited the aerodynamics as much as Williams had. But what we did know was that the drivability of aerodynamics and sensitivities were extremely important and when we were doing into ’94 we knew that we could not run aerodynamics that were as peaky as we had run in ’93. Williams in ’93 has been even more peaky as we had and they continued that into ’94, so I think that the ’94 Williams, it’s a bit like an ’83 Toleman, the car that if you got the setup right there was a lot of performance there but the sweet sport was very narrow, it was a very difficult car to set up. We had a car at the beginning of that year that has good downforce but really useable downforce. People think that a racing car has ‘X’ kilonewtons of downforce. It doesn’t, it has a variable amount, it’s a cyclic thing. The downforce is continually going up and down and in the wind tunnel what we’d do is objectively measure the mid-point of that cyclic signal. When a driver is driving you could argue what he does is drive to the bottom of that signal. Imagine it, if you remember any of your schoolboy maths – a sine wave, you’re diving to the bottom of that. A good driver drives a little above that and catches it and that’s how you drive at the limit But you can have two cars that nominally in the wind tunnel have the same downforce, in other words the mid-point of this wave form is the same, but if one of them has a small amplitude and one has a big amplitude you will drive the car with the small amplitude much faster. That’s aerodynamic stability. That’s something that at the beginning of ’94 we had over Williams.

Now of course after Imola there were a lot of moves to slow the cars down, we added the plank, we cut back the diffusers, we shortened the front wing end plates, we even cut holes in the air boxes to reduce engine performance, all sorts of things. It did destroy a lot of the very benign characteristics we had on that car so by the end of the season I think actually the cars were quite similar, I’d probably even say the Williams was a better performing car at the end of the season, but at the beginning of the season we had understood what was needed of the passive cars better than Williams had.

EF: Rewinding back to the ‘80s, William finds the ’86 Benneton to be one of the most exciting cars from the original turbo era. Do you have any special recollections of that year? I suspect [Gerhard] Berger’s win in Mexico?

PS: So many. That was an animal that car. It was absolutely staggering. In terms of horsepower we actually ran that engine in the latter part of the year from Monza onwards with the biggest turbocharger we could find. We had no wastegate on it and the boost it produced was a function of how well the turbocharger had been made. I think we achieved over five bar of boost. We never were able to measure the power, there was no dynamometer that could measure it. We reckoned we had about 1350 hp. Our target had been 1500 we wanted one brake hp per cc but a megawatt wasn’t bad going. It was a fabulous car, I have so many good memories of it. It was a great year and it was a very amusing year in many ways as well. One story I like to tell people now that I never told at the time is that we had the BMW engine in that car but it wasn’t a works BMW engine, it was an engine built by Heini Mader in Switzerland. Brabham had the works engines. Electronics in those days were not as sophisticated as they are now, far from it. The electronic control unit for the engine was actually a huge box, about the size of a box of biscuits you buy at Christmas and throw away half empty…

EF: …consume in a day. Oh!

PS: Consume in a day! [Laughs] You didn’t plug laptops into the things and program them across a network or anything like that in those days. You had something that I guess people have forgotten about now which was called E2PROM’s, electronically erasable program…

EF: You could say anything and I think all of us would nod! [Ed: electrically erasable programmable read-only memory]

PS: What you had to do was open this box and take a chip out of it and put it into a little programming device and program it in hex, you didn’t even program it in a human readable format.

We were given these boxes and being the sort of person I am it wasn’t long before I had these things apart and was reading these hex programs and realised there were different programs for the qualifying set up and the race set up. So I soon started making my own little chips. We used to have enormous performance from this because what I essentially started with was I took the qualifying chip said “I’m sure we can race that” and understood how the ignition and the fuel was changed between the old race chip and the old qualifying chip and thought “I’ll give it a bit more of that for qualifying” I used to keep a standard chip in my pocket because Paul Roche who was head of motorsport at BMW used to often come storming into the pits saying “what are you doing? I want your chip” so I’d open up the box and take these special little tweezers you had for taking the chip out and they were quite fiddly, and I always used to drop the chip, I was so clumsy and out of my pocket would come the other one and he looked at it and never understood what I was doing! It was great fun.

EF: The next question is about 1984 when [Ayrton] Senna was driving. He was stood down for the Italian GP and Pierluigi Martini came in. What was the mood/opinion in the team about Senna being stood down and did it alter the dynamic when he came back? Why was he stood down?

