For the last year I’ve been working away behind the scenes with a very talented group of people from production company, Dragonfly Film and Television Productions and Discovery Networks International, to make a series of programs linked to travel, extreme engineering and my F1 experience.
I’ve explored the planet, visiting some of the most incredible places, meeting some amazing people and getting involved in spectacular types of motorsport.
Finally, after a lot of hard work, it’s ready and coming to the Discovery Channel around the world. It’ll be called either Gears, Grease and Glory, or Driving Wild, depending on which region you’re in.
Here’s a short taster…enjoy.
I don’t actually remember the first time I ever met Tyler, which is certainly no reflection on his stature with the team, more so of my ‘rabbit in headlights’ type existence in my first few weeks in my new dream job. When we were introduced though and people began relaying the stories and tales of his time at McLaren, it quickly became clear he was someone who had respect.
I can’t talk with too much credibility about the Tyler of the old days, I’m sure many of us have read the incredible tributes and obituaries, if not either of his two brilliant books. What I can do is talk about the Tyler I knew, the guy who inspired me, taught me, rolled his eyes over the top of his glasses at me when I did something stupid…again, and the the guy who made me laugh until I cried on regular occasions in amongst the high pressure, often chaotic, environment that was a Formula One race garage.
Tyler, or TJ, as he was known to most of us, was a hugely important figure in the history of our team. I can liken him to an elder statesman to whom the younger ones in our group, as I was once, would turn to for advice or just to hear a fascinating tale of what life used to be like for the Grand Prix mechanics of old. Figures like him are important in enclosed, insular worlds like the Formula One fraternity, much like tribal elders play a crucial role in being the much revered link between old and new, he was our own encyclopaedia of knowledge and experience.
Where TJ differed from many a man in his 60’s, as he was when I first encountered him, was that this incredibly fast moving, hi-tech world of F1 had far from passed him by and left him in a distant era. His role as Systems Engineer to Mika, Kimi, Fernando and others meant he worked at the cutting edge of the complex electronic and hydraulic technologies on the car, a side of things that, at times, baffled the hell out of me. Despite understanding them, he did still think the levels of complexity were ridiculously over the top and that real racing could be done from anywhere with a hammer and an adjustable spanner.
Everything he did though, he did with highly structured accuracy. Working to his own checklists, not allowing anything or anyone to move until he was ready. Checking, double and triple checking that everything was as it should be before the car was set up, fired up or even cleaned up.
I saw someone recently describe him as “the nicest grumpy bloke I knew”, which made me laugh. His disdain for anyone or anything that didn’t work properly, or to his liking, was well known. It was largely well known because when he went ‘off on one’ about something, the whole garage knew about it. It wasn’t so much that he would shout and scream, but more that everyone would stop what they were doing and listen to, what was almost certainly going to be, a hilarious rant.
It must be almost possible to collate a book from the sayings and phrases Tyler used to come up with when managing to so eloquently express his disgust or disbelief at certain situations. As I describe a few of these now, it’s important to try and read his quotes in the deep, gruff, slow, grumpy American twang that those who knew him remember so well.
One of my absolute favourites was from 2008, Lewis’ title deciding weekend. In the build up to the race the team had rightly decided the best way to approach the GP was not to change things, despite only needing to finish 5th to win. Inevitably over the weekend, amongst huge tension, engineers got nervous and changed some gearbox parts, thinking they’d be better. On Sunday morning, the guys on that car had gearbox issues during the engine fire up and a concerned crowd including Ron, Paddy Lowe, Pat Fry and others gathered around to desperately scratch heads.
– TJ walked up to me, peering over his glasses and shaking his head and said “You know what Elvis? You spend all year wiping your ass with one hand, half way through switch to wiping it with the other, it’s no wonder you’re gonna get shit on your thumb!” He turned and walked away and I watched his shoulders rise and fall as he was clearly chuckling to himself.
