For Rob Smedley, the British Grand Prix is not only the eighth round of the world championship, it is also the opportunity to make a rare trip home, as Felipe Massa's race engineer is one of a small band of English people working for Scuderia ...
For Rob Smedley, the British Grand Prix is not only the eighth round of the world championship, it is also the opportunity to make a rare trip home, as Felipe Massa's race engineer is one of a small band of English people working for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro.
Smedley's journey to Maranello began with a Degree in Mechanical Engineering and Mathematics, followed by a Masters Degree. His first job was as a suspension designer for Peugeot's Touring Car racing team based in the UK. Then came more racing experiences as an engineer for an F3000 team, the Williams Touring Car team, before making his first foray into Formula 1 with the now defunct Jordan GP team, as a Data Engineer, a role that involves having an overview of all telemetric data in order to support a driver's race engineer, with a complete picture of what is happening on the car.
"When I was first a Data Engineer, the role was in its infancy," recalls Smedley. "It was good fun because back in 2000 and 2001 it was at the pioneering stage of working with the control systems on the cars. Now it all operates at a much higher level but in those days we did everything ourselves, from the design of the differential for example, right through to the electronic mapping of it."
Originally from Manchester, in the north west of England, Smedley joined the Scuderia at the end of the 2003 season. "I came to work on the test team," he says. "It was good choice. I had some opportunities in other teams but I took this, as it was the best option. Testing was something I wanted to do on a full time basis, just because of the technical input you have, which is much more than on the race team."
"Testing and racing are two very different disciplines. There's a lot more psychology involved when you work as a race engineer. At a race weekend, you don't have time to improve the car, you just find a good balance and try and make all the right decisions through the weekend and you end up where you end up - which is hopefully in a good position. As a test engineer, you are constantly developing the car and you are much more involved with the people back in the factory. Although testing and racing are very different, they are both very interesting disciplines and I enjoy both of them a lot to be honest."
"Formula 1 race engineering is a very strange art in that it is half technology and half psychology and relies on very logical thinking. It does not require you to be very technical all the time. Hopefully there is some theory behind what you are doing but you have to be very clever and cute in the way you approach things. Sometimes you can do things that are not always the optimum on the technical side, but they work effectively in terms of what you want to achieve on a race weekend."
Smedley worked with Felipe Massa in testing over this winter, but has only been race engineering the Brazilian for a handful of grands prix. "The job I do is essentially the same I have done for almost ten years now so I'm more experienced than Felipe," maintains the Englishman. "He is a very talented young guy and very quick but he has to be managed in the right way. He is relatively inexperienced at this level and my job primarily is to manage his weekend. My job involves bringing a sense of calm to what he's doing and to make sure that the technical side of his weekend is managed to its optimum level."
Some race drivers not only tell their engineers how the car is behaving on the track and whether or not they are happy with the car's balance and handling, but they also make suggestions as to how to change the car's behaviour with adjustments to set-up. Other drivers simply recount what the car is doing and leave their engineer to work on solutions. "Felipe fits this latter group as to what issues he has on the car and my personal opinion is I prefer it that way because it is my job and that of the guys who support me to find a solution to the problem," says Smedley.
"To be fair, with the tools and knowledge at our disposal we can find the right solution more easily than the guy driving the car can do it by feel. It's a massively important part of our job to get driver's feedback on the car, its balance and whether or not they feel more grip from changes we make to the car. In the end, it can very crudely be down to whether or not they go faster, but to achieve that, we need to use all our experience and data to find the correct solution for any problems we might encounter."
It is said that the relationship between a grand prix driver and his race engineer should be almost telepathic and Smedley is evidently enjoying his new role with Massa. "Felipe is a quick learner and as long as you instil a sense of calm in him, he understands his targets and objectives, which we have started to give him. His feedback is very good. We have started to set him specific targets over the past few race weekends."
"For example at the Nurburgring we told him he had to reach a consistent level in the race. We continued with that in Barcelona and now we are asking him to reach a consistent level of performance when running on new tyres. If you take it in small steps and the talent is there then you will get to the point you need to be at. In my experience if you try and make huge leaps you will never get there."
As for this weekend's British Grand Prix, Smedley is looking forward to returning to England. "It's my home grand prix and Silverstone is the circuit where I learnt my trade. I enjoy the weekend as I know a lot of people from the old days working in British motor sport." And from a professional standpoint, Smedley feels it should be a good weekend for the Scuderia.
"The track layout will suit our car and tyre package. The 248 F1 has worked very well on efficiency-based tracks and Silverstone is one of those. So I think we are in with a chance of doing very well. Both drivers know the track very well and they are very quick here which is obviously a help. It's a good high speed technical track with fast corners and a slower technical section at the end of the lap, which should suit our chassis-engine-tyre package."