Paul Pezzack, Trackside Control Systems Engineer
Sunday, Race Week
On the way home from the track last night, we popped into Amber Lounge which is an event organised at some of the more prestigious Formula One races by Sonia Irvine (Eddie’s sister!). It’s a very exclusive party night usually attended by celebrities, sponsor guests and paddock A-listers but on a Saturday night, she always gives tickets to the girls who work in the paddock. Somehow we managed to blag a couple of tickets despite being the wrong sex! It’s an awesome event so to get the tickets was a real treat.
The party was just about finishing but we managed to grab a drink and a quick turn on the dance floor before walking back to our hotel as the sun came up. As we have to pack down the garage after each flyaway event into the air-freight containers, something that the whole team gets involved with, I knew sleeping hours would be short on Sunday evening so I packed my bag before getting some rest. When you travel every week, you get quite skilled at packing quickly and not forgetting stuff.
Sunday is a long day of anticipation with everything building up to the race. I spent most of Sunday afternoon looking at our practice starts from the weekend and comparing this year’s data with Michael’s car and with starts from the last two years here. This allows us to prepare the best settings for the race. I look at which tyres we are starting on, the effect of the race fuel load, the clutch behaviour over the weekend and the available engine power as all these elements can affect the performance of the car during the crucial run to the first corner. Historical data can give you some clues as to the grip we can expect but it is only after the start on the formation lap, that we really get the final pieces of the puzzle.
Between the formation lap start and the actual race start is the pressure point of the weekend for me. I have around 30 seconds to make the decision on the start modes and getting it wrong could lead to the car being left stationary on the grid. I also find out other information during the formation lap such as the performance of other cars and how effective the tyre warming has been which can affect my decision. By the time that the cars arrive back on the grid, all of my decisions for the start have been made and with one eye on the data, I watch the start on the TV monitors.
During the race, both of our cars made good starts and Nico was able to make up two places during the race to finish in fifth position from seventh place on the grid so more valuable points for the team. Michael had a more tricky race with a couple of on-track encounters meaning that his pit stops were made out-of-sync which really compromised his race.
As neither of our cars finished in the top three, the drivers were back from their media commitments relatively promptly after the race and we got straight into our debrief. We ran through the generic debrief questions plus some race specific items and what we would do differently if we had another chance. After that, it was a sweaty few hours of pack-up in the intense humidity before heading back to the hotel for a quick shower and a few hours sleep.
Most of the team returned to the UK on Monday morning but I am lucky enough to be having a few days holiday in Bali before the next race which takes place at the fabulous Suzuka circuit in Japan, one of the most popular circuits on the calendar with the drivers.
Saturday, Race Week
On Saturdays, we arrive at the track an hour later than on Fridays as the practice session starts an hour later which means some valuable extra rest after the long Friday. We run through the same schedule of meetings and engine fire-ups but the pre-session checks are more important as the engine and gearbox are the ones that we plan to use for the rest of the weekend.
There was some rain in the early afternoon today (before we got up!) which meant that the track was declared wet again so we completed the installation lap on wet weather tyres. During the session, we made some further tweaks to the shift settings and the shift light settings to ensure we are changing gear at the best engine speed to maintain car acceleration. There were no major issues during the session although Nico once used an escape road. Impressively he managed to select reverse and move the car outside of the escape road and continue the lap. It’s always alarming when you look at the live data and the traces are not following the usual trend as you quickly have to establish whether there is an issue with the car or it was a driver error.
Once we get to this stage of the weekend we try not to make too many changes to the car or the control system. However for qualifying, there are some specific settings that we need to change. Usually the pit lane speed limit increases to 100kph from 60kph, however due to the narrow pit lane here, the FIA have requested that we use 60kph for the whole weekend. Getting this setting wrong can be quite embarrassing as the entire pit lane can see your mistake. Unfortunately Hispania sent both cars out at 100kph and suffered three fines… one car received a fine leaving and returning to the pits!
During qualifying, we often set specific lap times on the steering wheel dash so the driver has an idea if he is going quicker or slower than a pre-defined time. The FIA regulate the speed at which the cars return to the pits so it’s important to keep the driver informed of how quickly he is going Unfortunately during qualifying tonight, we lost the live data telemetry feed from the car for a short period of time and I had some issues with my computer freezing which was quite annoying. We work really hard to make sure that we have the best equipment and it all proves worthless when your PC decides to crash!
