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!
The blame culture is an unfortunate reality of the modern world. People are always trying to decipher where fault lies and how the perpetrator can be punished for whatever the wrongdoing may be. Wether that be in losing a job, being sued, or simply being demonized, the blame culture can be seen.
There are a few industries that do not use a blame culture. Certainly not one as most would recognise it. I'm going to focus on the Aerospace Industry.
When designing and manufacturing an aircraft there is always a significant safety factor built in to each and every part. Everything that is essential to keeping that aircraft in the air and in control will have resilient and redundant systems operating to maximise safety. From the person who first puts the design down on paper, to the person who installs the part, everything is done with safety in mind. The reasons for this are obvious - if something fails, people could die. A lot of people. Hundreds of people. So safety is paramount.
We all know though, that accidents happen. And whilst most aircraft accidents are caused by pilot error, mechanical and electrical failures claim responsibility for a large number of incidents in the air. Whether that be a design flaw, a component failure or even improper maintenance, accidents do happen.
How the industry reacts to these incidents is what is most remarkable. There is no witch hunt. No head hunting. There is simply a drive to understand why the failure was allowed to happen. Why was the pilot allowed to make the decision he or she did? Why did the service engineer fail to correctly install the component? Why did the part not fail during testing?
What happens is the industry team up and redefine their operating procedures. They do everything they can to prevent a re-occurrence of the failure. They don't blame the pilot or the engineer or the design. They blame the process that those people were following. The process was flawed.
Even deviation from that process is seen as a process flaw. People should not be allowed to deviate. They should be prevented from doing so with checks, double-checks and triple-checks. Work should be signed off by multiple people. This is one of the main reasons for having a co-pilot. He is not there simply to watch whilst the pilot is asleep or eating. He is there to question a course of action.
So what, you might ask, has all this to do with motorsport?
I have worked with dozens of teams over the last few years. Sometimes there is a traditional blame culture. Sometimes there is an aerospace style one. Sometimes the people are blamed. Sometimes the process is blamed.
In your careers, I urge you to work towards the latter. Fixing the process rather then fixing the people is one of the fastest ways to increase the reliability of your car and of your team. The teams that blame people will have a high turnover, which in turn means talented engineers are forced away simply due to a blame culture. With them, they take knowledge and intuition. Team morale is lower. Reliability is lower. Respect is lower. There are no positives.
Fixing a process on the other hand means those closest to the issue are around to help resolve it. They can redesign the process themselves to prevent future failures. These might not only be mechanical failures - communication, and strategy might also suffer with an inadequate process driving them.
Strive to strengthen any team you are in. Don't blame the people; blame the process.
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.