Given the same problem to tackle, different engineers will come up with different solutions. Now most of those solutions will work, they will be valid, and could happily be applied. There will always be a few that are just a little too “out there” to make it.
The interesting thing with solutions is that the best one can vary wildly depending on the circumstances. What works during a design stage, or during testing, is not necessarily going to be desirable during a race situation.
An example from a recent race…
On a British Touring Car there is a small radio receiver known as the “Beacon”. This clever little bit of kit is used by the on-board electronics and data logging systems to separate each lap during a race. It provides a cut-off between laps, and generates the comparative lap time and split timings to the driver on the dash display.
In all honesty, this is not a critical piece of kit for the race. The driver rarely looks at his laptimes during a race. It’s main use is during post-race analysis where data engineers such as myself can use it for comparison and navigation.
Where this is important the driver however, is during qualifying. During qualifying, a driver wants to know exactly where he or she is gaining or loosing time, and would like a comparison to a previous or theoretical best lap. Not having a beacon during qualifying is a huge disadvantage.
During a recent BTCC round, we noticed that the driver radioed to say he did not have laptimes appearing on the dash. When the car came in for new tyres, I inspected the beacon and saw that it’s mount had rotated around the rollcage meaning it no longer pointed out of the window. No line of site to the transmitter means no lap time. A simple fix; I forced the beacon back around and away he went.
Three laps later, we receive another radio call.
"No Lap Time."
However, this time I was ready. Before the car was back in the pitlane, I had several lengths of duct tape torn off and taped to my trouser (USA: Pant) leg. As soon as the car stopped, I rotated the beacon again, and secured it with copious amounts of tape. It was crude and messy. It was not what you might call the ideal solution. But the two most important things about this particular solution are:
Would duct tape have been approved when the car was designed? Of course not!
Would it have been signed off during the build process? Nope.
Had the issue occurred during testing, would the duct tape still be on the car? I really doubt it.
My duct tape only stayed on the car for qualifying. Before the race, I applied a much neater and permanent solution. Rubber strips installed between the rollcage and mount mean nothing moves now. This was also applied to the second car in the team to proactively prevent the issue happening there too.
Solutions can be fluid, they evolve and develop. Solutions should not only match problems; they need to match circumstance. As an engineer at a race track, you need to be prepared to come up with fast but workable solutions. You will be under pressure. No one will expect your solution to look like art work, but they will certainly expect your solution to work.
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Well it certainly has been a dramatic few weeks in motorsport. There have been some fantastic races, some brilliant comebacks, and some really low moments.
The recent Formula One races have been exciting, and it is great to see that coming back in to the championship. We have also witnessed a comeback on a biblical scale of Porsche at the Le Mans; dead last, to the top step of the podium. But it is the low points that I really want to talk about.
At Donington Park on 16th April Billy “Whizz” Monger was involved in a shocking and devastating crash at Craner Curve. Billy’s car collided with a stationary car, that was totally unsighted and received life-changing injuries. Both his legs were amputated below the knee.
I was there. I was in the pit garages whilst this crash was broadcast live. The atmosphere in the paddock was immensely dark. The sheer speed of the impact brought on fears of the very worst, and the 90 minute extrication of Billy from the car only fuelled concerns.
But this incident is not what the focus should be. Yes there are lessons to be learnt, but what you have to know is that Billy was back at a race track as soon as he could be. He has been spotted at British Touring Car Championship races since the incident, speaking with fans, drivers, teams and the media. He has even signed up with a V de V team for a race in Portugal. He, along with Frédéric Sausset and another as yet unnamed driver intend to field a team of 3 disabled drivers for Le Mans in 2020.
Billy has become an inspiration. Billy has personified the feeling in the paddock towards teams and drivers. Billy has shown that nothing should hold you back from your passion.
Unfortunately, the crash at Donington was not the only incident to blight the BTCC paddock. During qualifying at Croft, a 12 car pile-up occurred. Several drivers received serious injuries from this incident, with Luke Davenport and Jeff Smith being airlifted to a nearby hospital. Again, extrication took an inordinate amount of time so as not to make injuries worse, and Luke was still in an induced coma until very recently.
The crash itself could be analysed for months. The reason Davenport’s car dropped oil in the first place has been speculated about by the paddock, but I won’t be commenting on that speculation. The fact that 12 cars could pile in to the incident before a red flag was issued should be questioned. (We radioed our drivers to call the Red Flag before it was announced by the officials).