After the session, the cars stay in Parc Ferme whilst the FIA carry out their checks to ensure that the cars adhere to the rules and regulations. There were some additional tests carried out on some of our competitors’ cars which meant that our cars were released later than normal which subsequently delayed some of the usual post-qualifying checks. We had a couple of minor issues on Nico’s car to investigate before focusing on the race and particularly for me, on the race start. Two of the sensors had stopped functioning so we still need to decide if we want to change them for the race. To do this we have to get permission from the FIA as the rules do not allow changes to the car unless we can prove there is a fault.
Friday, Race Week
Sitting in the engineering office at the back of our garage at 6am in the morning after working all night seems very strange. With the morning dawn just breaking outside in the paddock, it feels like it’s been a very long day! Having said that, the Singapore weekend is a strange phenomenon where the working day is actually quite short in comparison to races in Europe. A 6am finish would be 11pm back at home which is reasonably early for a Friday which is the busiest day of the race weekend.
Our Friday got off to a reasonable start as we arrived at the circuit just before the darkest cloud in the sky unleashed itself all over the downtown streets. It made the support races more interesting as they are the first opportunity to see how the water dissipates from the track and pit lane. Once the rain had stopped, the 32 degrees temperature became uncomfortable again but the track surprisingly didn’t dry very quickly which is probably due to the high humidity. The circuit was even still damp when the first practice session started a couple of hours later.
The engineers usually arrive at the circuit two hours before the first session and are usually amongst the last to leave. As the whole weekend operates to a strict timetable, we often arrive at the circuit as the final shift checks are being performed on the cars in the garage. Prior to the first session, we had our usual engineering briefing with the drivers, Ross and our support personnel at the factory where we talk about our objectives for the session and any issues which had arisen since Thursday. The briefing always takes place an hour before the session starts and we also cover changes to the circuit and issues that occurred at the previous year’s race.
During the first practice session which began at 6pm, there was a lot of standing water on the track and nothing much could be learned. On Nico’s side, we completed an installation lap to check over the car systems and that was about it until the track was dry enough for slick tyres with about 15 minutes to go. On the other side of the garage, Michael completed quite a few laps on the intermediate tyres as it is his first visit here and all track time is valuable to learn the quirks of the circuit.
As we have no in-season testing these days, we often run new parts during the Friday practice sessions to ensure that they function correctly and are reliable before introducing them for qualifying and the race. We ran a substantial upgrade to one of the mechanical systems on the car and with the track in a variable condition, this gave me a lot of time to look through the system in detail to ensure it was operating as expecting before Nico went out at the end of the session. As we didn’t run for most of the session, I was able to spend more time with Nico going through the data from the first runs and we made some positive changes to the engine drivability for the final run.
At the events outside of Europe, we don’t have our trucks at the circuit which double as our engineering office so we are based in the garage at the telemetry racks. Despite some severe downsides, particularly the heat and humidity at this particular race, it does have some advantages such as being able to talk to the drivers and engineers in person rather than over the intercom.
After the end of the session we debriefed and prepared for the second practice session which started at 9.30pm. At Singapore, the bridge which leads from Turns 13 and 14 has historically caused some interference with the onboard electrical systems. For this year, we made some specific changes to the hardware and control system which were working well to ensure reliability during the race.
During the second session, we evaluated gearshift settings to improve the performance of the car. We also made some changes to the powertrain and engine settings to give the drivers more confidence that the shift would not unsettle the car whilst being driven on the limit. With all changes that we make to the car, we have to ensure they will not cause damage so after the session, I have to review all gearshifts using statistical analysis tools to check for any issues, failures or trends which could lead to a failure.
One of my main roles is to help the driver get a competitive start in the race. As we are not usually able to practice starts on the grid during sessions, we complete starts at the end of the pit lane. This allows us to gain familiarity with the clutch and grip level on the different tyre compounds. We also complete tests to find out the clutch bite point and using this data collected in the practice sessions and from previous year’s races, we are able to conclude on the best settings to use on Sunday.
Thursday, race week
Well here we go… the long run to the final race starts today with our first event outside of Europe since the Canadian Grand Prix in June. That really feels like a long time ago! With five races left, the championship battle is hotting up and so are the climactic conditions. Walking out of the sliding doors at Singapore’s Changhi Airport, after a dizzy plane sleep and 17 hours of travelling, the 31 degree heat and the 95% humidity hit you hard, reminding you that this isn’t going to be a usual race.
My role at the team is Trackside Control Systems Engineer. For the most part, it involves travelling to each of the nineteen races, as well as any test events, to ensure that we extract the maximum reliability and performance from the onboard electronic control system. This encompasses a broad range of disciplines such as tuning the drivability of the engine and optimising the powertrain dynamics. Powertrain dynamics are the connection from the engine to the rear wheels which includes the clutch, the seamless transmission gearbox and the final drive and differential. I am also responsible for getting the car off the start line during the race as quickly and competitively as possible to gain places before the first corner, with a bit of help from the driver of course!
