Sunday, Race Week

Sunday at Spa and the clouds are still here. Luckily it didn’t rain on us last night as we had another team BBQ at the chalets. Michael and Nico came and hung out with us for a while which was nice, especially as it was only 10 degrees outside! I think it’s nice for them to get away from the circuit and all of the attention to relax and just be part of the team.

The weather forecast gets progressively worse as the day goes on. It starts out with 20% chance of rain this morning, 40% at the start of the race, 60% by the end of the race and 80% when we’re packing up… oh joy. The weather could play into our favour today so I shouldn’t complain but standing on the grid for 30 minutes in the rain is not fun.

The cars are released from Parc Ferme five hours before the race at which time you can start working on them. If you wish to change or repair anything, you have to get permission from the FIA, however you can only change a part for an identical part. We have a few things to repair this morning after qualifying but nothing major. The time leading up to the race is a steady progression. It’s fairly relaxed around the garage in the morning but as the race approaches, it gets more bustling. The first engine fire-up is three and a half hours before the race to warm it up and make sure all of the systems check out ok and then we have a series of warm-ups up to keep heat in the engine. The engines are not like the engines in road cars that will start in freezing conditions. The tolerances on a lot of our components are so tight that they have to be heated up to get sufficient clearance which is why we have to pre-heat the engines before we start them. Once they been pre-heated and started, we have to continually start them to maintain heat or else we have to go through the pre-heating process all over again.

The pit lane opens 30 minutes prior to the race which is when the cars leave the garage and drive around to the grid. I wait in front of my laptop watching telemetry as Michael drives to the grid to make sure there are no issues with the engine. If I spot anything, it may require Michael driving back to the pits for us to work on the car because once you’re out on the grid, you are limited by the amount of equipment you have. Once Michael has shut the engine off, I unplug my laptop and walk out to the grid. On the grid, my primary job is to cool the engine down. It doesn’t take long for the engine to get up to operating range when Michael drives around to the grid so we have to cool it back down. If we didn’t cool it down, when Michael drives around on the formation lap and waits on the grid for the lights to go out, the engine would overheat and bad things would happen! Even with cooling, it still gets warm as he waits for the start. Cooling requires several blowers, lots and lots of dry ice, and multiple engine fire-ups to circulate the fluids and get stabilised temperatures for the water and oil. We have a strict routine with exact times that we adhere to. If you’re stood on the grid, you can hear all of the Mercedes powered cars fire-up within a few seconds of each other.

The temperature was cool today, around 14 degrees, so the engine temperatures came down quickly on the grid and it didn’t rain which was nice. With five minutes to go, Michael gets strapped into the car and the tyres are fitted and torqued. Then we anxiously wait for Alistair, Michael’s number one mechanic, to give us the signals. 90 seconds to go, disconnect the tire blankets. 60 seconds to go, start the engine. 45 seconds to go, remove the tyre blankets and everyone off the grid. Lights out and off they go. We have to wait on the grid until Michael leaves in case he stalls or has any problems. One thing I love about this job that still makes me smile is standing on the grid when the cars leave on the formation lap, thousands of horsepower waiting there to be unleashed. By the time the car passes you, he’s already doing over 100kph with the engine screaming away, shaking your chest. I’m sure people are thinking ‘What’s he smiling for?’. Once the last car has passed, it’s time for the mad dash back to the garage. Here in Spa, the track is lower than our end of the pit lane so we had to climb up through openings in the fence and haul all of the equipment back up. I run back to the garage, through the back and up the stairs into the truck. I’m not in the best of shape so it usually takes a few laps for the heart to stop pounding.

My job during the race is to monitor the engine data and ensure we are staying within our operational limits. The only control we have on how the engine is run is by having Michael change settings on the steering wheel such as different fuel maps and the RPM limit. With all the conversations happening on the intercom during the race, Shov has a lot to deal with so it’s my job to update him with any changes we need and then he informs Michael on the radio.

The race was rather hectic and as expected, it rained. It’s tricky when it starts to rain because you want to come in early enough that you’re not on slicks when it really starts coming down but you don’t want to come in so early that the track isn’t wet enough because the wet tyres will quickly get destroyed on a dry surface. We got it right today and left Michael out when it was drizzling on part of the track but dry everywhere else. The pit stop crew was on stand-by for two laps before he was finally called in when the second rain shower hit. With all the carnage during the race and a bit of luck, we managed to finish in seventh place which is not bad at all from starting in 21st position.