PS: The reason why was we had a contract with Ayrton for the ’84 and ’85 seasons, it was Ayrton’s first Formula One drive, but we soon realised he was something special as did everyone else. Our contract for ’85, I can’t remember all the details, I think the option was with us and he basically had to drive for us but unbeknownst to us he went off to Lotus and signed a contract with them and Alex Hawkridge who was the team principal at the time was really annoyed about this. We were a struggling little team, ’84 was our make or break year. The team had started in ’81, maybe qualified for one race in ’81, a few in ’82, got our first points in ’83, we were nowhere. ’84 was putting us on the map, we were second in Monaco, on the podium in the UK and Portugal, we were starting to get there and Ayrton was an important part of that. It was a damn good car, on the best tyres when we switched to Michelin, but Ayrton was an important part so I think Alex particularly felt quite affronted when Ayrton went off and did a deal with Lotus, to the point where he felt he had to make a statement and that statement was to suspend Ayrton for breaching his contract. Really difficult thing to do. It really is cutting off your nose to spite your face. But Alex was adamant, Alex was the boss and I don’t think myself or Rory particularly argued against it, we were pretty amazed but he was the boss, that’s what he did. I don’t think there was anything wrong with it. What was interesting was Ayrton was absolutely mortified when it happened. I really believe it was one of this first real lessons in life and I think he came back after Monza, I had a close relationship with him as I was his race engineer at the time and he came back and understood why it had happened and he did then realise that no matter who he was or what his potential was, no matter how talented he was there were certain standards of behaviour you have to abide by and I think he appreciated that. It was a hard lesson to learn and Pierluigi Martini in Monza was… a tough weekend to say the least.

I think the dynamic afterwards was different, I think that particularly between Ayrton and Alex. I think myself I worked as well with Ayrton after as before but as I say it was an important lesson in his life I think.

SA: I watched Ayrton racing in Formula Ford, Ford 2000, Formula 3 a lot, and the signs were pretty clear that he was an exceptional talent. You’re never quite sure. How long was it into the ’84 season was it that you guys woke up “wow this is what we’ve got”?

PS: It’s a good question. I’d like to say it was obvious straight away but I don’t think it was and the real reason for that was it was his fitness was so poor that his race performance was compromised. What I could see was that he could do an incredibly quick lap and he seemed to do it very easily but over a race distance he did struggle and I remember I think in Kyalami, his first race, coupled with the altitude and the difficulty breathing, he passed out at the end of the race. He really wasn’t very fit. I think we soon realised that not only was he actually a damn good driver but he had an innate intelligence that I probably hadn’t seen before. He had an incredible mechanical feel, he knew what was important. You often get with drivers that they’ll complain and complain about a particular corner where they may not have very good handling but that corner may not be very important to the lap time. Certain corners pay more dividends, a corner leading onto the straight it you slide onto he straight you lose time all the way along.

A lot of drivers to my amazement don’t actually understand that. Ayrton understood it, he understood every bit of a race track and understood every bit of a race strategy, what he had to do etc. The intelligence I think shone through straight away, the ability to drive one fast lap shone through pretty early but it took a little while before he became the complete driver.

EF: Its interesting, we did an RAC talk show with Dick Bennetts last month and he was saying in the Formula 3 world he was hot property even before the ’83 season started, Eddie Jordan was trying to get him and eventually Dick signed him for West Surrey Racing but they saw something special even then. He said his biggest problem was he got halfway through the season and all he had to do was finish behind [Martin] Brundle and Dick told him this and he said “I don’t want to finish second” and Dick said “that’s all you need to win the championship” and he said “I’m not going to finish second” so Dick said “we’ve got a bit of a problem where” and the rest is history.

PS: There’s an interesting thing, people forget how damn quick Martin was. Martin raced him so strongly in Formula 3 that year and of course Martin as Michael’s teammate in the ‘90s again was one of the strongest teammates Michael has ever had.

SA: I think Martin is often unfairly underrated because he didn’t win any Grand Prix’s, but he won the World Sportscar title, but I think people forget just how close he was to Senna in F3 and Michael in F1 and other teammates as well.

PS: I agree.

EF: This is part two of the question. Griff recently read your great account of Ayrton’s unusual DNF in the USGP in Dallas. This surely rates as one of the great driver excuses ever. Absurd yes, but true in the end. I’m sure listeners would enjoy hearing this one.

PS: It is amazing. The only time we ever raced in Dallas, an amazing experience, it was the beginning of July, we were there on July 4th which was quite a day to be in a city like Dallas. A street circuit which was delineated with huge concrete blocks, reasonable race, I can’t remember all the details of it, I think we had a reasonable start, he had a spin, I can’t remember exactly. He eventually retired, and he’d clipped the wall, enough to break a cv joint in the wheel, something like that and he couldn’t get the car back to the pits. He walked back to the pits. I was talking to him about what had happened. He said he’d hit the wall and he was really troubled by the fact that he’d hit the wall and he eventually said “I just don’t understand why I hit the wall. It must have moved.”


I said “of course it did” but he went on and on and on about it. After the race he said “I’ve got to go have a look at it, come with me.” So we went to the exit of this particular corner and damn me it had moved. What had happened was as I say the circuit was delineated with these huge concrete blocks which were just plonked on the tarmac. They weren’t fastened down in any way. Someone had hit the trailing edge of one of these blocks and it had pivoted slightly so the leading edge was sticking out about five mm at the most, from the preceding block. So there’s a little five mm step and Ayrton was driving with such precision that he was probably missing that block by five mm lap after lap. So when it suddenly moved five mm because it had swing round slightly he had hit it. Sure enough that is what happened, it absolutely amazed me. It was a big lesson to me in the precision that these really good guys can achieve.