You do have to marvel at the crash structures of the cars however. The impact speeds are well in excess of 120mph, and, despite their injuries, all drivers survived. The roll cages, harnesses, HANS devices and seats all absorbed the energy rather than the driver’s body’s. Yes Luke and Jeff were seriously injured, but they are alive. And that is a testament to the safety improvements of the cars themselves.
We also have to remember the stress under which the extrication and medical teams were working. The sheer number of injured drivers in that incident, was compounded by the seriousness of some of the injuries. On top of that, moving a person that badly injured always risks doing more damage. These people make racing possible.
Both Luke and Jeff have publicly expressed their gratitude to the not only the medical and extrication teams, but also to the fans, team mates and rivals who all gave an outpouring of good wishes. When an incident such as this occurs, there is no longer a rivalry between teams. It stops being about the winning. The mood in the paddock changes and people want to know that their colleagues are OK .
Motorsport is dangerous. We all know that. But the surprising way in which the entire paddock and grandstands react when that danger comes to the forefront is incredible.
I finished university several years ago full of enthusiasm and confidence. My degree was strong, my knowledge base solid and my vision of the future crystal clear. However, my first assignment in my new job role opened my eyes to just how little I really knew about the motorsport world.
Having worked for Cosworth Electronics for a matter of weeks, I was sent to support a World Record Attempt for a twin jet turbine engined speed boat. Not the formula cars I had worked on throughout university. Not the closed wheel monsters I was familiar with from weekend work. Speedboats.
Now don't get me wrong, speedboats are cool. This particular speed boat had over 6000hp and was over 15 meters in length. Despite its carbon fibre hull, the catamaran still weighed 3 tonnes. This thing was a colossus.
The boat was so far removed from anything I had learnt about during my studies, and was not something I had even considered when it came to motorsport. Suddenly, I felt way in over my head.
I spent the 2 days prior to the run getting familiar with the beast. I traced wiring through the hull. I plugged in my laptop and offloaded datasets, settings and logged data. I scrutinised every aspect of the boat that was accessible to me in an attempt to understand the task that lay ahead of me. I kept in constant contact with more experienced engineers back in the UK, and slowly managed to take a bite out of the huge elephant. I was fortunate that support from Cosworth was fantastic which really helped things.
Then came the big day. A world record attempt was on the cards.
A fear of overshooting the stopping zone at the end of the course meant dragster style parachutes were attached to the boat. Unfortunately these deployed prematurely due to the intense g-forces. On that failed run, the boat made 210mph. TWO HUNDRED AND TEN MILES PER HOUR WITH THE PARACHUTES DEPLOYED. This indicated that the parachutes in fact would have very little affect, and so were removed for run number two.
Despite a nasty accident of another boat during the event, the pilots throttled on from the staging area and brought the speed up. All the way to 244mph. A new record.
My part in this endeavour was small. The boat had been set up prior to me arriving by a colleague and I was really only there to monitor for errors. But I was still a part of it. The feeling within the team, with the pilots, the engineers, the mechanics, was euphoric.
I had survived my baptism of fire. And am a far better engineer for doing so.
The standard format of most races is as follows:
Line up on the grid
Drive a formation lap
Line up on the grid… again
Start the Race
Drive the Race
Finish the Race
Not complex. Not messy. Not taxing. Sometimes this format isn't quite followed. Sometimes things don't quite go to plan.
At the British Touring Car Championship season opener this past weekend, the race did not get going until the third attempt. Following two formation laps (as it is a short circuit) the first race had an aborted start as the pole sitter suffered mechanical difficulties. This would have almost guaranteed a huge incident so the safest thing to do was wait.
After another two formation laps, the cars lined up again. This time there was a huge incident on the start/finish straight and the race was red flagged after just a few hundred meters of racing. The cars drove around the track, stopping short of the grid to allow for clean-up. During this time the cars were in parc ferme, but mechanics were given access to allow for final checks and to ensure the cars kept cool.
After yet another two formation laps, the cars lined up once again. Finally we got the race started.
Whilst all of this was going on, the team radios were alive with chatter. The track and championship officials were communicating with team managers, trying to keep them informed of what was happening. The team managers were informing the drivers' engineers, and the engineers were informing the drivers. Questions about grid position, formation laps, fuel quantities, temperatures, pressures, strategy and tyre choice. The sheer amount of information being exchanged was colossal.