When the team moved into the hugely impressive McLaren Technology Centre with all it’s glitz and glamour a mile or so from our old factory, TJ was less than impressed. He just wanted to get on with racing and found the whole thing a distraction he could do without. He was a creature of habit and finding his way around the enormous new facility or waiting for a sensor to decide when you wanted to turn on the taps in the toilets, rather than him turning a handle when he was ready, frustrated the hell out of him for a while. I remember trying to fire up a car at MTC for the first time. A crowd of people gathered in attendance, we fitted the fancy new exhaust extractor unit emerging from the shiny tiled floor and it didn’t work. Health and Safety prevented us from starting the engine without it and Tyler became more and more annoyed until he burst.
– “Jesus fucking Christ! The only thing in this Goddam building that’s supposed to suck, doesn’t!” The race bays erupted into laughter and Tyler just shook his head in disbelief.
Sometimes the size of the modern team made things overly complicated in his view. Back in the day if something needed doing or a decision needed making he’d just get on and do it. So at one race, during a particularly lengthy discussion between a group of engineers and management over the intercom, about whether or not to fit wet tyres at the next pitstop, TJ just had to interject.
– “Jesus Christ here…why don’t you guys chuck a piece of string out the front of the Goddam garage, drag it back in, if it’s wet you need wet tyres…Jesus Christ.”
I could go on all day with his off the cuff sayings and reactions, but they’ll definitely keep me smiling for many years to come.
He was just a good guy who gave his heart and soul to win races. Some of my proudest moments at McLaren were as part of the close knit team that formed the crew for Kimi’s car between 2002 and 2006 and Tyler was very much a part of that. Him and I formed a close bond throughout that time and I looked up to him immensely. It’s not often in any line of work you get the opportunity to work with someone who’s such an endless resource of knowledge and unrivalled experience and also a great friend.
In late 2013 I was genuinely honoured that he, and his lovely partner Jane, made the effort to come to my wedding in East London. Shortly afterwards he fell seriously ill, which ultimately led to his incredibly sad passing. Despite not having seen him for a few months because of extensive work travel, I miss him already and will continue to do so.
There are definitely worse mottos to live life by than Tyler’s…
”It’s not that life is too short; it’s that death is too long. So best get on with things.”
People are always asking me how I got into Formula One in the first place and for any advice for them or their sons or daughters who might be eyeing up a similar career in the pitlane. To those who’ve approached me face to face, I always try and give the most in-depth and accurate description of my own experience and words of sincere encouragement for those who might like to follow in my footsteps. For the many who get in touch through Twitter or similar means, it becomes a lot more difficult to convey my genuine passion for the world of Formula One and the life that it becomes for those within it, in just 140 characters.
…so I thought I’d have a go here.
I grew up in a village in the UK, on the doorstep of Brands Hatch, which, during many of the formative years of my childhood hosted the British Grand Prix. I’ve no doubt that, even if subconsciously, that must be where the motor racing bug was contracted.
Friends of mine had a house whose garden backed onto the circuit perimeter and we’d regularly slip through a hole in the fence and into the woodland that lined the famous track. We had a wonderful and unique vantage point, albeit a touch on the dangerous side and more than once found ourselves bringing out the red flags as we were spotted crouching trackside and duly evicted by circuit officials. It was bad enough being responsible for bringing a test day or practice session to a halt as a truck was sent onto the circuit to pick us up, but even worse that they repeatedly threw us out at the main gate on the other side of the village, meaning a terribly long walk back to my mate’s house to collect our bikes.
Growing up with the sounds of motorsport in the air and the regular influx of international race fans and teams meant I was quickly hooked. I became fascinated by the workings of the sport and in particular, remember dreaming of what it must be like to be involved in those incredible pitstops.
When it came to making decisions about my career, despite having a serious passion for motorsport, there was never any advice to follow my dreams from school advisors or teachers, it was much more about knuckling down and getting the academic grades. The advice was to focus on the subjects I was doing well at in school and then see what I could do with them further down the line.
I duly followed the advice (for once) and began A-Levels in subjects that I was good at, but in truth wasn’t excited about in the slightest.
