Guest blog: Fans get unique view Behind the scenes at the Mercedes F1 factory
This week eight JA on F1 readers got the chance to go behind the scenes at the headquarters of the world constructors' champions Mercedes, thanks t...
This week eight JA on F1 readers got the chance to go behind the scenes at the headquarters of the world constructors' champions Mercedes, thanks to a competition arranged in conjunction with the groundbreaking F1 crowd sourcing competition the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize.
One of the winners, Alex Nunns (photo below), wrote up the experience for JA on F1; here is his account.
Alex Nunns writes: The sign at the entrance to the Mercedes F1 factory in Brackley doesn’t need to spell out the name of the team. Its huge letters simply say: “2014 WORLD CHAMPIONS”. That self-assurance permeates through every inch of the factory. This is a team that is oozing confidence.
I was among a group of James Allen on F1 readers who had the chance to tour the Mercedes facility as winners of a Tata Communications competition. It was quite a time to visit, with the constructors’ title in the bag and the drivers’ shortly to be decided.
The factory is set up like a campus. A variety of buildings are scattered around, one for each department – except for aerodynamics, which gets two. The aero people have two wind tunnels, too, one of which has retractable walls and can accommodate full-size cars, although the regulations only allow Mercedes to use it at 60% scale.
One building houses the simulator, where Lewis had been working the day prior to our visit. It was a shame to have missed him. I had been trying to think beforehand of something to ask Lewis if I got to meet him – something intelligent, something engaging, something that would really get him to open up – and had decided to say “I have been for a long time very jealous of you, not only for your driving but for your girlfriend. Where is Nicole?”
Our excellent Mercedes guide, Oliver, said that Lewis would probably have been doing a debrief from the Brazilian Grand Prix – refining the simulator’s model of the track and looking, with his engineers, for where he could improve, so that next year he can pick up where he left off.
In another building, Mercedes does VTT – Virtual Track Testing. This puts the car through a race simulation without it moving, subjecting it to the loads and stresses it will have to endure. They can even adjust the humidity and composition of the air to mimic a chosen climate.
In the manufacturing department, 3D printers print bits of car for testing in the wind tunnel. Next door, in the carbon fibre building, the flexible material is rolled out and cut like cloth, before being shaped and then hardened in a huge curing oven that looks like an airlock from a spaceship. Outside there is a whole skip – literally a skip – full of discarded bits of Mercedes, mostly engine covers and side pods, presumably on their way to be scrapped. If F1 teams weren’t so concerned with secrecy they could make a fortune from memorabilia.
It feels incongruous to walk through the unremarkable looking complex – outwardly no different from any industrial estate anywhere in England – and then see, from the corner of your eye, a Mercedes F1 car through an open door. In the main assembly area of the factory there were several cars in various states of deconstruction. Among them was a 2012 model being used as a demo car; a 2013 version being prepared for next year’s demo car; and a 2014 R&D car with lots of extra sensors on it. Some of the cars were fitted with reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein’s seat.
It was interesting to see the evolution of the cars. Oliver showed us how the gearbox and rear suspension package has been improved. On the 2012 car, the rear axle and suspension arms all independently disrupted the airflow; by 2013 Mercedes had combined some different elements into one, wrapping a part around the axle; and in 2014 the package is neater still. These are not subtle changes – each year’s car is visually different from the last to a degree that I hadn’t expected.
The cars are modular, in three bits that bolt together – monocoque, engine unit, and gearbox section. The engine itself is surprisingly small, as is the gearbox, a funny little thing that looks like a robot that has fallen over. Oliver described it as a work of art.
The floor seems to be the only part that extends from the back of the car to the front. In the carbon fibre room there were lots of used floors standing up in a row. Each has £80,000 worth of labour and materials in it. Some of them may be recycled, others scrapped.
A steering wheel from 2011 was hanging around. It was quite heavy and droppable, which is a bit disconcerting when you’re told it’s worth £20,000. It was jam packed with green, red and yellow rotary switches and buttons. When Lewis joined the team he asked for the controls to be simplified, so he and Nico use different, tailored steering wheels. Apparently, Lewis is sensitive to the colours, and likes a lot of purple on his.
There were bits of bodywork lying about, including the front edge of one of Nico’s side pod covers from the last race, complete with Brazillian insect corpses. It had a greasy feel which another competition winner thought was Teflon spray. Oliver, more poetically, said it might be champagne.
The most intriguing part of the tour was a talk from one of the leading Mercedes electronics engineers, Evan Short (he was on the podium at Monza - above left), about the race operations room upstairs in the factory. Whenever the cars are on track, a room full of engineers in Brackley supplements the team in the pits. All the telemetry, data, pictures and communications are transferred from the circuit to Brackley in a fraction of a second via Tata’s communication link. It allows the engineers at the factory to participate in the intercom discussions at the track. The sensation of being on site is so strong that once, when an engineer was explaining something to Michael Schumacher, who was in the car in the pits, Schumacher said, “Why don’t you come to the car and just show me?” The engineer explained, “Because I’m in Brackley”.
During a race weekend there are lots of channels of intercom communication with several groups discussing different things simultaneously, as well as a webchat-style system. Information is funnelled as it is passed up the chain. By the time it gets to the driver, what might have started as a lot of data from the factory will have been boiled down to the specific piece of information the driver needs to know at that moment. A key skill for the top engineers at the track, according to Evan, is the ability to listen to ten different streams of information and pick out the things that demand action.
In the operations room itself there is a huge screen on the wall displaying the TV feed from the track in the centre with timing and telemetry screens around it. The Austin grand prix was playing while Evan was giving his talk – the team can rerun a race with all the telemetry data replayed as well, enabling them to reassess their decisions. In the corners of the TV feed were two boxes, one red, one blue, displaying live GPS gaps for Nico and Lewis. These were updating in real time, showing Nico 0.8 seconds ahead going down a straight, before Lewis closed to 0.7 through a corner. It was much more dynamic than the usual split times, making me wonder why they don’t use the same system on TV. While Evan was explaining all this, the other engineers put a clip on screen of him bumping into a camera behind Ted Kravitz on Sky.
Other snippets: Nico is ahead of Lewis 10-8 this season on getaways – the team measures the first couple of seconds of their starts. And the Mercedes pit crew can actually do a pit stop in 1.7 seconds, but they take it slower to avoid mistakes.
I didn’t detect, during my brief snapshot of life at Mercedes, the reported tension about the drivers’ showdown, just the palpable conviction of a team that is winning. Thanks go to James for organising the event and Oliver for providing it. It was a treat to be able to see a working F1 factory and I hope that by giving a sense of it, readers will feel they have shared some of that privilege. Or maybe they will just feel jealous, like Piquet is of Lewis.
Alex Nunns (JA on F1 handle:alexbookoo)
* Note: Entries for the final challenge in the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize close on November 19th.Check out Martin Brundle's video above to find out more and download the PDF with all the details on this link : F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize
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