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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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.
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
How do you spend your time?
The language we use around time is identical to the language we use around money. Think about it:
We spend time. We spend money.
We save time. We save money.
We make time. We make money.
We waste time. We waste money.
What we rarely do though, is earn time. Our attitude towards time is one that is set mainly by society. We exchange our time, which is our most limited and finite resource, for money in the hope that we have the opportunity to exchange that money back at a better rate. It is what is known in the financial markets as a future’s trade. Of course, the exchange rate rarely goes in our favour.
We spend around 40 hours a week working, plus the time to commute. On top of that, mornings are usually timed to get the most time in bed, and evenings are spent recovering before we do it all again. When you take sleep out of the equation, you spend two thirds of your time at work converting your time in to money, which you hope can be converted back in to time at a better rate in the future. But the maths is plain to see. Time is finite. And two thirds are gone. That leave at best, one third assuming a perfect exchange rate – no commission in the guise of overtime, weekend work, answering email or stressing about what needs going when you go back in on Monday morning.
You can work more hours and earn more money, but you will have less time in which you can spend it. You have exchanged time for money and lost on the buy-back. This is the trap that we should try to avoid. We assume that we can save for retirement or have the nice house and car to enjoy at the weekends. But if our retirement never comes, or the weekends are spent recovering from work, what have you actually earned? Your investment is fruitless.
For many, the idea of being wealthy is simply the size of your house, the model of your car, and the balance in your bank account. But if all of that comes at the expense of being able to enjoy life, are you actually rich? If you can’t spare the time to take a break and explore the world, to experience new cultures and meet new people, you are not time-wealthy. Your bet on the time-money futures market has not paid off.
Fortunately, there are plenty of people willing to sell you their time. Most of us are. Anyone working the 9 to 5 probably is. So reinvest your money and hire a local tour guide, or a virtual assistant. Spend your money on experiences and assets that free up your time to reinvest in your life. The nice car is great, but can you take it on a 3 month once-in-a-lifetime tour across America? The big house is lovely, but can you exchange it for 6 months for an apartment in Singapore?
Once you know the value of your time, you are in a position of power. A position to invest in yourself and watch your time nest-egg grow!
P.S. If you’re wondering what this has to do with motorsport… that is how I spend my time. And it’s fantastic value for time!
The season is over.
All 30 rounds of the British Touring Car Championship are finished. It is done.
So how did the team do?
This is not the story of the final race weekend. There are endless reports on countless websites that can give you that story. What this is, is an overview of being in a team that is fighting for the championship.
Each weekend consists of 3 races and my driver, Sam, went in to the weekend leading the championship by 14 points. That may seem like a good advantage, but there were nine fellow competitors who could mathematically win, and 5 who were actually likely to put up a good fight. As a team, we had our work cut out, and so we got to it.
The ballast system meant Sam had maximum ballast for qualifying and race 1, which hampered the competitiveness of the car for these sessions. The 14-point lead was etched away up until the final race. The championship came down to two drivers – Sam (Tordoff) and Gordon (Shedden).
During the race, part of my role is to man the pitboard for Sam. The information we display is current track position and number of laps remaining. Laps remaining, with the exception of laps under safety car, is a simple countdown. I can keep track of that quite easily. Track position however, I can’t know. I don’t have easy access to the track television system, certainly not without running over to the race engineer’s pit perch. Sam’s race engineer often will update me on position as a race is ongoing, but there was a lot going on this weekend so it was, understandably, not a priority. So I devised a plan…
From the pit wall I can see in to the garage. In the garage are Sam’s friends and family. In particular, his sister and girlfriend. Their reactions give me an excellent indication of Sam’s progress throughout the race. Euphoria probably means he has gained a place. Despair probably means he’s lost one. So I kept an eye on them, adjusting the board as necessary, and counting cars as they passed to confirm I had it right. (Initiative like this is a great skill to develop –think how you can use a situation to resolve a problem!)
It got to the point where Gordon had made his way passed Sam. Sam didn’t make a mistake. The car was not under-performing. Gordon simply out-drove him. He was able to call on the years of experience and take advantage of track position. This put Sam and Gordon level in the championship standings, with Gordon going to win based on number of podiums. That would be a tough thing to swallow.
