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 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.