It’s certainly not that it was bad advice. For many people that would be a very sensible path to follow, even for some as a possible route into F1, it’s just that deep down I knew I had my heart set on working in motor racing and wanted to be hands on. Until I’d at least given that a try I would never be fully committed to anything else.
Half way through my A-Levels I plucked up the courage to speak out and was fortunate my parents were very supportive. I made the switch to study Motor Vehicle Engineering.
Combining studies with various work experience placements gave me my first taste of actual trackside motor racing AND I LOVED IT. Working voluntarily with a small race team gave me a real life insight into what it was like and there was no turning back from the very first time I set foot inside a circuit wearing a team shirt. I may’ve been doing little more than making tea and wheeling tyres around at this stage, but I was 100% convinced this was where I belonged.
This is where one of my biggest pieces of advice for young people comes in. Work Experience.
We generally only get one opportunity in our lives to work for free and that’s when we’re young. Take that chance. Offer your services to as many places of interest as you can possibly fit in. Try as many different types of motorsport as you can, as many different roles as you can. Write to as many companies as you can, show your passion, give up your spare time for it, make yourself stand out from the pile of CV’s on the team manger’s desk. In today’s world it doesn’t take a genius to decipher a company’s email address format and if you can find out the names of people in the key positions at various teams, you can get a personal email directly into their inbox, rather than the traditional generic CV sent through HR. Be creative, persistent and innovative, not only will it get you noticed, but they’re key traits for working in F1 and that’ll give an insight into your personality as well as the document itself.
Having never really left the village I’d grown up in, it was a very brave me that, after finding a contact through a neighbour, offered my services to a Formula Ford team based in Milton Keynes and was given the chance to spend two weeks with them during my summer holidays. I packed a bag and went to live with one of the mechanics for a fortnight and had the time of my life. I spent time preparing the cars, took them testing at the Mallory Park circuit and eventually got to join them for a race weekend back at Brands Hatch.
I did a good job, tried to be the best at whatever they asked me to do, was inquisitive and took in as much as I possibly could.
My mind was 100% set on a career in racing and I used my experience, albeit limited, to get an apprenticeship with a small team racing Caterham 7’s.
I had a clear goal of getting into Formula One, so worked my way up the ladder towards the top, all the time writing hopefully to F1 teams along the way. Every time I was at a race track with our little support series, I would seek out mechanics and engineers from the championships headlining the event, asking advice, making contacts.
The motor racing ‘ladder’ for single seater mechanics was much the same as it was for drivers back then, FFord, F3, F3000, culminating in F1. Coincidently, my path followed that of Jenson Button, moving into Formula Ford together and later onto British F3. Where he went straight from there into F1 with Williams, I persisted in constantly writing to every team and moved into Formula 3000 (GP2’s predecessor).
Eventually, by getting my CV onto the desk of McLaren’s test team manager through someone I’d met, I got myself noticed and amongst the steady stream of rejection letters landing on my doorstep from all quarters of my favourite sport, got an invite to come and meet him at the team’s factory.
To say I was excited would be an understatement of epic proportions and as the day drew nearer, the excitement was rapidly overtaken by nerves.
I remember sitting in my car in McLaren’s old car park, about two hours early, so as not to be late, thinking how incredible it was just to be on the property. I was shaking at the prospect of walking through the doors of a place that I read about daily. Meeting people, who in my little world, were some of the most respected and revered, almost celebrity-like, characters in my life…and that was simply because of the place they worked and the shirt they wore.
The interview went well and I got to meet a number of key people and even got shown around the famous factory. I remember thinking if I didn’t get the job, I’d still die a happy man with that experience alone.
Weeks later I got the call that I’ll never ever forget and that changed my life forever…I was a Formula One mechanic at McLaren.
I didn’t just get given a new job, but a new family and an entirely new life. It’s a life that’s incredibly hard at times, requires a great deal of sacrifice and absolute dedication, but in return offers more than I could’ve ever imagined.
More than 15 years later, although no longer part of McLaren, I’m very lucky to still be part of the F1 family. I share the life with many of my best friends in the world and have been fortunate to enjoy and play a part in some amazing experiences.
