Whether you are a mechanic or an engineer, there will come a time where you are responsible for the car not being ready on time. That is not to say you have not done your job well, but simply the issues that have arisen have not been rectified in the time available to you. This causes issues.
Another emotional weekend at the races has just passed, with several ups and down, mechanical and electrical failures showing up here and there, and a general firefighting approach required to get the cars to the grid. Not ideal, but unfortunately necessary this time around.
The anecdote I share this week is one that everyone at the sharp end of motorsport will have encountered countless times over their career, and something to be aware of as you start out. That issue is do you send the car to the track before you are happy with it? And it is never black and white.
At Silverstone this week Free Practice One went reasonably well. The cars came back in one piece, time was made up, and the cars were solidly “middle of the pack”. Nothing exceptional, but exceptional is not what is expected after FP1. In the hunt for a little extra time, there were some setup changes required to the electronics on the car. The different ways in which the car communicates to the drivers, and the information that is displayed for him can help to find some extra time on track.
The setup changes were completed with about 5 minutes to spare to pitlane open, and should take around 30seconds to upload to the car. So here we go…
Plug in, open the setup, click the “Send” button… it fails.
Cancel that and try again. It fails again.
At this point the data engineer approached me for assistance and I set about work. There are strange demons in the software code (both the data software and the operating system, both of which shall rename unnamed), and these demons cause strange behaviour. Familiar with similar problems from the past, I looked in to security and firewall policies, anti-virus software conflicts, hardware issues, network adaptor settings and a plethora of other usual suspects that were easily and quickly checkable. Nothing worked and the pitlane opened…
So, do you send the car in a less than optimised state, potentially putting the session in to jeopardy? Potentially you risk making the entire session’s performance be off true pace. But on the flip side, this is Free Practice 2; how critical is it really? (If you’ve read the last post, you will be aware that FP2 defines your qualifying setup. So it can be fairly critical to your weekend!)
Making the call to hold up a car during a live session is not something to be taken lightly. This is competitive running time that you are losing out on and therefore you are going to be at a disadvantage to your competitors.
What would you have done?
Ultimately, I decided to send the car without the new setup. My reasons for this are as follows:
What is important to note is that there are a lot of things that would have changed my mind before sending. As an engineer, and as someone in charge of a system or systems on a car, you must be prepared to make tough decisions such as holding a car up. You can however, only do this once you have the authority and experience to do so. Be brave enough to do it when you need to, and smart enough to know when that is.
For those interested, this issue turned out to be related to an anti-virus software update that had happened overnight. The resulting definitions of what was “dangerous” were over-zealous and did not work with our racing car. A silly problem, but one that took a lot of head scratching!
The emotional rollercoaster of motorsport can work on both long and short timescales. Sometimes, a team’s transition from the back of the field up to the podium can take months or years. Sometimes the transition back can take hours. The weekend just passed was certainly one that had its ups and downs.
The team entered the weekend with all three of its drivers in the top 5 of the championship, and one, currently leading it. The confidence in the car was at an all-time high, and reliability has been improving all season. The track, one of the fastest in the country, should favour the rear wheel drive BMWs, and the weather was looking good. This should be a good weekend. The leading driver was carrying maximum ballast as is mandated which wasn’t going to help his chances, but shouldn’t cause too much of an issue. He’s a talented driver who’s had ballast before – not a problem.
The rollercoaster reached its apex.
Free practice one was spent scrubbing tyres. No real testing as such was done until the end of the session, but a brake bias error meant a spin under breaking coming in to a heavily gravel-trapped hairpin. The time lost due to the red flag for recovery, and the clearing out of the huge amount of gravel, meant there was no time for any setup changes or refinement during the session.
The rollercoaster was over the top now.
During Free Practice Two, multiple setup changes of varying success and impact were tried, but there was very little marked improvement in lap times. The problem was simply that our driver had only two laps to test each setup change before pitting and trying the next thing on the list. Usually, these changes are spread out across two sessions. This weekend we had one. Not every change you make is going to improve the car, and unfortunately, as FP2 closed, the car was not on the pace we had come to expect by this stage of the season.
Down we go.
Next up was qualifying. Given the natural advantage of rear-wheel drive in wet conditions, the ominous rainclouds were actually a welcome sight. Rain would equalise the pack a bit more and give the BMWs a chance to make up any performance deficit. The first few laps were dry but the pace wasn’t there. Then the rain came, and boy, did it come! The rain was so torrential that the session was in fact red flagged due to safety concerns. By the time the session restarted, the cars were suffering from water ingress in the electronics and ended up at the very back of the grid for race 1. The back of the grid, 28th place, with 75kg of ballast in the car.
Where’s the bottom?
Following the disappointing qualifying session, the weather worsened. Something not seen frequently in Blightly, but a tornado (yes, a TORNDAO) came through the paddock. This freak weather caused terminal damage to the hospitality awnings and the entire team was out in the (now returned) torrential rain, angle grinding, cutting, hammering and spannerring to get the remains of the awning safe. The entire team, still reeling from qualifying, were now drenched through, not to mentioned the damage done to team property or to relationships with sponsors and VIPs.
Is this it?
The engineers and drivers sat down and discussed an action plan. What could be done to recover the weekend? Was everything lost? Absolutely not! Decisions were made and changes to the car were done late in to the night. Everything adjustable was adjusted. Gear ratios were changed. Engine maps were tweaked. Like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, the car was transformed. Untested, yes, but transformed.
When do we go back up?
Race one began in glorious sunshine. The team and cars had dried out overnight, but the long walk down to the back of the grid was not something the team often had to do. The untested car seemed solid on the outlap to the grid, but that is never a real test of performance. Final checks done, 75kg of ballast on-board, 28th on the grid. The race started.
Finally, up we go!
Our driver finished 10th. He made up 18 places, an incredible result and better than anyone had hoped for. The overnight transformation had worked wonders and the speed in the car was back. 10th also meant no more ballast, as well as starting in 10th for race two. An excellent result!
Things are looking up!
Race two started with a much shorter walk down the grid. No ballast on-board, and just a few minor tweaks to compensate for the 75kg lower weight. And you know what? He only went and won it! He drove like the professional he is and put the car at the front of the pack, winning by almost 3 seconds. Who would have thought after the dismal Saturday, that race day would include a victory. What’s more, another of our drivers was third, so a double podium. An excellent result!
I can see the end now.
All that was left was race three. Ballast back in the car due to winning race 2, and a reverse grid meant starting down in the middle of the pack. The unfavoured hard tyres were also required for this race. The result was a solid middle of the pack finish. Not terrible, but not on the scale of success of races one and two.
Time to get off.
So the drivers leave the round with all three still in the top 10, two still in the top 5, and one still leading the championship. A result that although expected on Friday, seemed to fade away during Saturday.
The value in persevering, not giving up under hardship, and striving to win no matter how the odds are stacked against you cannot be understated. A bad practice or qualifying session, does not have to ruin your race. It doesn’t have to ruin your championship hopes. It doesn’t even have to ruin your day.
Keep your chin up, your head in the game and determination in overdrive, and as a team, great things will happen.
Please remain seated until the ride has come to a complete stop.
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.