Formula One is a sport with a lot of hidden aspects; it is far more than just the driver in the car and the boss on the other end of the radio. At RealSport we are pulling back the curtain to look at the inner workings of the most famous motorsport in the world.
We sat down with former Red Bull Racing electrical engineer and pit crew member Robbie Durant to find out just what goes into getting the car and driver to, and through, a race – never mind 21 in a year.
“Race weeks start seven days before.” Durant said, “The trucks leave for a European race the weekend before and arrive on the Sunday or Monday depending on the race. They are met by a crew who set up the garages. When we get there they are just shells so everything you see, from the screens to the chairs and tyre racks, that’s all come with us”.
That set-up crew wire and mark out the garage bays for the mechanics and engineers who get off the plane on a Wednesday and head straight to the track.
“The cars almost always arrives in bits. Just a chassis and a whole lot of parts. It’s a two-day job to put them together.”
Cars used to travel to the circuit as a built and recognisable unit, but those days are long gone. “The rate of development is so fast that there are always new pieces ready to go into use – and old pieces going back to the factory for assessment.”
While most of the public attention around Formula One is surrounding qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday, it’s Friday where the real hard work is done by the crews.
“Friday is the longest and hardest day by far, even if everything goes right.”
Friday features two practice sessions, starting at 10am local time and lasting 90 minutes before a lunch break and then another 90 minute session at 2pm.
The race team is out of the hotel by 7am and take breakfast at the track.
“We have a run plan for the first session and everything is towards validating that plan.” The 90 minutes goes quickly, and the lunch break is far from a break.
“Lunch is chaos, even without a crash. Each crew member has a list of checks and changes to make to be ready for the second session.” F1 cars are all fitted with a certain number of sensors on a race weekend, allowing the race engineers and team bosses to see what is happening with the various systems that make the cars run smoothly. However, on Friday teams can add additional sensors to areas that the FIA do not allow on a Saturday and Sunday, they can also run things that are outside the FIA race rules – hence seeing the “halo” head protection device trialled on Fridays. All those additional devices help teams to understand what is happening within the car on the long race-prep runs or light fuel load blasts.
“When P2 finishes the day really begins” – a 7am start, but the day doesn’t really begin until 4pm? Ouch.
There are a huge number of changes for teams to make on a Friday evening. The engine and gearbox have to come out and replaced with the “race” units, which are strictly controlled by the FIA. Every mile on those units is precious so teams will run with spare units on Friday when they are pounding the track on laps that don’t count towards points in the standings.
Along with that, the additional sensors have to come off the car and any changes to set-up can be made before the car essentially enters restricted ‘Parc Ferme’ area, where a very limited number of changes can be made in order for the car to take its place on the grid. Modern F1 has a curfew for how late teams can stay at the track on a Friday – in 2016 the latest is midnight but in previous years teams could have stayed in the garage all night working away on things.
“Saturday is where the fun begins. There’s no hiding when it comes to qualifying, and everything is planned to the second. When you see the car sitting at the end of the pitlane or not running when others are, that’s all part of the plan for the day.”
Qualifying is an especially critical time of the weekend for tracks like Monaco or Hungary where overtaking is hard, but for the engineers and mechanics it is a fairly light day. “There is very little you can do on Saturday due to Parc Ferme. Unless everything goes wrong, of course.”
In the Japanese Grand Prix last year though, things did go wrong for Robbie and Red Bull – Daniil Kvyat put a wheel on the grass going into turn ten in the last part of qualifying. He ended up rolling the car in spectacular fashion, wrecking it entirely.
“All of Ricciardo’s crew had to jump across and help deconstruct Daniil’s car.” – as Ricciardo’s electrical engineer, Durant had to assist Kvyat’s electrical engineer in stripping the chassis of electronics and helping to turn the spare chassis into a racing car. “It took two crews 9 hours to build it back up, and we still had all of the post-qualifying checks and changes to make on Dan’s car as well”.
Durant left the garage that day at 2am, just as Kvyat’s crew were getting ready to fire the new car up.
The race itself is fairly quiet for mechanics and engineers, unless they are on the pit crew of course. “Race strategy is extremely secret. Only a few guys on the pit wall know what the plan is going into the race, sat in the garage with helmets and fireproofs on, the pit crew don’t know in advance the exact strategy”.
After the race though, the work load picks up again. Immediately after the race the car goes into Parc Ferme again for two hours, giving the crews a small amount of time to strip all their gear out of the garage and out into the back of the paddock to be loaded onto the trucks. “It’s frantic work, clearing out the garage set up. When it’s done and we get the cars back they are then deconstructed and boxed up ready to go to the next track.”
Even after a win, there is little time to celebrate for those working behind the scenes. The team are straight out of town the next day bright and early and immediately onto the next location in the case of back to back races. Formula One takes no prisoners when it comes to the race teams, it is a long and hard season for all involved with enough travel time to dissuade some from taking that step into the race team. While the drivers get all the glory they wouldn’t be able to run around a track on a Sunday without the 60 race team personnel who accompany them to every race and get the cars built and working. Next time you see Lewis Hamilton spray champagne on a Sunday, think of the crew who were every bit as responsible.
Next Week:- Robbie takes us through the stresses of pit stops and how teams build their crew and develop a perfect pit stop