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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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.
As a boy scout, I was taught to always be prepared. To expect the unexpected and to accommodate the unforeseen in any plan. Always bring backup matches camping. And complement that with a flint and steel. Water may be heavy, but bring a little more than you think you need. It will come in handy if you need to wash a wound or help a fellow scout out.
When approaching motorsport, the success stories use an identical mindset. They work off the principle that preparing in advance for all eventualities will give them an advantage over any and every team which don’t. Successful motorsport teams, and the successful motorsport engineers within them apply two golden rules to just about everything. Firstly:
Fail to prepare? Prepare to fail.
This statement is applicable to many areas of life, be it studies (revising for exams), business (hedging investments) or relationships (buy those flowers ahead of time!). In motorsport, failing to prepare removes any aspect of whether luck is on your side or not. Whilst “luck” is never a race winning strategy, after a short time on the front line of racing you will experience the affect that lady luck plays on the outcome of races. Punctures happen. Weather changes. Cars crash. However, if you have done the work beforehand and prepared for these outcomes, they don’t necessarily mean that all is lost.
A properly trained pitcrew can change all four tyres on a Formula One car in under four seconds (the current record is 1.92 seconds – well done to the Williams crew!). This is only achievable with practice. These guys in the pitlane don’t turn up on race day having never met or held a nut gun before. They practice for hours and days during the off-season time, and as often as possible during race season too. This practice, this preparation is what allows them to achieve the 3 second tyre change times. And this means that should their driver pick up a puncture, the damage is limited to seconds not minutes. The deficit is recoverable.
The second mantra by which the motorsport industry lives by is:
Two is one and one is none.
A little bit of a strange saying at first glance, but on inspection one that has true application in the motorsport industry. This motto refers to carrying spare parts to a race. Even for the most affluent race teams, logistics mean that part supply is finite. You can only bring what you can carry. The crux of this statement is that having only a single spare of any critical part on the car is tantamount to having no spares of that part. If the part fails and you replace it, you then have zero. The part could fail during free practice. It could even fail during engine warm-up. And then you are in a position that a single failure will stop the car from running.
Carrying a second spare alleviates this issue. A failure does not leave you reliant on lady luck. A failure just means you need to order another one after the race is finished. You are not racing on knife edge.
Being ready to deal with the unforeseen is a skill in and of itself. Planning for the worst is a key competency in every successful race team, and every successful motorsport engineer. By never leaving things to chance, mitigating the risk of failure and assessing worst case scenarios, you can make sure that luck remains on your side on race day.
One of the main draws of motorsport is just how varied your career can be. I have countless friends from university and from the working in motorsport that belong in every engineering discipline imaginable.
One of my closest friends from university works as an engine designer. Although he rarely gets to a track, he has a passion and a talent for Computer Aided Design. He is visionary and works towards progressing the engine technology in race cars. This will ultimately have a direct impact on road cars.
And he loves his job.
I have a friend who specialize in chassis development, working with 6 poster kinematics and compliance rigs. He finds the tiny nuances in a racing car and help reduce the variability in the dynamic performance. The detail to which he can look in to your chassis and suspension is unbelievable.
And he loves his job.
I have a friend who works with tires. Yes tires. She can tell you exactly what your car is doing out on the track by looking at the sticky rubber stuff. Her ability to read the behavior of the car and explain what can be done to improve it is remarkable. Its a black art that she is well on the way to mastering.
And she loves her job.
Specializing in motorsport should not be something to shy away from. Quite the opposite is true. Specializing opens up the world to you and your skillset becomes far more desirable. When you start out soak up all the knowledge you can, and use that knowledge to decide where you want to concentrate. Do you want to be a designer? Do you want to be an aerodynamicist? How about a race engineer? Or a strategist? Maybe you would like to work in hospitality or public relations? You could perhaps go in to driver coaching, chassis development or engine tuning?
The list is literally endless.
Pick a specialism that appeals to you and apply yourself to be the best you can be at it. Become the person with a reputation in the field of your choosing. If you try to be a master of all trades, you will fail. No one ever is. It is the people who are good at their niche that really excel in motorsport. It is only by specializing that you will be able to freelance; no one hires someone who claims to be able to do everything!
I am a data engineer. And I have plenty of friends who are also data engineers. I get to work with a huge variety of cars and teams, finding the secrets to performance in the squiggly lines on our laptops. I get to travel all over the world to help teams decipher what the black boxes on the cars are trying to tell them. I have worked on boats in Missouri, motorbikes in France, hypercars in the UK and I'm not close to being done.
And guess what?
I love my job.
Find out more about Specializing in Motorsport in the Starting on Pole book, available here.
When you watch a Formula One race, it is very easy to believe that everything on those cars is optimised. That everything is the very best it can be. The pinnacle of technology and development.
You would be wrong.
Everything on those cars is a compromise. What sets Formula One apart from lower classes of motorsport is the compromises are being decided on by using the best software, the smartest people and most money. Don't get me wrong, a Formula One car is a truly amazing piece of engineering and is the very best it can be. But to believe that everything on the car is ideal is incorrect.
I'll use Formula One in this post as it provides the most extreme examples, but the principles and lessons can be applied to any form of motorsport. In fact, any form of engineering come to think of it...
On an F1 car, aero is king. If you work in F1, or intend to in the future, remember that statement. Aero is king. It takes precedence over everything else. This means that everything designed to be on the outside of the car is compromised to improve the aerodynamics. The most obvious example of this is the suspension system. Look how flat and thin the wishbones are on the cars. They are shaped like mini aerofoils so as not to disrupt the air flow by creating turbuence. The air moving between the nose and the wheel is destined to end up either under the car in the diffuser, passing through a radiator, or moving up and interacting with that giant rear wing. As a suspension designer, you would want your wishbones to be made of tubes, with uniform stress distributions and linear behaviour under bending. The aerodynamicists would throw that design out and tell you to try again. The result is a suspension system that has been moved away from the ideal. A compromise.
There are plenty of other examples:
The Exhaust - Length and geometry and designed in a way that best advantages the airflow at the back of the car. It won’t be optimised for engine torque.
The Wheels - Designed to reduce turbulence and calm down the airflow. Probably not the lightest they can be, but more functional.
Radio Antennas - Ideally, they wouldn't be there at all. The generous Aerodynamicists let you have a few centimetres in the middle of the nose cone. Radio transmissions have been known to suffer.
Don't think that the compromise is all one way however. Every compromise made also affects the aero package on the car. Suspension needs to hold the wheels on. Exhausts need to vent somewhere. Wheels need to spin. Radios need to transmit.
And the biggest bug-bear for any aero engineer - that pesky driver insists on sticking his head out right in the middle of the car. To help, they give him a fancy streamlined helmet, but wouldn't it be so much nicer if he wasn't there in the first place?
Remember as you progress through your career that you are constantly looking for the best compromise. You want the best for the car as a whole - not necessarily what's best for your little bit. Be patient with your colleagues and take the time to understand the implications that your changes will have on other areas.
Having the best suspension, exhaust routing, wheels, radio or helmet will not win a race individually. But compromise and get the best combination of them? Now you're on to a winner!
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
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.