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Insight: What's going on behind the scenes as the F1 teams prepare for winter testing?

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Insight: What's going on behind the scenes as the F1 teams prepare for winter testing?
Feb 3, 2017, 6:55 PM

Formula 1 winter testing is just around the corner and the teams are busy getting their 2017 cars ready for launches next week and the first runs a...

Formula 1 winter testing is just around the corner and the teams are busy getting their 2017 cars ready for launches next week and the first runs at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, starting on February 27.

The first of the 2017 challengers have been crash tested and fired up, and the mechanics are preparing the monocoques so that everything is ready for the kit to be shipped to Spain. The first four-day test starts on the 27 February, with the second getting underway on 7 March.

In his second guest blog, experienced chief race engineer Phil Charles – who lifted the veil on the 2017 rule changes earlier this week – explains all the work the teams have been doing and what they still have to complete ahead of winter testing. It’s nerve-wracking time – the teams will discover what their new machines are capable of in just a few weeks.

Phil Charles

Phil Charles writes: there’s excitement in the air

This is a very exciting time of the year for F1 engineers and designers. Your new car starts to come to life, firstly in the form of a full-size mock-up made from a mix of tooling block, thin carbon fibre-shelled components and rapid prototype parts.

Then it all really kicks into gear when the real moncoque arrives in the workshop. This is quite a milestone as the process to make such a large carbon fibre structure is complex and is started very early in the schedule. This point also swiftly follows the successful passing of several FIA crash and squeeze tests, and it triggers the mechanics’ working pattern to be split into day and night shifts for round-the-clock building of the car in the workshop. From this point onwards all hands are very much on the deck.

The mock-up components quickly start to get traded for their real-life replacements and at some point in this hectic process the drivers’ turn-up for their seat fits.

This is often accompanied with a last minute scramble to ensure you can mount the pedals, steering column and seat belts. For the engineers involved in the seat fit, it is not just about making your driver comfortable. You have to carefully work through the various rules in the technical regulations and make sure you can accommodate all their likely movements in action.

The design and production processes have been evolved to the extent that the whole car build process in the workshop lasts just a handful of days, with the big teams really pushing this to the extreme. If you were to parachute into an F1 team at this point you would probably recommend something which doesn’t look quite so much like ‘last minute engineering’.

But the factories spend spend months planning this period and shortening it as much as possible to make the sure the aerodynamicists can keep pushing to find performance in the windtunnel for as long as possible.

For the people working on the race team the ‘winter recovery period’ has become shorter and shorter in recent years. The work load really starts to ramp up again around this time of year as the first test approaches.

McLaren F1 engine change

The mechanics carry over the additional night shift work pattern to the track, as the early build and turnaround times are still long and painful. As an example, an engine change, which can be done in two hours in the middle of the season, can take eight or more hours during the winter tests as the process is still evolving and the ‘snags list’ is filled-in with many issues such as ‘this pipe rubs on this one’, ‘this bracket doesn’t fit this electrical box as this cable is bigger than it was on CAD’. This kind of thing is essential to document and feedback to the factory for prompt fixes to ensure reliability in the future.

Simulation preparation

The trackside engineers are busy too supporting car build and trying to learn their way around the new car design. In fact, well before the real car hits the track many days are spent in ‘simulation world’ working on optimising the setup; both with a virtual driver and with the real life physical equivalents in the ‘driver in the loop simulators’ so that the new car will actually have done many thousands of virtual laps before it gets to Barcelona.

Despite all of this simulation, calculation and the gargantuan number of man hours completed by the hundreds of people in the factories, I can honestly say that even today you don’t really know until the car has hit the track if it is going to be a competitive car or not.

That might sound a bit of silly statement to make and I will now try to explain where this nervousness comes from (and just to be clear this is similarly felt by all the big technical bosses - despite what they say in the media). Ultimately these cars are super complicated and the processes that decide exactly how they will function are equally layered.

Mercedes F1 2016

There is a reason why the teams have grown from around 90 people when I first came into contact with F1 in the late 1990s, to some of the big teams being around the 1000 mark now.

Competition nerves

Your competitiveness is dictated by questions you can ask yourself right up until the car runs on track. You ask questions like: ‘did we get that decision right eight months ago when we invested all of that resource into lightening that component by 10 per cen or does that reduction in stiffness have an impact on handling we haven’t anticipated or been able to simulate?’ Or ‘does that big bodywork concept change, which looked great in the windtunnel, actually correlate to on track performance because if it doesn’t we have spent the last six months evolving the front and rear wings around it.’

All of these question marks so far are relative to your own previous performance. On top of this you have to consider where you lie relative to the competition.

Have the guys you were racing last year had a better run in the windtunnel over the winter? Have they corrected an obvious packaging problem or a development cul de sac? Has their power unit taken a bigger step than ours? All of these things go through your mind.

F1 winter testing

One thing that is clear though – you can’t just take the easy option and not make any changes, as pretty quickly you find yourself at the back of the grid if you don’t develop.

What do you make of Charles’ explanation of the preparation work F1 teams go through to get ready for the first test? Who are you expecting to shine in 2017? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.
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