With the drivers and management not arriving at the circuit until Thursday, the core race team of mechanics and engineers have been busy preparing for the race for a few days. This time, the preparation took place almost 11000kms apart with the mechanics flying out to Singapore on Monday to unpack the air freight and set up the garage, pit wall and support systems. Oh and don’t forget, they still had to build the race cars which arrive like something you can find in the back of Autosport! Whilst back at the factory in Brackley, we had our usual pre-event briefings which took up most of Monday before leaving the UK on Tuesday morning.
For this event, the cars and garage equipment left Europe on Saturday and won't return to the UK until after the final race and test in Abu Dhabi in eight weeks time. I get a slightly easier schedule and get to go home a few times during this period. On this trip out, we enjoyed the luxury of an Emirates Airbus A380 to whisk us over to Singapore (via Dubai) which was slightly bigger, although no less grand, than the Cessna Citation which I managed to hitch a ride on with Nico back from Monza! There are some perks to our job.
By Wednesday evening, the whole team is at the circuit for the final day of preparation. After arriving in Singapore at 2pm on Wednesday, we stopped off at the hotel, which is located adjacent to Turn 9, had a quick shower and met in the lobby to walk to the pits. The walk takes about fifteen minutes depending on which access routes are open. When I arrived at the lobby, I questioned the point of showering as outside the 31 degree heat waves had been replaced by diagonal torrential rain! We waited for a while for the rain to ease and then got into our amazingly waterproof team jackets and wandered over to the track.
I can imagine that it's the sight of a Formula One car at night which really makes this event stand out for the fans but for us, it's the working hours. With the practice sessions starting in the early evening and qualifying at 10pm, we stay on European time which means breakfast at 4pm, lunch at 8pm and dinner around 2am! Apparently meal times are very important to get into a time routine as your body uses meal times to recalibrate itself and work out the time of day. Google it if you want to know more! Last year, we were usually finishing work by 4am, the latest was 6am on Saturday morning after rebuilding the car after practice, and this usually allowed us to grab a long sleep or a short drink at one of the F1 parties. The local restaurants haven’t really caught on to the fact that there are about 2000 European mouths to feed after 2am and are mostly shut.
Since Monza, we’ve had a variety of tasks underway to review that weekend and prepare for Singapore. We held our Monza race debrief at Brixworth where our engine team are based. We encountered a few small issues over the weekend as Monza is a unique circuit with long straights and high top speeds. These required more in-depth analysis and discussions to ensure we made the right decisions as well as reviewing the control system performance metrics. On TV, you will often find us engineers looking at data with lots of different coloured lines on many charts which show all aspects of the car’s performance such as the ride analysis, the amount of aerodynamic downforce being generated or pressure data from the tyres.
Using the standardised Electronic Control Unit, we are able to see the information from the many sensors on the car up to 1000 times a second when the car is downloaded in the garage and whilst it is going around the circuit via our radio telemetry system. Sometimes even getting information at 1000 times a second is still not fast enough to diagnose and evaluate every issue and comparing data acquired by each of our cars is a useful way of understanding situations or variations in performance. If you see a laptop screen with relatively few channels and two traces, predominantly in two colours, that usually means the engineer is overlaying data between the two cars to find that crucial last tenth of second.
Judging by the build state of the two cars, we seem to be in reasonable shape this evening. The garage empties of mechanics and technicians around 11pm whilst the car covers are being attached. Michael has a new chassis for this event which will certainly have created some extra work for the guys working on his car. When we say new chassis, we refer to the part of the car where the driver sits. The majority of components, such as the nose, suspension, engine, gearbox and body work are carried over from the previous chassis and due to the tight tolerances in the design and manufacture, the pieces fit impeccably to the new monocoque.
This evening, the hotel manager at the Swissotel Stamford has invited the team onto the helipad for some welcome drinks and canapés. The helipad is located on the roof of the hotel which is the 73rd floor and 226 meters above the bay. We were told not to worry about helicopters landing as if one did, it would be the first in the history of the hotel since it opened in 1980! The views over Singapore were absolutely outstanding with the floodlight racing track being completely overshadowed, potentially for the only time this week, by the beautifully lit high-rises, colonial buildings like the Old Post office (now the Fullerton Hotel) and the ultra-modern Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Towers which has an amazing roof terrace shaped like a ship.
So hopefully that has set the scene for what we all hope is another good weekend after our double points haul at the last two European races. We’ll know by Sunday evening!