Throughout all of this though, the team remained calm and collected. There was no panic and, all things being considered, everything ran smoothly for the restart. And the reason for this sense of calm in such a chaotic situation?
Whatever the outcome, and whatever the circumstance, there is a process for dealing with it. Processes may be general and generic, but can be tailored to suit situations such as this. Having both the experience and confidence to deal with chaotic and fluid situations sets the difference between the good teams and the best teams. And each element within those teams must have that same mindset and that same preparedness.
Spend the time between races planning and practicing for every eventuality.
Fail to Prepare - Prepare to Fail.
Carroll Smith felt strongly that every apprentice, every mechanic and every engineer that worked on a race car should have attended a driving school prior to doing so. The reason he thought this was a good idea (and even included in his own apprenticeship programs) is it is the best way to gain an understanding of how a car behaves. Learning about understeer or oversteer or balance or aero effects from a text book doesn't mean you know what understeer, oversteer, balance or aero effects actually are. You cannot have a kinaesthetic feeling for what they actually do to a car.
Gaining experience in how a car behaves will set an engineer apart, especially early in his or her career. Drivers, for all the skills, are not necessarily engineers. I have worked with numerous drivers over the years and there are some who strive to have a thorough understanding of the car and the laws of physics, and then there are those who drive on feel and can struggle to communicate what the car is doing, or even what they want it to be doing. If you, as their engineer, can decipher what it is that they want and need from the car, then you are going to earn your pay at the track. If you can understand elaborate hand motions and wishy-washy language from a driver who is not an engineer, you are doing very well.
Understanding how a car really behaves, in the real-world, transient conditions found on a race track does not come from university lectures, college classes or 2 inch thick text books. It comes from experience. It comes from taking the time to throw yourself in to the experience of racing. In all likelihood, no one will pay for you to learn to drive fast. You'll have to fund it yourself. Although as your experience and network grows, you're more likely to find someone who can help you make it happen a little cheaper. If you get the chance to start translating what a driver is telling you in to a real world take it. It will be incredibly valuable to you as an engineer, and it will probably be a lot of fun…
Everything on a racing car affects something else. Nothing works in isolation, and understanding the complex systems and links between the systems is crucial to engineering a winning car.
I've discussed before how compromise is needed to win races. That having an optimal overall system is more important and optimising each system on its own. But within those systems, you have often unseen and not so obvious links that can have a detrimental effect on the overall package.
I'll use a few examples to show you what I mean:
Most modern racing cars will have the ability to alter the engine map depending on driver preference and prevailing track conditions. This usually involves altering ever so slightly how power is delivered, however some championships may allow for more than this. There are situations where more aggressive, higher power engine maps are used during qualifying for example. These maps put a huge strain on the engine, but are only used for a relatively short period of time.
What is often overlooked is how these engine changes will affect the traction. A driver may complain that they cannot use the power when they want to out of corner, and so a less aggressive map will be used. However this will reduce the slip ratio for the driven axle, potentially inducing understeer.
Worse than this, your chassis engineer may decide that the issue of corner exit traction can be rectified through kinematic and geometry changes. If both chassis and engine changes are made, you can easily end up going too far and ruining the overall balance or making the car sluggish.
Changing ride heights is one of the fundamentals of setting up a race car. It will have a direct effect on the roll center of the car, and as such a dramatic effect on the handling. It is something that is usually something that can be changed quickly, and often by only a few millimeters (See Small Changes).
However the ride height does not act in isolation.
Changing ride heights will have an effect on the suspension kinematics; the way the wheel is controlled and moves under bounce and rebound. If this is not taken in to consideration when the ride height change is made, the results can be unexpected. Now most race cars will have adjustable everything on each wheel - camber, caster, toe, K, etc. - but if they are not changed in a systematic and controlled way, you can spoil the balance and handling of your car.
Another often overlooked effect of ride height changes is the affect it can have on the aerodynamics of the car. A car running a little too high or a little too low can be comes unstable and even dangerous. Adjustable splitters, diffusers and wings are there to accommodate changes where necessary but there is often a limit to what can be done.