One of the many things I like about working for this team is that Ross gathers everyone in the garage after the race and talks to us about how the weekend went. He talks about what went right, what went wrong, what we need to work on, thanks everyone for their efforts and encourages us to keep up the good work. It may not sound like much but when we work the long hours that we do, it’s nice to hear feedback from the man at the top.

It’s time to shut the computers off and start packing up. I hope my blog has been entertaining and given you some insight into the world of Formula One. Thank you for your continued support of MERCEDES GP PETRONAS, as without the fans, Formula One wouldn’t be what it is today. Enjoy the rest of the season.

Saturday, Race Week

My favourite day of the weekend has arrived, Saturday. I say that largely because of qualifying and the excitement that brings but also because of our friend, Parc Ferme. Parc Ferme, which is where the cars stay under FIA watch and nobody can touch them, starts tonight at 6:3pm so we should get out of here shortly afterwards and have time for a nice and relaxing dinner. I’ve worked in other racing series that allow you to work on the car as much as you want and that can drag on into an all-night affair. The weather today is looking better so far. The clouds are still around but it isn’t raining and I just saw the sun come through briefly. They are still saying 30-50% chance of rain throughout the day so there’s a good chance it will rain at some point.

Saturdays tend to go by rather quickly. P3 is only an hour (as opposed to P1 and P2 which are 90 minutes) and with yesterday being mostly wet, we have a lot to accomplish so there won’t be much downtime. After P3, we have two hours until qualifying starts. It may sound like a lot of time but it’s not if things go wrong which they do on occasions. You cannot change gears for qualifying (you have to declare them to the FIA on Friday night) so the gearbox ‘shouldn’t’ have to come off but if there are any issues with it or the engine and the car has to come apart, two hours isn’t much time to get it back together for qualifying. Once qualifying starts, Q1 lasts for 20 minutes with a seven minute break before Q2. Q2 is 15 minutes with an eight minute break before Q3 which is only 10 minutes.

Timing is everything in qualifying so everyone has to be on their game to send the car out when Shov (Andrew Shovlin), Michael’s race engineer, says for us to go. We have four mechanics on each corner to disconnect the tyre blankets, Justin ready with the rear jack to drop the car on the deck, Stuart on the starter motor at the rear, Leon on the left side of the cockpit to disconnect the car from the garage network, Mark ready to start the engine up, Al is on the front jack and to direct Michael out of the garage if there’s any traffic, and myself and Tim (chassis support engineer) give the green lights to send the car. Quite often the fastest car in qualifying is the last one to take the chequered flag because the track improves so much throughout qualifying. Shov looks for a window in traffic to get Michael out in free air so the car needs to be sent when he says go. If there are any delays, Michael can get caught up in traffic or miss the chance to do an additional timed lap because seconds matter. We’ve had a few hiccups this year but it usually goes well in qualifying. Hectic but everyone knows their role so we keep calm and carry on.

P3 remained dry for most of the session which was good because we finally got relevant information on the slick tyres should the race turn out to be partially dry. With 20 minutes to go, the skies opened up again for a few minutes and then it stopped. We had no major dramas on Michael’s car from P3 so the turnaround work was straightforward. They weren’t as fortunate on Nico’s car as he had a problem with the gearbox during the session and the car had to be taken apart before qualifying so our guys helped out where they could to ensure that everything was finished on time. The sun is out now but it still looks highly likely that it will rain during qualifying. Hopefully the weather cooperates with us and we are able to make it into Q3. With Michael’s 10 place penalty from the last event, we are going to start the race somewhere in the midfield which is unfortunate but if the race turns out to be wet, then anything can happen.

Qualifying was more chaotic than usual today. It’s always chaotic with a lot happening in a very short period of time but today even more so because of the changing weather conditions. It started out dry but there was still some moisture on parts of the track and on the curbs as Petrov found out when he went off in the first couple of minutes causing a red flag. Fortunately for us, Michael was just approaching the last corner when the red flag came out so he managed to come in straight away. The session was restarted a few minutes later with the threat of rain imminent and sure enough, it started to drizzle on the out lap. Four cars spun in front of Michael and somehow he managed to miss them. As I said, timing is everything in qualifying. We were going to send Michael out on intermediates at the end but Nico was already out on the inters and said he was coming in for slicks. Michael was just driving out of the garage when Shov stopped him to pull the car back and put slicks on. We got back out right at the end of the session and managed P5. We tried our best in Q2 but unfortunately Michael was bumped at the end to P11 after encountering traffic on his quick lap and missing the top ten by a tiny fraction. With our 10 place penalty that puts us back to 21st position on the grid.