My biggest piece of advice is to follow your dreams. If you’re passionate about working in motorsport, then be tenacious, grab hold of every opportunity and don’t let go until you get what you want. Opportunities rarely just appear, so create them for yourself.
It’s a wonderful world that offers things no other career can. Travel the world, meet friends for life, get the adrenaline rush, celebrate the good times and develop from the disappointments. It’s best not to try and work out your hourly pay rate at times, but know that you’ll never be bored or have that dreaded ‘Sunday night feeling’ of having to go back to work on a Monday morning.
Hopefully I’ll see some of you in the paddock before too long.
Following another great Formula E event in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I thought I’d just unravel a couple of things that we didn’t get a chance to talk about in our live ITV4 show on Saturday. There’ve been a few drivers suffering penalties recently for various indiscretions, either by them or their teams, that I think need a little more explanation. In Malaysia a few weeks ago, we saw Jerome d’Ambrosio, or ‘Custard’ as he’s affectionately know in the paddock, get excluded from qualifying for “exceeding power usage”. There’s an important distinction to make here, which is the difference between ‘energy’ and ‘power’. In simple terms, energy is effectively the amount of work the battery can do, whilst power is the rate at which it’s asked do it. The drivers have a defined amount of usable energy (28kwh) in the race for each car, which is slightly less than the actual total capacity of the battery. The percentage figure you see on screen next to drivers names during the race is the percentage of usable energy each driver has left with that car, i.e. how much of his or her 28kwh. It’s up to the driver and their team to manage energy usage so as not to go over that limit. We saw Daniel Abt penalised for exceeding this figure in Beijing by a small amount. Power’s measured in kw and the drivers have a ‘power map’ or torque control switch on the steering wheel with six settings available to adjust this. The regulations stipulate the maximum power for qualifying (200kw) and the race (150kw), with the temporary additional boost up to 180kw with Fanboost. In the race, drivers will change the power map setting to control their pace at different points and the rate at which they’re using up the 28kwh of useable energy. You can perhaps equate it to fuel flow in Formula One, where teams have a maximum of 100kgs of fuel for the race and can vary the rate at which they use it, through engine maps, but can’t go over a 100kgs/hour fuel flow limit. In qualifying however, they’re all naturally using maximum power (200kw) on their timed laps, so it begs the question, how is it possible to exceed this limit, when in theory the system can’t physically ever deliver any more power than this anyway? The answer’s not a particularly sophisticated one, but lies in the fact that teams program their own power maps into their cars and rely on ‘the system’ to keep it from spiking over the allowed limits. The steering wheel controlled maps are essentially bits of software code to tell the Williams battery how much power to deliver through the McLaren motor control unit into the eMotor itself. Because of various system tolerances and electrical losses, when a team writes a map to request 200kw, typically they may only see something around 190-195kw as a final output. It may only seem like a small amount, but it’s a performance differentiator, so teams write maps to demand a figure that’s just over the 200kw in qualifying and just over 150kw in the race and hope that both the McLaren and Williams software will catch any spikes and prevent them from breaching the legal limits. On a couple of occasions that hasn’t happened and the FIA data’s showed marginal, but none-the-less, excessive power usage and the result is an immediate penalty, as happened to d’Ambrosio. Teams would argue that the various systems on the car should be able to give them their maximum allowed power without the worry of going over it and you could perhaps see their point. The FIA and stewards however, would no doubt retort with the argument that if teams know there’s a risk when writing maps that demand more than their allowed maximum power, then they simply shouldn’t do it. Also back in Malaysia, Katherine Legge received a ten place grid penalty to be applied at the next event, for changing her RESS (Rechargeable Energy Storage System), or the car’s battery, after a failure. This is similar to the engine or gearbox change rules in Formula One where a component failure results in a grid drop penalty. She didn’t race in Uruguay, so rather than apply the penalty to her car, driven by Salvador Duran, it will apply to the next event she takes part in. At the same race, Nick Heidfeld was penalised for not conducting his car swap in the designated area. That area is the team’s garage and on that occasion Nick crashed and returned to the garage on foot to take the second car. In Punta del Este this weekend, Bruno Senna was excluded from qualifying after his team breached a regulation that states all cars taking part are under parc ferme conditions from five minutes prior to the first qualifying group getting their green light. Parc ferme conditions stipulate that no work, other than temperature management, can be carried out on the cars during this period.
