The public face of Formula One has always been during race weekend. It is here that the famous names come out to play, the pole positions are contested, the chequered flags are taken and the podiums celebrated.
Ask an F1 team where the real work is carried out, however, and they'll point you to their next test session. But what really happens during a test? What goes on behind the screens has always been considered a secret affair, somewhere that not even the VIPs are allowed to go…until now.
June 3rd 2003 - Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit - Pit Garages 3A-C
An early start for The BMW WilliamsF1 Team on a slightly overcast English day. Over the next hour key WilliamsF1 personnel arrive, including Chief Operations Engineer Sam Michael, Chief Mechanic Toby Brown, and driver Ralf Schumacher with his Race Engineer, Gordon Day.
Other people present include a full complement of WilliamsF1 mechanics, engineers, technicians and support staff, BMW data analysts and engineers and representatives from Michelin. As the senior Team members discuss the agenda in the motorhome, the remaining crew prepare their equipment and set up the Williams BMW FW25 for the day ahead.
The striking efficiency of the whole Team becomes immediately apparent. Each Team member has a specific role to play in the garage and they carry out their tasks quickly and competently. Even the truckies are given specialist jobs to do, both on the car and in general preparation and garage maintenance.
Ralf Schumacher enters the garage suited up and gets into the car. The mood of the garage now changes from a hive of activity to an unnerving calm, as the whole Team watch the clock tick towards the pre-arranged start time. The primary objectives for the test, as detailed in the schedule, include four aerodynamic tests, a series of tyre tests and an engine endurance test.
With millisecond precision the FW25 roars into life and Ralf sets off on an installation lap. The purpose of this lap is to check that the car is running properly and the data feed to the garage is working.
Ralf returns to the garage and the mechanics swoop on the car, removing the bodywork, checking the front and rear dampers and checking the exhaust pipes. At the same time the technicians review the telemetry data on a rack of HP ProLiant DL380 servers, double checking both the systems and the data feed.
With the garage checks complete, the engine is fired up inside the confines of the garage. This deafening noise lasts only a couple of seconds but provides a lasting reminder of the brute strength contained inside the BMW engine - ear defenders are an essential accessory here. Once the engine is cut the bodywork is replaced and oil topped up. Ralf returns to the car.
Over the next thirty minutes Ralf conducts a series of two-lap drives, returning each time for changes to both the front and rear dampers. He reports that the car is bottoming out - scraping along the floor - along the fast Silverstone sections.
Gordon Day, Ralf's Race Engineer, explained the problem. "The aerodynamics work more effectively when you run the car low but then you have to make other adjustments to stop the car from bottoming out around the high speed sections of the circuits"
To remedy this problem the mechanics introduce a "packer gap" to both the front and rear dampers. This device effectively works as a third damper and sits just behind the standard right and left suspension dampers. The packer gap enables the Team to keep the car at a specific height as it travels at high speed, stopping it from being sucked to the ground by the increased aerodynamic load.
In addition, the Team increase the tyre pressures and add 0.5mm to the front ride height. The front wing is put back on the car whilst a second front wing is prepared at the back of the garage.
Ralf returns to the track to test out all the new changes. He radios back to confirm that the car is no longer bottoming out and that they can continue with the next phase of the schedule. Back in the garage the technicians run through the wireless telemetry data feed whilst the mechanics prepare a new rear wing.
The HP ProLiant DL380 server can monitor hundreds of different variables as the car drives around the track. Using custom software, the technicians can switch between engine, damper, speed, acceleration, clutch, gearbox, differential, tyre, steering, hydraulic, suspension and temperature data feeds quickly and easily.
In addition, whenever the car returns to the track it is connected to a wirelink and more comprehensive data is downloaded to the system for analysis. All data gathered by the Team at Silverstone is also sent back to the WilliamsF1 headquarters at Grove for further review.
"We have a choice of what we want to send back from the car," explained Alex Farina, Electronics Technician at WilliamsF1. "At somewhere like Silverstone we can send back almost all the data but at circuits with poor telemetry coverage we only send back the important data, so as not to overload the system".
Ralf sets out for the first of a series of 15 lap tests. The car has been fitted with the new front and rear wings and the primary purpose of the run is to test the aerodynamic efficiency of the new components. As he races round the track the garage is a hive of activity, with Sam Michael and Gordon Day on the pit wall reviewing Ralf's lap times using Compaq Evo Notebooks and the mechanics preparing new tyres for the next test run.
Ralf returns to the garage. The tyres look well worn after their 15-lap excursion. They are removed and new tyres take their place, ready for the Michelin test. The technicians and the HP ProLiant servers will be vital to this test, as the telemetry feed is focused on tyre pressures and wear. Additionally, the original front and rear wings are removed and replaced by new components.
The next 15 lap test begins and the majority of the garage action is focused around the ProLiant servers, as the technicians review the feed from the car. Whilst reviewing the data the Team also notice that the hydraulic pressure is slowly dropping, suggesting a leak. However, by mapping the pressure drop against the hydraulic temperature they can gauge that the leak is only minor and will not affect the overall car performance.
Ralf returns after the full 15 laps and the car is wire-linked for full data download. After a quick turnaround, including tyre change, Ralf takes to the track once more for a brief two lap excursion before the Team break for lunch.
Most of the Team move to the motorhome in the paddock for a hot or cold lunch, served by WilliamsF1 catering staff. In the garage the remaining mechanics strip the car right down, removing the wheels and bodywork, refuelling the car and replacing or making changes to the radiators, brakes and seat.
The Team return to the garage and fit the car with scrubbed tyres. Ralf sets out for a brief 4-lap drive, checking all the alterations to the car that were carried out over lunch. Whilst the car is on the track the Team prepare new tyres for the first main test of the afternoon.
Ralf returns to the garage and the new tyres are fitted. New aerodynamic components are also put on the car and Ralf is sent back out to carry out a "ramp" test. This test requires Ralf to drive along a straight at a constant speed without changing gear. This way the technicians can gather valuable aerodynamic telemetry data for the wings that are to be used at the next race, without having to take the other variables into account.
Back in the pits, Ralf carries out a new seat fitting, whilst Toby Brown discusses future engine testing plans with the BMW personnel. Ralf provides feedback on the seat and it is taken away for adjustment. It starts raining out on track.
With the rain still falling Sam Michael and Gordon Day decide to change to wet tyres. Ralf takes to the track on wets and immediately returns to report that, despite the rain, the track is too dry for wet tyres. The Team change back to a dry setup as the rain all but stops.
Ralf sets out on his penultimate 15 laps, testing engine endurance for BMW. Upon his return he is immediately tasked to a new seat fitting, following the adjustments. New brake pads are also fitted as Ralf tests the seat.
A decision is made to conduct the final 15 lap test using the new seat in the car. Three laps into the test Ralf returns to the garage, unhappy with the seat and it is subsequently changed back to the old seat. Ralf goes out again to complete the 15-lap test he'd started.
At the end of the session, the car is totally stripped down to its component parts, which are each analysed for wear - including the inside of the engine, which is scrutinised using a fibre-optic "keyhole" camera. However the work is not done for the day, with 8 mechanics stripping the car down, 5 technicians reviewing the day's telemetry data and engine readouts and the catering staff in the motorhome cooking up the evening meal.
In case of an engine that has to be replaced, the team heads to evening work to prepare the following day of testing. Finishing work at midnight is not an uncommon event during a test session, and when you're required back in "the office" for 7am the next day, it doesn't take long to realise that long hours are simply a necessary part of the job.HP Formula One