As Chief Test Team Engineer at B.A.R Honda, Mark Ellis is preparing for the busiest and most important months of his year. Q: Has the post-season testing ban allowed them to refresh their batteries? Mark Ellis: Of course! Despite the fact that...
As Chief Test Team Engineer at B.A.R Honda, Mark Ellis is preparing for the busiest and most important months of his year.
Q: Has the post-season testing ban allowed them to refresh their batteries?
Mark Ellis: Of course! Despite the fact that we have had more restrictions in testing this year, it's still been an intense season and clearly everybody needs some free time to recover and start afresh again. The period we're going into now is the most intense of the year. We have three hard weeks before Christmas, a short break and then through January and February we have eight weeks of intensive testing, where we'll be testing every week before the first race in Bahrain.
Obviously, in motor racing -- whichever field you're in -- there are dedicated periods where you have to work and there's no chance for any time off. For us, there is a short break in August, but the November test ban is the best opportunity to get away and the most important time for the test team to take a well-deserved break.
Q: What differences did the testing restrictions introduced in 2005 make?
ME: We've operated with testing restrictions for some years now and I think 2005 was just another step, so it hasn't been hugely different. The main difference has been the limiting of track time to 30 days during the season, so the biggest effort has been to improve efficiency in all areas. This has allowed us to optimise our programme in the permitted number of days.
We aimed to do more mileage per day and to further ensure that the priorities are assessed correctly, so that we're doing the most important part of the programme at any given time on the track. With any restrictions you have to make sure that what 'drops off the bottom' is the least important part.
However, despite the restrictions, this has been our best year in terms of development. At the end of the year the performance of the car was looking quite good; in general we were the third best team in the latter half of the season. Considering where we started in 2005, I see that as a big improvement, which resulted not just from the test team but from everyone at the factory -- design, development and manufacturing -- doing such a fantastic job throughout 2005.
Q: What does the test team do when it's not testing?
ME: It depends really. In normal circumstances we will be preparing for the following test. During the season we test every couple of weeks for three days at a time, so the test team is away for the entire week of that test. Then it's back to the factory the following week to strip down the cars and components for proof testing and servicing to maintain our stringent safety and reliability standards.
For the engineers, the test results need to be communicated so that we can optimise the package for the following race event and plan the following test. There will also be new components coming through that need to be prepared and pre-fitted before we get to the circuit. It isn't possible to get through an 800 kilometre day, doing 20 to 25 runs and testing all the new components correctly, without the best preparation.
Q: How many miles of testing do you expect to clock up between now and Bahrain?
ME: It will obviously depend on the weather, but I would estimate somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 kilometres."
Q: Which circuits will you be visiting and why have you chosen those particular venues?
ME: Again, it's basically driven by the weather, which is why we'll almost exclusively be testing in Spain. It's the warmest and driest place in Europe at this time of year...usually! Continental Europe freezes during winter, the UK is too unpredictable and mostly wet or too cold, while Spain stays mild and dry, so realistically it's the only option. We'll primarily be using Jerez and Barcelona as they offer the best circuit layouts to assess the car developments, although some tests will also be held at Valencia in the New Year.
Q: Presumably the introduction of a new generation of V8 engines will put even more onus on the test team's performance over the coming months?
ME: Every year there are changes, some years more significant than others, which effectively change the way we have to approach the following race season. In 2005 we had the single-race tyre, which was a huge fundamental change, so we had to gear our winter testing towards solving all the issues thrown up by that. With the new V8 engine, we're just going to go a bit slower in a straight line. The compromise in the set-up of the car will change but that's not really any different to going to different circuits.
The biggest issue is that the V8 engine inherently has more vibrations than the V10, so we'll be aiming to make sure that we don't have any reliability issues resulting from that; not just with the engine but everything that's bolted to it. The engine is integral to the structure of the car, so its vibration tends to affect all the other components. Running the V8 from the first test should allow us to discover any problems early and solve them quickly.
Q: What chassis/cars will you be using between now and the introduction of the 2006 race car in January?
ME: Predominantly we're going to use our '06 Concept car. This year it consists of the current race chassis and the new rear-end, including the new V8 engine. We will use the 2005 car a couple of times; once at Barcelona for some aero testing, and again in January when Rubens first drives for us.
Q: What are the advantages of running a Concept car?
ME: It allows us to get the whole rear-end, the powertrain, onto the track as early as possible. The powertrain represents the greatest reliability risk, both in terms of its duty cycle and the unfriendly environment that it has to operate in. The conditions are harsh from the heat and vibration, and that affects the rest of the rear-end: the suspension and the gearbox. The sooner we can run it, the sooner the issues that haven't been picked up in the design and development processes can be identified and solved."
Q: You ran the Honda V8 engine at Mugello back in the spring, what lessons were learned by that exercise?
ME: That engine was a very early prototype, based on the 2004 V10, and the main purpose was to build up a picture of the primary issues that we were going to face. We already knew the vibration would increase and that driveability might change with the lower-powered engine. The Mugello test was mainly to validate the simulations and dyno work we had already done and to see if there were any other issues that would only be identified through track testing."
Q: With considerably less power in prospect, how tricky will it be to gauge the team's competitiveness over the coming months and how easy is to benchmark your performance against that of your rivals in the run-up to a new F1 season?
ME: Until all the teams have launched their full 2006 cars I think it's going to be more difficult than usual. In previous years where the rule changes have been minor, the performance of the cars has always been increasing, which makes it easier to gauge relative performance. But when the changes cause a clear step down in performance it makes it difficult.
Until the end of January, there's going to be a mixture of car specifications running -- 2005 cars with V10 engines, interim cars with restricted V10 engines, some with V8 engines and eventually full 2006 designs. Some of the cars will be easily matched and some won't, which makes comparison less simple.
Q: How important is it to benchmark the performance against other teams?
ME: The whole design and development process is planned to arrive at the best package that we can achieve, but it is very important to know how well you are doing, especially during the winter when there are no races. It's a balance between focusing on your own programme and obtaining a measure of whether it is good enough or not.
Q: Finally, how important would you say the test team is to the operation as a whole?
ME: It is a vital role in the development process. We help close the loop on all the work that is done to design and build the car. The effort that goes into getting a new car out on track is not to be underestimated. It's not just the test team who are working hard during the winter; there are over 400 people in the team all contributing, as they do all year round.
We wouldn't have the car to go testing if it wasn't for the designers, chassis engineers, engine engineers, aerodynamicists, manufacturing people and everyone in Tochigi, the Honda R&D Headquarters, all of whom have to meet very tight deadlines in order to get us to the track."