Now it’s time to scroll through data, write some reports, and get the calibration ready for the race tomorrow. We can’t change the cars since they are under Parc Ferme conditions but we can tweak some of the control parameters inside the ECU. Nothing drastic as the ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ principle usually applies but a few things could be more to Michael’s liking. A difficult race ahead of us tomorrow but we might gamble somewhere as we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If it rains it could play in our favour.

Friday, Race Week

It’s Friday at Spa, the first day of running… and it’s raining. It was raining when we arrived at 7.30am this morning and it’s still raining. The forecast says rain all day so we may not get as much done as we would like. Two of the things you have to consider when the conditions are so wet are not taking unnecessary risks when there is nothing to learn (i.e. putting the car at risk to going off) and tyre management. Each driver only has seven sets of wet weather tyres for the weekend which includes four sets of intermediates and three sets of full wets. If the forecast is for rain over the entire weekend, which it currently is, then it limits your running as you want to save new sets for qualifying and the race. It could be tricky this weekend but I’m sure we’ll work it out. Spa is one of my favourite places on the calendar despite the weather. It’s one of the classic Formula One tracks in a really beautiful and scenic location.

The first practice on Friday is always a waiting game. Everyone does an installation lap where you go out for one lap and then check the car over thoroughly when it comes into the garage to ensure there are no leaks or nothing has come loose. Then everyone waits for as much as 30 to 40 minutes for the track to come in. The track at the beginning of a weekend is ‘green’ which means there isn’t much rubber down on the racing line. As the track rubbers in, the cars go quicker and the lap times drop. Since changes to the car are largely evaluated on lap time improvement, you want the track to be consistent so you can confidently say it’s an improvement. We always have someone watching other cars and their lap times to determine when the track has stabilised. You don’t want to be the first car out because the track isn’t ready but you need to leave sufficient time in order to get everything completed. In wet conditions though, it’s a different kind of waiting game. Rain washes the rubber away so that’s not the concern. You either wait for a bit if there’s a chance the rain will let up and the track will dry or if there are heavier showers predicted later in the session, you try and get as much done while it’s only drizzling. Conversely, if there’s nothing much to be learned and the rain isn’t letting up, you wait in the garage as to not risk damaging the cars. We’ll see how P1 turns out.

P1 was literally a bit of a washout. It rained for pretty much the entire session so we didn’t do a great deal of running. After the session, we have an engineering debrief in the truck where the drivers give feedback on how the session went and the engineers decide what we need to do for the next session. Michael has a few drivability issues that we need to work out for P2 which requires scrolling through the data to find the instance of concern and then coming up with a solution on how to fix it. After looking through the rest of the data to make sure there are no concerns on the engine, I have to prepare a few reports that show the data in a quick and easy to read format. These reports help me to highlight obvious signs of any problems or things that can be improved but they are also good for others that aren’t sat in front of the computer watching the live data. After making a few calibration changes, I’m all set for P2. Even though the sun peaked out for a minute in the break, I think it’s going to continue raining for the session.

P2 is out of the way and to the surprise of most people, we had a dry track (well a dry racing line anyway) by the end of the session. We managed to get through the entire programme and learn a few things which will give us some direction for tomorrow. There was a bit of drama near the end when the red flag came out for the unusual reason of ‘spectators in a potentially dangerous area’. We never did see where these spectators were but unfortunately they cost us, and all of the teams, valuable dry running time. When the FIA announced that the track would go green in 45 seconds with just three minutes on the clock, almost every car drove out of their garages and lined up at the pit exit but they ended up waiting for a lot longer than 45 seconds. There was an issue with the light at the end of the pit lane sticking on red so finally someone had to wave a green flag. The cars don’t have cooling fans like a road car so if they are static and there’s no air flow, they heat up. Fortunately we didn’t get too hot but these are things we have to watch out for and we were about to send some guys down to the end of the pit lane with cooling fans when they finally waved the flag.

