Formula One’s race engine shop is one exclusive invite
In a sport with millions of dollars on the line, and all cars are built to a strictly enforced set of rules, secrets are tightly held.
VIRY-CHATILLON, FRANCE – There are few ‘sanctorums’ that are more ‘sanctum’ in the automobile business than a Formula One race shop.
In a sport with millions of dollars on the line (or into the guard rail), where success differs from failure by hundredths of a second in every corner, and all cars are built to a strictly enforced set of rules, secrets are tightly held.
Every team is searching for that advantage, unfair or otherwise, and that fairness is adjudicated by those same rule makers.
So, when the invitation came to visit the Renault Formula One race engine shop in this suburb to the south of Paris, I wasn’t likely to turn it down, even if I assumed we would be pretty restricted about what we could see, photograph and write about.
As it turned out, our hosts were remarkably forthcoming.
OK, so the cynical Formula One race fan might well argue that Renault’s placement near the back of the pack since the company took over the struggling Lotus team in late 2015 suggests they have no secrets worth hiding.
But again, the margins are so tiny here.
And rather like Ross Brawn did when he took over the Honda F1 team in 2008 — stopping development of the existing car in midseason to focus all his efforts on the following year — that’s effectively what Renault did midway through the 2016 season.
Renault drivers Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer knew they had to play around with the Manors and Saubers for the remainder of 2016 in hopes that the 2017 car would be more competitive.
At least they have one data point that suggests this is the right strategy — the Brawn cars qualified and finished one-two in the first race of 2009, and Jenson Button won his World Championship that year.
And the Brawn team went on to become the Mercedes-Benz team which dominates F1 today.
Not that Renault Sport Racing’s Chief Technical Officer Bob Bell is exactly expecting a championship this coming season.
“Formula One is engine, driver, chassis, and aerodynamics,” he notes.
“Our engines are already race-winners, and are regularly on the podium,” he notes, referring to the fact that Red Bull also uses Renault engines.
A transport truckload of rule changes is coming for 2017, and the team is working hard on them.
“We are building our team of technical talent and fabricators,” Bell adds.
Among other things, last year, Renault brought the engineering of many of the electronic control unit components in-house instead of outsourcing them.
“Our goal is podium finishes in 2018,” says Bell, “with a realistic chance at a championship maybe two to three years after that.”
He knows his team has a lot of work ahead of them, and the teams that are also ahead of them on the track, notably Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Red Bull, aren’t exactly chopped liver, and won’t be standing still.
But Renault has been a winner in the past, and they know the magnitude of the challenge and seem prepared to dedicate the necessary resources.
The engines are designed and built here; the chassis and assembly takes place in Enstone, England. The distance both in kilometres and culture doesn’t seem to be an issue, as the two branches of the team are in constant electronic contact.
A Formula One engine is an immensely complex piece of engineering. The rule makers decided in 2009 to add ‘KERS’ — Kinetic Energy Recovery System — to the 2.4-litre, V8 engine, to recapture energy lost in braking to charge a battery which would power an electric motor to add a short-lived boost of some 80 horsepower at the touch of a button on the steering wheel.
In 2014, in an attempt to make the cars more ‘relevant’ to the real world, they reduced displacement — 1.5-litre turbocharged V6 engines instead of 2.4-litre V8s — and the cars would need to complete each Grand Prix using no more than 100 kg of fuel.
And, they mandated a full, two-stage hybrid system, using two Motor-Generator Units (‘MGU’).
The MGU-H captures ‘Heat’ from the turbo, converts it into electricity and stores it in the battery. It also controls turbocharger r.p.m. to reduce turbo lag and improve driveability.
The second MGU-K recaptures ‘Kinetic’ energy from the brakes, and also directs additional torque from that battery to the motor to help power the rear wheels.
It’s all managed by an incredibly complex computer system which has to exist in the harshest environment imaginable for an electronic component, with all the heat and vibration of a race car.
Now, the whole idea of fuel-efficient race cars seems a bit pointless, especially since these cars are flown all across the world several times during the season, and every 747 cargo jet flight probably consumes more fuel than all cars do during the entire series.
Not to mention the question of how relevant can 350 km/h, one-seat open-wheel race cars ever be to the real world.
Still, it provides better optics.
As for the drivers, the Formula One driver lineup became even more of a yard sale than usual when 2016 champion Nico Rosberg announced his retirement just five days after securing his first and now presumably only title.
In the ensuing melee, many drivers changed hats. Er, helmets.
Renault feels they need a ‘development’ driver, and a ‘race-winner,’ not that those two characteristics are mutually exclusive.
They felt Magnussen was the more aggressive of last year’s pair, while Palmer was more precise.
Perhaps this helps explain why they signed German Nico Hulkenberg to a multi-year contract, which left Magnussen out of a ride; he has subsequently joined the American-owned Haas team.
Hulkenberg has won championships at every level of racing he has competed in, except, of course, Formula 1, where he has been a regular since 2010, with Williams, Sauber and Force India. He has shown good speed, but has never really been in a car with a realistic chance of winning.
So the Renaults should be decently fast in 2017, well-driven, and with the new rules somewhat levelling the playing field, it should make them more competitive.
Formula One racing isn’t just about automotive engineering; it is also about marketing.
