The role of the F1 race engineer

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Ever since car-to-pit radios entered the public domain, the role of the Race Engineer has been thrown into sharper focus. On Sunday afternoon television, Formula One fans have become used to hearing the sound of a mysterious voice talking to a driver.

In the Honda Racing F1 Team, the men behind the microphone are Jock Clear and Andrew Shovlin. The experienced Clear is the race engineer for Rubens Barrichello, while Shovlin performs the same role for Jenson Button. Shovlin admits that the media attention can be a little strange. “It feels odd when you hear yourself on TV,” he says, “but when the race is on, I don’t think about it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just having a conversation with Jenson.”

The relationship between the driver and his race engineer is one of the most important in any Formula One team. “We act as the go-between for the driver and the rest of the team,” explains Clear. “It’s our job to find out what the driver is happy with and what he’s not. We discuss the car set-up, the tyres and the fuel levels. Then I interpret and communicate the information to a whole raft of support engineers.”

Although media and public attention inevitably focuses on the Grand Prix weekend, much of the race engineer’s work is done away from the limelight. “Our work is often formulaic,” says Shovlin. “Before each race, we’ll spend time carrying out simulations at the factory. We’ll look at the strategy options and any unusual factors relating to that circuit. The start set-up of the car will be determined during the week before the race.

“Before I leave for the circuit, I’ll probably spend 20 minutes on the phone to Jenson, discussing how we’re going to approach the weekend. Then we’ll sit down together for a couple of hours when we arrive at the track.”

During the Grand Prix proper, the race engineer must make the strategic decisions that could determine the outcome of the race. “All the calls on the pit wall are down to the race engineer,” says Clear, “but I’ll be working from information supplied by the Chief Engineer, Craig Wilson. We also discuss all the likely scenarios beforehand so what might seem like a split second decision is actually very well informed.”

Anyone watching last year’s F1 coverage might also have heard him commentating to Takuma Sato on the run to the first corner. It’s a technique that Shovlin and Button are using this year. “Modern cockpits are very difficult to see out of, and the driver’s mirrors are often obscured by aerodynamic winglets,” explains Shovlin. “By using the television pictures, I’m able to tell Jenson which cars are around him. This helps alleviates the risk of a first-corner collision.”

While some drivers like to chat during a race, both engineers are conscious of the need for secrecy. “The teams have been monitoring each others radios for the past decade,” says Clear, “and now the TV viewers can listen in too. We have to be careful not to give away technical or tactical secrets.”

The modern race engineer must blend diplomacy with technical know-how. Both Clear and Shovlin are talented and experienced engineers. Shovlin completed a PhD in Vehicle Dynamics and Control before he joined the then B•A•R Honda team in 1998. Clear was a Senior Designer at the Leyton House and Lotus F1 teams in the early 1990s before going on to act as race engineer to Johnny Herbert, David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve, Takuma Sato and now Rubens Barrichello.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is translating technical issues into a language the driver can easily understand,” says Shovlin. “When they’re driving, they have a lot to think about so we need to present information in a straightforward manner.” Shovlin has been Button’s Senior Race Engineer since the beginning of 2004 and he believes their relationship has improved with time. “You start to understand each other better and with experience comes an appreciation of what will work and what won’t. It helps you react more quickly to a given situation.”

Jock Clear was race engineer to Jacques Villeneuve when he won the World Championship in 1997 and they moved together to the British American Racing team in 1999. When Villeneuve left at the end of 2003, Clear found himself thrust into a relationship with a new driver, Takuma Sato.

“Taku joined the team for the final race of the 2003 season in Japan. We’d had little time to prepare but he finished sixth on his debut and we got on very well from there. Working with Taku was a very different role for me - I was much more of a father figure, a tutoring-type race engineer. Now, with Rubens, I’ve gone back to being how I was with Jacques as they are similar characters.”

Clear accepts that his role involves a great deal of psychology. “You must treat each driver in a different way. You must learn how to get them up when they’re feeling down, and how to calm them down if they’re over-excited.”

After a difficult start to the season, Clear says his relationship with Barrichello is flourishing. “The speed with which we’ve managed to turn things around has surprised a lot of people. Rubens has been able to use his experience to help him adapt to a new team and a new engineer.”

In Formula One, the most obvious yardstick for a driver’s performance is their teammate, and it’s the same for a race engineer. “You can’t resist getting drawn into the competition,” says Clear. “You want to do the best job you can and the best way of measuring your performance is to compare it with the guy who has exactly the same equipment. But it’s a friendly rivalry!” Shovlin agrees: “Of course we compete but it’s all in the best possible spirit. There’s nothing underhand - we can look at each other’s data.”

With the race engineer and driver working so closely together, it’s not surprising that friendships develop. “I still consider David Coulthard a close friend,” says Clear, “and Jacques is godfather to my daughters. Whatever happens in racing, that will persist. That’s part of the bond you build when they’re driving at breakneck speed and relying on your information. Without that trust, you don’t get the best out of the partnership or the car; but with that trust, you’re always going to develop a friendship.”

Working so closely with a driver also offers the race engineers a unique insight into their talent. “The best drivers have full control of everything that’s going on around them,” says Clear. “I’ve known drivers discuss what they’ve seen on the TV screens dotted around the circuits. Rubens came on the radio during the race at Monaco this year to tell me he’d just watched Michael Schumacher overtake Jenson on one of the screens. It shows you just how good they are at what they’re doing.”

Part-commentator, part-life coach and part-tactician, the modern race engineer must possess an impressive breadth of talents. Few other jobs demand such a cool head in an atmosphere of intense pressure. It’s a role that both Clear and Shovlin relish.

Special thanks to Honda