Tyre Pressure Changes
Yes, even the simplest of changes to make can have knock on effects to other areas of the car. The tyres can be thought of as a spring, and they do play a crucial role in the spring rate of a wheel system as a whole. The entire system (from contact patch to chassis mount) has a spring rate that is known as the "Wheel Rate". Changing the tyre pressure will change this value.
To a degree, tyre pressure changes can be tolerated by the suspension system. Plus or minus a few tenths of a bar won't have dire consequences. But if you start playing around with larger pressure changes, you will fall in to a trap of chasing ghost springs in your system.
I have also seen cases where tyres were calibrated using nitrogen, but run using compressed air. The difference in Gas Constant meant the tyres were completely out of kilter with where they were expected to be. They came back from a run massively overheated and over inflated.
Before committing to a change on a car, think carefully about where the change will have an effect. What other systems might be altered by your change? How can the changes be negated or accommodated?
Compromise wins races. But knowledge definitely helps.
What is the resolution for a change in ride height?
How much will an engine tuner change their target lambda by?
Camber and toe changes tend to fall in what range?
-5° to +5°
And what increments do we change them in?
What is the operating range for engine temperatures?
80°C to 85°C
How much do we alter the angle of attack of the rear wing?
What is the tolerance on a go/no-go gauge?
Tire pressures - what do they get adjusted by?
What is the accepted error on ignition angle?
How much extra fuel do you carry?
Ballast can be moved in what size increments?
How much over the boost limit will get you disqualified?
How much can you win or lose a race by?
Don't think a change is too small, that it is insignificant. That change is what makes you win.
It is the accumulation of tiny changes, of the slightest improvements, that make the difference between first place and everyone else. Being prepared to make adjustments on the micro scale will show itself in the results on the macro scale. It separates those who win from those who compete.
And you only show up at the track to win.
Never to just compete.
Before your first trip to the the track you may have a lot of questions about exactly what you should be bringing. On my first excursion trackside, I massively over estimated the equipment I would need. Not wanting to be left without something essential, I brought pretty much everything I could.
This was a mistake.
I ended up with a heavy and cumbersome bag, that I had to drag to and from the track for 3 days, and used pretty much nothing from it.
Below is my revised kit. This kit does vary slightly depending on which championship and team I am working with, as well as the likely issues I might come across. Remember that I work as a data engineer, so the contents have been tailored to that role. There are however, a few universal essentials which I have marked with asterisks...
1. Maglite - a proven torch, used by the militiary and police forces around the world. Hard wearing, waterproof, great on batteries and comes with spare bulbs. Great for investigating those annoying wiring issues tucked behind a dashboard or deep in an engine bay.
2. Multitool - This comes to the track in my bag but generally lives in my pocket. Pliers, screwdrivers and knife allow you to tackle a host of issues. Having it close by means this can happen quickly.
3. *Custom Ear Plugs - These are moulded to my ears. You can get them as simply noise cancelling, or with inbuilt speakers to work as earphones as I do. Expensive, but working around race engines is noisy work. These will help protect your hearing through the years.
4. *Suncream - Don't forget this. You will regret it for weeks!
5. Multimeter Leads - When diagnosing electrical issues, I like to know that my fault finding equipment is up to scratch. These Fluke multimeter leads are some of the best you can buy.
6. Multimeter - As above, buy the best you can afford. Theres nothing worse then chasing a problem will faulty equipment. My fluke multimeter is used frequently to track down electrical gremlins.
7. Wire Repair Kit - Being able to quickly fix damaged wiring will make you very popular amongst the team. Get the car back out ASAP with a well stocked repair kit.
8. Laptop - A good laptop is the bedrock of being a data engineer. I have a custom one built by PC Specialists. The one in the picture is a little on the heavy side for my liking, but has not let me down functionally. I also use a Microsoft Surface at times. Whilst not perfect for data analysis due to the smaller screen, no Ethernet port and only a single USB port, it is much lighter and thinner. I tend to use the Surface for non-track work (such as writing reports... or articles.)
9. *Sunglasses Case - Your sunglasses will spend a lot of time in your bag. Keep them in a sturdy case so as not to damage them!
10. *Sunglasses - Good sunglasses will help you in all seasons. The low sun in winter and relelntless sun in summer - both can be comabtted by good quality sunglasses. The ones in the photo are Oakley's but I have used RayBans in the past. The important thing is comfort - you might be wearing them for hours on end.