EF: Amazing isn’t it? It makes you realise that there is no hope for us normal people behind the wheel of a Formula One car isn’t it? It’s similar to when Fangio was racing Moss in ’55 when Moss won and there was one lap when he was quite a long way back all of a sudden, and Michael Tee the photographer has seen him spin but he was bending down changing film in his camera. The reason Fangio spun there was because Michael Tee had moved and he was his braking point. He went to find him after the race and said “you moved!”

SA: A photographer is normally a less reliable braking point than a concrete block!

EF: That may well be the case!

SA: You touched upon ’84 being a breakthrough campaign, or a make or break year for Toleman as it was then. You mentioned not qualifying much during ’82 but Brands Hatch in ’82 you ran second for a while by dint of the fact you ran half a tank of fuel. Where did that idea come from?

PS: It came from Alex Hawridge I think. We were struggling at that time, Toleman was the big new British team, first team to go in with their own turbocharged engine, brought Pirelli into the sport, it really was going to be the next big thing but we’d bitten off so much more than we could chew. It was becoming increasingly difficult, the team was running out of money and we really had to do something and rightly or wrongly that was the decision that was made. It worked a little bit better than the calculations showed actually and as you say the car was running second. Now the interesting thing about that is that I don’t know whether you’ve seen the Red Bull video the history of pit stops and Gordon Murray, maybe I’ll ask him today, was the guy who realised pit stops ere the way to go in Formula One and I can’t help thinking the incident at Brands Hatch might have been the trigger that made him think that.

EF: Is the best training round for an engineer with aspirations to be a race engineer is in the junior formulae like F3, GP3, LMP3 or LMP2, to gain experience, or should you try to get straight into Formula One doing an alternative role?

PS: Race engineering is a very particular expertise. It does take a particular type of person to work trackside, its hard work these days in terms of going to 21 races, testing, all that sort of stuff. But I really would encourage people to get out and to interact in lower formulas because a lot of the work of a race engineer and here I’m talking about the classic race engineer rather than performance engineers etc. A lot of the skills that they need is dealing with the drivers, the translation of what a driver is thinking, what he needs, marrying that with the data, looking at how you set the car up together with your performance engineer etc.

While there’s much you can do within a Formula One team on the modelling side, simulation side, things like that, you don’t get that interaction with the driver that’s so important, so I really encourage people to get out and get involved with lower formulas. It’s a shame so many of them are one make formulas and you can’t do the sort of engineering I used to do but nevertheless that interaction with the driver is something you can’t get elsewhere.

EF: What are your thoughts on the halo?

PS: I think they are incredibly ugly, there are plenty of ugly racing cars but we don’t need to make them any more ugly. More importantly I think they’re only a partial solution and I would rather we waited until we had a better solution and I think a canopy, which Red Bull put so much effort in to, ultimately is a better solution. One of the things perhaps we need to think about is, is Formula One an open cockpit formula or an open wheel formula? I think it needs to remain an open wheel formula but I don’t think it necessarily needs to remain an open cockpit formula. So I think the screen, the canopy that Red Bull developed which was an essentially open top aero screen perhaps went quite far enough and I think if we actually had a more fully enclosed canopy I think it would look quite futuristic, would look quite attractive and would be, certainly from the flying object point of view, would be more effective.

One of the reasons we haven’t gone with the halo is that there are so many more things to consider and I’ve often said if you choose what accident you’re going to have you can design a car that would withstand it. But what you have to do is design a car that will experience a significant number of different types of accidents many of which you’ve never envisaged and you have to be so careful with those sorts of things.

With the halo, a lot of work has gone into it, a very technical risk assessment has been done on it, and it does show there are still questions to be answered, so while earlier in this recording I was saying we have a habit of knee jerking into things I’m glad to say with the halo we haven’t knee jerked into it. We continue to research it, at Williams we have run it with both of our drivers in the last two Grand Prix for them to give opinions on visibility and things like that and hats shown up some interesting things that we hadn’t anticipated in terms of reflection and peripheral vison. So ultimately we need to do something like that. We must always push safety forward, I’d like the cars to look a bit more futuristic therefore I personally think the full canopy is the better answer but we need to make sure we can get out. There are plenty of closed cockpit cars that we don’t regard as unsafe including of course LMP1.

EF: We would be looking at a Formula One car with windscreen wipers though wouldn’t we?

PS: Yes, and all the problems that the LMP1 cars have: misting up, the stroboscopic vision you get when you drive under trees, all these sorts of things. But you can race for 24 hours at Le Mans with a windscreen in front of you so you can certainly race for a couple of hours in a Formula One car.

EF: Thank you so much for coming in and talking so eloquently.

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