Now all the turnaround work begins. The cars get stripped after P2 and depending on where certain parts are with mileage, they get changed. Both the engine and gearbox will be changed tonight to the race ones so I have to go through the process of setting up the race engine in the car as I did with the current engine on Thursday. First though, I have to wrap up today by writing all of my reports and sending them off back to Brixworth. Luckily there have been no major engine concerns from today so this engine will carry on running on Friday in Monza.

The race engine fire-up went well this evening. I have a few more things to finish up and then hopefully we will be out of the circuit before 11pm which is good for a Friday. The forecast looks a bit better for tomorrow but there’s still a chance of rain. A wet qualifying would be interesting. We’ll see how it turns out.

Thursday, Race Week

I'm based at Mercedes-Benz HighPerformanceEngines in Brixworth (about 30 minutes north of Brackley) where we design, build and test all of the Mercedes engines used in Formula One. This is only my second year in Formula One and my first year working with the MERCEDES GP PETRONAS team. Whilst we haven't had the results that we've hoped for this year, I am enjoying myself. We have a lot of laughs together and there’s a really good team spirit here. Last night, we all pitched in for a BBQ at the holiday chalets where we’re staying for this race which was a nice relaxing way to start the weekend.

Today is Thursday which is the final set-up day and the first of our white shirt days as we wear grey set-up polo shirts up until Wednesday and then the white button-up shirts for the race weekend. Everyone has new white shirts for this event with a few new sponsors. I'll try not to get mine dirty but honestly as an engineer, I usually don't get the opportunity to get dirty except for Sunday nights when we pack up. We came straight to the circuit from the airport yesterday which allowed me to get everything set up so I can get straight into work today. All four of my computers are ready to go... yes that’s four computers! I have one laptop on the side bench for Mark, our engine mechanic, to view and start the engine during sessions, one laptop in the engineering truck which is the one that I use to programme the car and look at telemetry. I also use it to remotely view two other machines. Then there is one laptop for email and reporting and another machine that runs telemetry and calculates various functions we use to monitor engine health.

The first order of the day is to make sure the engine calibration is ready to go and I'm ready to calibrate the throttles once the hydraulics are on and all of the sensors are plugged in. After Mark and I have calibrated the throttles (he's actually moving the throttles, I'm typing numbers into the computer) the gearbox gets bolted on and the guys finish assembling the car and get it ready to fire the engine up. We always aim to fire the engine up as early as possible in case there are any issues and the car has to come apart again. If the fire-up goes well, the boys can carry on getting the car ready to run tomorrow. If not, it can turn into a late night. Today there are no major concerns which is good because the car crew can carry on.

At European races, I’m based in the engineering ‘treehouse’ office upstairs in the trucks. I would venture to say it is one of the nicer set-ups in the pit lane. Two pop-up trailers are lined up perfectly next to each other and the two inner walls fold up to create the roof. Beams, the floor and walls for the front and rear are then put in place to create a very open engineering office. As you walk in the door, there’s a small kitchen with a fridge, snacks and the all-important coffee machine. On the left side is the hydraulics room and on the right side is Ross’s office. Then you walk through another sliding door which opens up into the main engineering office. On one side are the driver rooms for Michael and Nico where they get changed and relax before the sessions. In the middle is a large conference table for the engineers and drivers. Then four smaller tables (one in the middle and three on the other side) are set up around the side which is where I sit.

At my desk I have one laptop, an intercom panel with 12 channels just above it which allows me to talk to individuals or small groups without broadcasting to the entire team and another computer screen just above that. We also have two little TV screens in the middle which Cristian (Nico’s engine engineer) and I use to watch the timing, weather and track action. It’s nice being away from the garage because it gets really noisy in there sometimes. On the flip side, when the car fires up, you can’t hear it so you have to be paying attention to the data… which I always am of course. I’ll be spending most of the day sat in the truck, which is good because it’s raining outside, sitting in meetings and getting everything ready for tomorrow. We have a few new things to try so a test plan needs to be worked out to ensure we gather all the information we need to assess whether or not they are improvements. Hopefully everything works as expected but it could be difficult to judge if the weather doesn’t co-operate and rains as predicted tomorrow. We shall see.

It’s almost 9pm and the end is in sight. There are no major dramas today which is ideal. A reasonably early finish for a Thursday means I’ll get some decent sleep tonight as Fridays are always the longest days of the weekend so it’s good to be well-rested before the controlled chaos that is a Formula One weekend begins.

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