11. *Clothes - A spare change of clothes is always in the bottom of my bag. Clean underwear, socks, and a T-Shirt mean you can survive over 24 hours at the track without becoming offensive and unhygenic. A plain white t-shirt is shown in the photo. This can be used as an undershirt. Alternatively, a spare team top can be included.
12. Hard Drive - Backing up data is important and something I endeavour to do frequently. Always be careful bring remote data storage devices to the track through. They contain lots of goodies the competition would love to get their hands on!
13. Ethernet Kit - Sometimes you won't have what you need to communicate with some elctronics on the car. An ethernet kit will really help here. It also lets you link up laptops and servers with the team and can aid data sharing.
14. Laptop Charger - Self explanatory. Don't forget this! You won't last a morning as a data engineer.
15. *Watch - I use a Casio G-Shock whilst at the track. Its rugged, reliable and radio controlled so it's always spot on. I tend to avoid bringing expensive chronograph watches to the track as I think that is asking for trouble. The risk of scratching your expensive Swiss watch is too great!
16. *Track Pass - You won't get in to the paddock without one. They also make great momentos, especially early in your career. Mine either lives in my bag, or tied on to the belt loops on my trousers/shorts. I never wear this around my neck. You don't want anything that dangles as things easily get caught in all of those spinning hazards around the garages. You should keep it on your person throughout the day though.
17. *Toothbrush - If you're working overnight, brushing your teeth in the morning has a strange way of waking you up. It seems to shock your brain in to thinking its the morning and therefore time to be awake. It also rerfreshes you and gets your ready for the day. The one pictured is a disposable one from an British Airways flight.
18. Screwdriver - This screwdriver has 4 different heads and provides a complete range of flat and phillips. Again useful to keep close to hand for those quick changes and repairs.
19. Ruler - Measuring things now and then is a necessity. Keep this in your pocket just in case. It weighs nothing and takes up virtually no room.
20. *Pens - Plural. Have a few in your pockets for jotting down notes or marking things. They are also great to have to hand if your driver is caught without one when asked for an autograph.
21. Permanent Markers - Useful for marking sensors and wiring, or the position of components before and after a run. Always have one in your pocket and a couple in your bag. Again, useful for autographs if your driver is caught without.
22. Torch - A spare torch just in case. This one is lighter and smaller than the MagLite, but not quite as robust. I tend to keep this in my pocket with the pens and ruler.
23. USB Sticks - The same warning applies here as to the harddrive. Use with caution. They are useful for moving data within the team but never leave them unattended or with data actually on them. They are not "backup" storage. Use, but with caution.
24. *Business Cards - You never know who you will meet at the track. It's always worth having some business cards with you. Suppliers, team managers, event organisers, drivers... there's always interesting people around that it is worth introducting yourself to.
25. Mechanical Pencil - My preference over as pen simply because it is waterproof. You won't want your notes becoming illegible due to rain. See "Moleskin Notebook" below.
26. Moleskin Notebook - I take notes throughout the day in a notebook which I refer back to at a later time. These notes are used to create post-event reports and to analyse recurring issues. These notes are become your "Book of Knowledge" and will help you understand problems as time goes on.
27. Carroll Smith - Engineer in You Pocket - A fantastic flipbook that will help diagnose chassis and balance issues for the car. Great for race engineers and data engineers alike. Its always in my bag, although not used frequently.
28. Engineer's Data Book - Just a very useful basic engineering principles pocket book. Not essential, but I have referred to it in the past.
29. Zeus Table - If you ever need to use the lathe and milling machines at the track, this set of tables provides all the design for manufacture information you will need. Again, not essential, but very useful in the right circumstances.
30. *Phone Charger - USB phone charger with a removable USB cable. Great for charging phones and cameras, you will also be popualar amongst team mates for sharing. Pay attention to the style of plug - the one pictured is for the UK, but I have multiple depending on the country I am visiting.
31. *Backpack - Finally somewhere to keep everything. The backpack should be sturdy and accomodating, without being too heavy. There is little point slimming odwn your kit only to put it in a ludicrously heavy bag. Spend some money and get a comfortable one!
This list is not extensive, and as mentioend, changes depending on the event. It also has evolved over time and I would expect your's too aswell. Don't worry too much when you start out - the team will have the majority of things you need if you don't have them with you. As you progress in your career, it does appear much more professional to have your own kit and equipment.
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.