Renault is using its F1 exposure to make the brand more familiar in markets where it isn’t as well-known, such as China.
The Infiniti side of the house is leveraging the race experience of its corporate sibling to tie into the hybrid systems in its road cars.
The branding term everyone tosses around is ‘Technology Partner.’
For road cars, hybrids are largely about optimizing range, fuel economy and emissions. For race cars, it’s more about performance.
But both disciplines involve getting the maximum amount of energy from a given amount of fuel.
In the final analysis, racing is entertainment, just like any professional sport.
Making it more competitive should make it more interesting, and that will be the challenge for the new ownership of this circus, which begins anew in March in Australia.
As a lifelong Maple Leafs fan, I’ve got used to the “wait till next year” mantra.
In Formula One, ‘next year’ starts in March.
Canadian content in Formula One
There will be more Canadian content in the 2017 Formula One championship series than Montreal teenager Lance Stroll driving for the Williams team.
The Renault cars will have at least a few parts that were worked on by 21-year-old Gatineau, Que.-native Felix Lamy.
The McGill University mechanical engineering student won the first Canadian spot in Infiniti’s Engineering Academy competition last September, and is about one third of the way through his six-month internship with the Renault Sport F1 team in Enstone, England.
Following this, he will serve another six-month stint in Infiniti’s road car engineering department in Cranfield, England.
“Working for a Formula One team has been a dream of mine since I first got started in racing, working on Formula Ford and Touring car teams since I was 16,” Lamy told me during the press day for the Montreal Auto Show last week.
“First, I was just cleaning the wheels, packing the trailer,” he said.
But as he gained the trust of his team, he moved into a mechanic’s role, doing engine swaps, brakes, suspension adjustments.
While attending CEGEP, his dream included attending England’s Oxford Brookes University, whose renowned automotive engineering program has produced many F1 engineers.
But that’s a tough program to get into, and not inexpensive.
He chose McGill, not just for its overall excellence and worldwide reputation, but also because its ‘Formula SAE’ team (a program created by the Society of Automotive Engineers which involves engineering students building a race car to a given formula and competing in it) was historically among the best in this North America-wide competition.
While in second year at McGill, he became aware of the Infiniti Engineering Academy program.
“I had already applied to other F1 teams for an internship,” he said, “but it’s hard to get noticed, and they mostly take English kids (Lamy is Francophone). It’s also not easy to get a visa to work over there, and Infiniti opened that door.”
Out of some 300 Canadian applicants, 50 were shortlisted, 10 were chosen as finalists for the September competition, and Lamy emerged as the winner.
Of his fellow competitors, he said, “all good people, all well-prepared, and all hungry, too! At first, it was not easy to be put into a team with people you didn’t know, and design and build something with them, make decisions,” he remembered.
They were his teammates yet they were also his competitors, because only one of them would win the prize.
“The first half of the competition was learning how to adjust to the team, then in the second half, I started to open the throttle a bit. Kind of like Q1, Q2, Q3 in Formula One qualifying!”
Even this young man’s jokes are Formula One-oriented …
“My first job at Renault was preparing and updating documents for every part that goes onto the race car, sort of the encyclopedia of the car. Classical intern work!
“I then worked on various parts of the carbon fiber chassis, for example, determining how to bond titanium inserts into the front wing.
“I have also been working on some components in the cooling system for the engine.”
Lamy referenced the spate of new rules for the 2017 season.
“The tires are wider, and are expected to last longer, so there should be fewer pit stops. The cars should be much faster, more exciting to watch. There will be corners which will now be flat-out which weren’t before. This means more stress on the cars, and on the drivers.
“We don’t really get to interact with drivers at this point in my career. There’s no place for being a fan — you’re in the business.”
Beyond his time with the race team and the six-month placement with the Infiniti road car engineering department, where he expects to specialize in vehicle dynamics and tire engineering, what’s in Lamy’s medium-term future?
“I like the fact that I have two years of university left. I think my experience at Renault and Infiniti will help me appreciate more the courses I have to take.
“I want to continue in automotive engineering, preferably in racing. But I am also interested in new technologies, hybrids, interconnectivity, autonomous cars, which should make cars safer and faster too. Long-distance commutes are no fun!”
His race-team experience surely was an advantage for him in his time with the Renault race team, as he understands the pressure that comes with racing. I thought from our first meeting that with about two weeks of training, he could be the right front wheelman for the F1 team’s pit stops.
Is that something that would interest him?
“I spoke with one of those mechanics, and he shares my passion. For sure, it would be interesting, and I think my racing experience does help me communicate with the mechanics, but I’ll probably stay on the engineering side.”
Speaking of communication, what I noticed in Lamy now compared to when I met him six months ago is how much more confident he is, especially expressing himself in his second language.
When at the Renault Sport F1 engine shop in Viry-Chatillon last fall, I also met Daniel Sanham, who won the Academy slot for England in 2015, and recently completed his internship. A more assured, confident young man you may never meet — not at all boastful, just confident.
Andy Todd, a senior engineer with Infiniti who helps run the Academy program, told me that when Sanham started, he was very shy.
Now, if Sanham isn’t running the entire team by the time he is 30, I’ll have missed my guess.
And it would surprise me not in the least if Felix Lamy was his right-hand man.
If not his boss …