One of the hardest decisions I had to make whilst doing Formula SAE at university was the decision not to send the car. It was not a popular decision. But it was certainly the right one.
Having spent hundreds of hours of my own time contributing to the thousands of team hours that went in to the months of work to create the Formula SAE car, I wanted to finish the competitions. I didn't want to break down. I didn't want to blow an engine. And as the principle powertrain engineer at the German event, then engine was my sole concern.
Getting to Germany was a tough journey. We had battled team dropouts, logistics failures, bottlenecks, setbacks and down right sabotage but the car and the team had made it there. We were battle weary and fatigued, but we all were thrilled to have made it to the epitome of the European Formula SAE competitions with a competitive and reliable car.
As Driver 1, I was tasked with the first competitive drive at the competition. A simple acceleration run, and I had two attempts at setting the best time. Once I had completed my runs, the car would be turned over to Driver 2 for his two runs. Four runs in total. I was the most experienced driver in the car having completed all of the testing, but was also the heaviest. A full 10kg heavier than Driver 2, meaning he stood a good chance of setting the faster time. This was not a concern to me - we were a team and its the team's fastest time that counted. Whether I set it or him, it made no difference to me.
I lined the car up on the start line and launched on the flag, setting a time of 5.1 seconds. Respectable, but not my fastest. On the way back to take the startline again, I cycled the steering wheel display, keeping an eye on engine temperatures and pressures. Everything looked good.
Attempt number two, and a 4.9 second run. A team best for this car. I was happy, but genuinely believed Driver 2 would stand a good chance of bettering that. The engine, gearbox, clutch and tyres were all warm as he was strapped in.
I should note at this point that whilst Driver 2 was a talented engineer, his expertise did not lie in the powertrain. As we lined up, I could see the engine temperature creeping up. It was maybe 10degrees (Celsius) higher than at the start of my run. I instructed him to leave the steering wheel display on the temperature page as I could walk alongside the car on his way back to the startline and check everything was A-OK before run two.
He set off.and finished with a 5.0 seconds dead. Very respectable and surely he could beat the 4.9 seconds I had set on his second run.
However, this is where things took a turn for the worse. Walking alongside the car as he headed back to the startline the engine temperature was over 120degrees (Celsius still). As he reached the end of the return road he could either turn right to his second run, or left back to the pitlane. If he turned left, he would not get a second run.
I told him to turn left.
Cue the accusations of competitiveness and ego. Accusations that I wanted to be "the fastest". To prove I was "the best". I assure you, this was not my intention. My set time was far out of my mind - all I was thinking about was the engine. The temperature was far too high after the first run. A second run risked significant, even terminal damage. If we blew the engine, it was competition over. We would not compete in the remainder of the events. We would effectively be out of the running.
This was not an easy decision for those involved. The team leader agreed with my call. As did the other powertrain engineers. And so did the the other drivers. But it was far from popular. And it was a decision I had less than 5 seconds to make.
I stand by that decision. We went on to be competitive in the rest of the events and the engine was inspected and serviced. It didn't fail.
The reason for the overheating issue?
A fuse. The fuse for the radiator fans had fallen out of it's holder. Probably on my second launch. The issue didn't present itself until the car was sitting stationary waiting to launch. It was an unfortunate issue, and one we rectified. All fuses were secured with tape from that point on.
Don't be afraid to make the tough calls. Whether as a student or a professional. They are character building and define you. Making tough decisions is what you have to do to survive in motorsport.
"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."
- Theodore Roosevelt
You won’t always win. That is the nature of motorsport. Everyone wants to win and everyone strives to win, but only one team can win.
If you turn up to a motorsport event without believing you can win, then you have already lost. Henry Ford once said “Whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you are right”, and nowhere is that more true than in the competitive arena of motorsport. Being confident in your ability as a person and as a team is a big part of achieving that podium top step, but the danger is that confidence gives way to cockiness, which in turn breeds complacency. At this point, you have lost.
During the early 2000’s, Formula 1 was dominated by Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. The combination of blistering performance from the car, and the unmatchable talent of the driver meant the races became “who’s coming in second place today?” contests. Following that, Renault dominated with Alonso. Then it was Red Bull with Vettel. And now it is Mercedes. Do you believe that these teams ever become complacent? Do you think they are ever overly confident in their victories? No. These teams, the engineers, the mechanics and the drivers, put the same effort in whether it is they are chasing their first win of the season, or the tenth. The work is relentless and even after a championship is secured, they push until the chequered flag of the final race. Everyone in these teams believe they can win.
All that being said, sometimes things don’t work in your favour. Bad weather, a puncture, an accident; things will work against you and the victory will seep away. Sometimes you will enter a championship with a car that is simply not competitive. When Mercedes turned up at the first race in 2014 with their wildly out-of-the-box-thinking split turbo V6, they dominated. No one else was competitive. But they all still turned up and they all still raced. At Canada, something happened. What Mercedes would call a disaster, and what Red Bull would call a miracle. The two Mercedes cars suffered almost simultaneous failures of the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (MGU-K). The result was the 20 second lead was worthless and Red Bull claimed the first non-Mercedes win of the season. Red Bull had ploughed through and it had paid off!
So no, you will not always win. You will not always make the podium. You will not always be competitive. You will not always even finish the race! But if you give your everything, to every race, eventually you will win.
Stick it out.
Have you ever noticed whilst driving on the public that you find yourself accelerating towards brake lights? If you haven’t, I bet you’ve seen others do it. Whether its stationary traffic, a red light up ahead, or simply speeding around to a parking space, people seem to race.
Motorsport is by nature fast paced. It rewards speed and aggression on the track. But you will often find that the best drivers are cool and calm inside the helmets, despite the danger and competition going on around them. They have an ability to recognise situations as either green, amber or red. They know when they can go hell for leather or when to use caution in attempting an overtake. They also can see the future and notice the gap they are going for is closing and won’t exist by the time they arrive. The drivers don’t race towards the red light. They recognise a missed opportunity and learn from it - they won't be fooled again!
As an engineer it is equally important to recognise the futility and risk associated with charging towards a goal that can’t be achieved. Recognising when to cut your losses and try a new tact is a skill that can be learned and one that can resurrect a race weekend. Within motorsport, safety cars, punctures and even the weather can cause the engineers to dramatically rethink their game plan and work towards damage limitation. Taking advantage of a futile situation before other notice is a key ingredient to the winning race teams.
When you see a light change from green to red, it is already to late. That opportunity has passed and you must immediately do two things:
You can often feel helpless as an engineer observing a race. You have done the setup. You have given the driver his tactics. You have worked to optimise everything. Now the uncontrolled aspects of motorsport are the enemy and mitigation becomes your buzz word.
Stop racing towards the red light, and start seeing the green and ambers to either side. Work on the next problem rather than the ones that have already passed you by.
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.