During Free Practice 3 at the recent Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal I had the chance do something I have never done before in 23 years in F1; to go on a team’s pitwall stand. I’ve listened in on team radio and observed in plenty of garages, but never sat plugged into the famous ‘prat perch’ and got an detailed insight into operations.
It gave me a chance to get closer to the sport and to really understand how a team like Marussia operates. And it was an eye opener.
With Marussia technical director Pat Symonds staying in the UK that weekend, there was a spare seat on the pit wall and Marussia’s Sporting Director Graeme Lowdon offered it to me for the Saturday morning session. I was given Symonds’ radio, plugged into the main desk and could hear all the radio traffic for both Jules Bianchi’s and Max Chilton’s cars as well as any intercom messages on the pit wall.
It provided a unique window in on the operations of the team. It is all about clear communication and fast, clear, decision making.
That Saturday morning FP3 session was wet and the start was delayed by barrier repairs, but when it started it was all about deciding when to go onto slick tyres. This provided a fascinating case study in how a team makes a crucial decision like this.
The level of discussions and real time analysis going on was as impressive as you would expect. They knew exactly what everyone else was doing, how the crossover point from intermediate to slicks had been hit by Gutierrez on a sector by sector basis. At one point the engineer in charge Dave Greenwood observed that, “If we were racing we’d have gone to slicks by now.”
With just two hours to prepare the cars between FP3 and qualifying, the highly experienced team principal John Booth knew that he didn’t want to put excessive pressure on his rookie drivers to try to set times on slicks on a cold, damp track and face possible crash damage. But at the same time, they are here to learn and those last few laps on slicks were an invaluable learning exercise.
Some experienced drivers like Webber and Alonso went out on slicks first, the track was cold and the tyres were taking their time to come up to temperature. The Williams pair went out and suddenly the decision was made to send Marussia’s drivers out. It was well judged; in the end analysis they waited about 90 seconds longer than ideal, but they still got enough timed laps to get a sense of the conditions, in case qualifying should turn out the same way. In the end it was wet and never quite got to slick tyres.
And to help them make the vital decision on timing, the management figures on the pit wall have screens in front of them that are an Aladin’s cave of software and real time analysis tools that any F1 fan would kill for.
At the click of a mouse it was possible to view the runs of each driver in the field shown in blocks to make quick and easy comparisons, there was a Tyre Deg chart, showing the drop off in performance of each car, there were dozens of ways to look at and analyse what was going on, all tools used by the strategy team.
All F1 teams have their own easy to view graphic of a driver tracker which shows where its cars are on the circuit and the cut off point for decision making on a pit stop. Marussia’s is a circle with clear delineation points. It shows the gaps in the traffic and the cut off points for decision making. It also has a countback facility, which recalibrates timings based on the car’s progress around the track.
With seven minutes to go in the session, on a damp but drying track, Greenwood knew at a glance that it was possible to do four and a half timed laps. It meant that Chilton’s engineer was able to inform his driver exactly what time he had left and by pushing a bit harder on the out lap Chilton duly got all his timed laps in.
Interestingly, while Bianchi struggled to get the slicks up to temperature in those conditions, Chilton managed it and set a good time.
Greenwood is an experienced engineer; he worked with Fernando Alonso at Renault in the mid 2000s.
Marussia has a deal with McLaren for this kind of support and they have modified McLaren’s system for their own purposes.
At the track Marussia operates to a military discipline just like McLaren or Red Bull, but the difference is that they build and run the cars on a quarter of the budget; so less time in the wind tunnel (they use McLaren’s), less CFD and that adds up to many points of downforce and a few seconds on the watch.
* To hear the feature I made with Marussia F1 Team, including team radio inserts, listen out for 5 Live F1 show on Thursday night of the British GP weekend – 27th June. It will also be available on this link BBC F1 Podcasts
* Apologies for the glitch this morning on this post which meant that comments were off.