The design process by Williams' Sam Michael

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Most people think Formula One gets quieter over the winter, they're wrong...It's at this time of year that the ten teams competing in the sport are busier than ever. Next season's car has already been in the design process for a good six months and parts are already being track tested.

Comprising 8,000 components, designing and manufacturing a Formula One car is a long and complicated process. We asked the Williams F1 Team Technical Director, Sam Michael to talk us through it.

"Designing and producing a Formula One car is a much longer and more complex task now than 10 years ago. The process starts in December of the previous year for an end of January launch almost 14 months later. It begins with the overall concept of the car and from this a design and production plan will be drawn up. Tests are scheduled in the wind tunnel, R&D labs & dyno's, followed by design work and finally the production of the actual car components. All of this is happening during the current racing season. Further development of the car during the year then starts, with the target of improving the base car performance as much as possible to ensure competitiveness.

There are a number of primary inputs to the car concept, these being the tyre characteristics, principal aerodynamic considerations, current and future FIA regulations and race car set-up requirements. Once these are taken into account, performance targets are set and planning decisions are made on what R&D will be required over the next months. Initially a car may have a number of different directions that it could evolve down from a mechanical and aerodynamic point of view. It is the R&D work that will help decide the best route.

A typical example that we went through at Williams recently was the gearbox shift technology. Seamless shift gearboxes have now been developed and there are at least 5 or 6 different mechanical methods of doing it - probably more, but that's how many concepts Williams have studied over the years. Only through understanding the system with computer modelling, simulation and dyno testing does the fastest and most robust solution become clear.

With so many people involved in the process, it is important that a project as large as a car design is planned correctly. The car design project is split into different areas such as aerodynamics, transmission, suspension, steering, brakes and engine systems to ensure no item is missed. Within each area the full process is broken down and the appropriate R&D and design times are allocated. Regular meetings are held during R&D and design to monitor the progress of each section against the performance targets and timelines.

Research and development involves taking a concept, simulating it using computer modelling, setting up experiments with data measurements and analysis in order to quantify performance and/or reliability. R&D is essential to any engineering process to make sound judgements.

Using the seamless shift gearbox example again, at the start of the project the full gearbox model was simulated using a specialist multi-body simulation package on the computer. This then allowed the designers to quickly simulate different gearbox concepts without manufacturing any physical parts. After this initial investigation, a couple of sets of gear ratios and a single shifter mechanism were manufactured to run on a dynamometer in the Williams lab. Many tests were done in the lab to verify that the simulation was correct before manufacturing a complete gearbox to test on an engine dynamometer.

Once the R&D process is finished (and it never really finishes), the Design Office take the R&D parts and turns them into real car parts. This is the same process whether it's a gearbox from they dyno, or a new rear wing from the wind tunnel. In some cases, the process goes back a stage to R&D and the part goes to the track for testing on a full size car. Once it has completed a specified mileage without problems it can be released to production so increased quantities can be manufactured.

The production of the car is planned down to the last day, even 14 months ahead. Every single part of the car (there are around 8,000 parts now) is accounted for in the production schedule. Most of the year, the composites and machine shops in Williams run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are staffed by a very hard working and committed group of people. There is a regular nightshift in each department that keeps the parts moving through to meet the rigid deadlines that Formula One requires. It is a daunting task because there is no real option of moving dates because the Grands Prix for the following year are obviously fixed, not making it is not an option!

Although the launch is the time when the car is shown to everyone outside of the team, the real focus for the engineers is on the first test straight afterwards. At this point, engineers have the car covered in temperature, pressure and displacement sensors to monitor all the highly stressed components to verify modelling and simulation studies, just to make sure the calculations were correct. Typical items measured are:

• Rear suspension and rear wing temperatures to make sure the new exhaust layout isn't burning them.

• Heat rejection of the engine with the new water and oil cooling layout are measured first on short runs and then over long runs. It typically takes a 10 lap run to get everything stabilised and readable. This is because the car cools down every time it stops in the pits so it needs to warm-up again.

• Bodywork to see how much flexing is occurring.

Even by the time the car is launched it is out of date. By that we mean that some parts on it have already been rendered obsolete by other parts developed in the wind tunnel since it was released from design for manufacture. That is why development upgrades during the pre-season testing and then in-season racing are important to ensure competitiveness."

Special thanks to Williams F1