If you ask where the drivers are during the race weekend, you are generally given the standard reply: “They’re in a briefing.” Michael explains to us what these ominous-sounding ‘briefings’ involve and the extent to which a modern driver also needs to be something of an engineer.
“Each race weekend starts with a general briefing to review our current situation,” says Michael. “Essentially, we’ll be looking at what sort of car we’ll be racing with, what updates are available for the weekend, what set-up we are going to use based on the simulations that we’ve run, and what the programme will be for the practice sessions. That’s then the basis on which we work for the weekend.”
In other words, the team is taking its bearings. Where do we stand relatively speaking, what can be improved and where would any changes take us? The bottom line is, of course, that drivers and engineers are working together at every race to get maximum performance out of the car. “Obviously this dialogue also presents an opportunity to state your own wishes and contribute your own ideas,” explains the record-breaking multiple championship winner.
The theoretical stage leads on to the practical, because it is only out on track that the team can collect the data that they can then process and build on for the rest of the weekend. “While you’re lapping the circuit, you’re constantly reporting back to your engineer on how the car is handling and what its weaknesses are, because that’s what you’re out there for – to identify weak points and remedy them. During the session, you’re working together to identify possible improvements as rapidly as you can. Obviously, you’ll be trying out various settings and homing in on individual problems that need to be sorted out.”
No sooner does the driver jump out of his cockpit than he is involved in another briefing. Once again, it’s a matter of analysing the current state of play, only this time using real data from the first few laps of the relevant circuit. No matter how sophisticated modern simulation software is, it is only after the practice sessions that light can be shed on the reality of the situation. “We work our way through a standard checklist and see whether any problems have arisen and where. This list follows a set format, which is important, because in the heat of the moment, it might be possible to forget a small yet significant detail. We look at every component of the car, from the seat down to the tyres. Sometimes, we come across supposedly minor details such as the brakes not getting up to temperature fast enough. In principle, this should not be a big problem, so you could forget if it weren’t on the list. Then, depending on what we discover, we try to find solutions.”
Attending these briefings are engineers with a whole range of specialisms – electronics, aerodynamics and tyres – plus the engineers who are responsible for the reliability of both cars and for one particular car and driver. Michael’s two designated engineers in 2010 were Andrew Shovlin and Peter Bonnington. ‘Shov’, as he is known to everyone on the team, also fulfilled the role of supervisor for everything that was done to Michael’s car.
Visits to the factory are really important for getting an overall view of developments. This is where the drivers can find out about the next package of updates or judge for themselves the general direction in which everything is headed. It is also an opportunity to express your opinion. “Obviously, we also discuss problems in detail and in person with engineers who are unable to join us trackside and who get their information only in the form of reports,” says Michael. “Sometimes it’s best to talk directly to the engineers back at the factory to read between the lines.”
Because they are constantly interacting with engineers, it is clearly a huge advantage if drivers have a technical background. “The more detailed a picture the driver is able to build up of his car, the better he will understand the way everything ties up and functions together,” adds Michael. “This means he can work with his engineer in a more targeted way by relaying information more systematically.” Because it is only the driver who experiences the car firsthand and who ideally has a feel for those fine details that a computer cannot predict or reproduce: “You are the gateway between the electronic data and human understanding. You are almost like a translator. The more clear and precise your translation, the easier it is for the engineer to work with it.”