Somewhat fortunately, Gordon overtook the next car up the road, putting him 2 points ahead in the championship, giving him a clear lead.
And that is how the race finished.
So that’s the drama dealt with. The driver’s championship was decided. Sam came second by 2 points. What did that do to the team’s morale?
It was tough. For half of the season we had been leading the driver’s championship and then in the final race, it was snatched away. That was the feeling within the team.
For a few hours after the race, this shadow of defeat hung over us. Slowly though, slowly things changed. The attitude changed to “Hey, we came second! And only by 2 points! That is an awesome achievement!”. This was quickly followed by “We won the Team Championship and the Manufacturer’s Championship! That’s two out of three! We did great!”
There were team drinks late in to the night (and early in to the morning), where the team were positive and enjoying their victories. They acknowledged their achievements and enjoyed the success together. Drivers, mechanics, engineers, managers, caterers and hospitality all shared a drink, toasted and partied. It was a victory and it was a success.
This recovery from dejection to elation is so critical to making it in motorsport. The ability to acknowledge yourself and your team as successful by any real world standard will mean you are driven to come back. Winning is what you are at the track to do. And if you don’t achieve what you want, you must be able to dust yourself off and try again. Two out of three championships is a great success – that cannot be denied and should not be forgotten. The driver’s championship was so, so close and next year, the team will be back, better, stronger and more determined than ever to get three for three.
Watch this space…
Whether you are a mechanic or an engineer, there will come a time where you are responsible for the car not being ready on time. That is not to say you have not done your job well, but simply the issues that have arisen have not been rectified in the time available to you. This causes issues.
Another emotional weekend at the races has just passed, with several ups and down, mechanical and electrical failures showing up here and there, and a general firefighting approach required to get the cars to the grid. Not ideal, but unfortunately necessary this time around.
The anecdote I share this week is one that everyone at the sharp end of motorsport will have encountered countless times over their career, and something to be aware of as you start out. That issue is do you send the car to the track before you are happy with it? And it is never black and white.
At Silverstone this week Free Practice One went reasonably well. The cars came back in one piece, time was made up, and the cars were solidly “middle of the pack”. Nothing exceptional, but exceptional is not what is expected after FP1. In the hunt for a little extra time, there were some setup changes required to the electronics on the car. The different ways in which the car communicates to the drivers, and the information that is displayed for him can help to find some extra time on track.
The setup changes were completed with about 5 minutes to spare to pitlane open, and should take around 30seconds to upload to the car. So here we go…
Plug in, open the setup, click the “Send” button… it fails.
Cancel that and try again. It fails again.
At this point the data engineer approached me for assistance and I set about work. There are strange demons in the software code (both the data software and the operating system, both of which shall rename unnamed), and these demons cause strange behaviour. Familiar with similar problems from the past, I looked in to security and firewall policies, anti-virus software conflicts, hardware issues, network adaptor settings and a plethora of other usual suspects that were easily and quickly checkable. Nothing worked and the pitlane opened…
So, do you send the car in a less than optimised state, potentially putting the session in to jeopardy? Potentially you risk making the entire session’s performance be off true pace. But on the flip side, this is Free Practice 2; how critical is it really? (If you’ve read the last post, you will be aware that FP2 defines your qualifying setup. So it can be fairly critical to your weekend!)
Making the call to hold up a car during a live session is not something to be taken lightly. This is competitive running time that you are losing out on and therefore you are going to be at a disadvantage to your competitors.
What would you have done?
Ultimately, I decided to send the car without the new setup. My reasons for this are as follows:
What is important to note is that there are a lot of things that would have changed my mind before sending. As an engineer, and as someone in charge of a system or systems on a car, you must be prepared to make tough decisions such as holding a car up. You can however, only do this once you have the authority and experience to do so. Be brave enough to do it when you need to, and smart enough to know when that is.
For those interested, this issue turned out to be related to an anti-virus software update that had happened overnight. The resulting definitions of what was “dangerous” were over-zealous and did not work with our racing car. A silly problem, but one that took a lot of head scratching!
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.