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.