Marc Priestley @f1elvis
Check out my video explanations of the Williams Formula E battery and McLaren electric motor.
There’s no doubt that Round Two of the FIA Formula E Championship provided some great racing, or that winner, Sam Bird, did a great job in dominating the race in seemingly comfortable fashion.
A closer look at some of the numbers however, gives a little bit more insight into a few of the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and drivers during the Putrajaya event.
Laptime on street circuits, through their unforgiving nature, is all about the driver building confidence throughout each session, gradually edging closer to the limits and learning where they can push and where they need to respect the kerbs and walls etc.
In traditional forms of racing, where a series visits street tracks, there may well be two days of practice sessions before it gets to raceday, allowing for that gradual progression as the drivers dial into their groove.
In Formula E however, the tight, compact, single day schedule means drivers need to be straight on the ball in free practice and can’t really afford to step over circuit limits and into the barriers. Not only do they lose valuable and rare track time, but there’s little opportunity for team mechanics to carry out major repairs, before qualifying or the race is upon them.
Without touching the unforgiving circuit walls, ultimate lap time does come from running mighty close to them, so a driver with confidence in himself and his car on any given circuit has a big advantage. Developing that confidence is the main priority in the first two practice sessions at each event.
Sam won the race through a combination of a decent qualifying lap, albeit two tenths down on eventual pole man Oriol Servia, and promotion after the disqualification of Jerome D’Ambrosio and Beijing carryover penalty for Nico Prost, together with experienced race craft and far superior energy management than anyone else on the grid.
The fact that his qualifying lap was around 7/10ths slower than he went in practice, perhaps says a bit about the more risk-averse approach to the vital qualifying session. His morning time would have actually been good enough for pole by some margin, but the consequences of getting it wrong, considerably more serious.
The race in Putrajaya really highlighted some of the intricacies of Formula E, compared to some other forms of racing.
The all out, blistering pace over one lap in qualifying requires something all together different than the controlled, intelligent and measured approach to the race itself and various teams excelled or struggled in different areas.
From disjointed and troubled beginnings, the two Dragon Racing cars of Servià and D’Ambrosio lead the way in qualifying, showing impressive single lap pace, although the latter was later disqualified for marginally exceeding the permitted power usage. Jarno Trulli too, was a surprise name at the sharp end of the grid, lining up on row two after failing to impress in testing or in Beijing.
If these teams are playing catch up, having been late starters when the series first took to the track at Donington, it perhaps showed in Malaysia.
A car that delivers ultimate lap time on a street circuit, perhaps in higher downforce specification, may not be the car to best manage the longevity of the race. Even more importantly, the approach to efficient driving in race mode is also vastly different to that required for a qualifying run.
With the super hard Formula E Michelins, tyre management isn’t so much of a concern in the race, meaning a low drag, low downforce set up will help to extend range without destroying rear tyres before switching to the second car. It does however require the driver to control the car without relying on downforce to help them.
After D’Ambrosio’s elimination, Servià and Trulli disappointed in the race lapping between 0.5 and 1.0sec slower on average than Virgin’s Sam Bird up front, who himself was merely pacing himself for much of the 31 lap eprix.
The really impressive race pace came from the group of pre-event-favourites in Prost, Senna, di Grassi and Buemi, who all found themselves out of ‘natural’ position on the grid for various reasons and yet progressed beyond most expectations in the race to be able to chase down Bird in the closing stages.
The small group managed to move up the field due to a number of incidents ahead of them, but also by moving together as a pack. They all bided their time, much like the peloton in a cycle race, using the tow from the cars in front to drag them forward. They managed their electrical energy well and stayed out, as a group, one lap longer than many around them, pitting on lap 18.
The two early safety cars took away much of the need for extreme energy conservation, but staying out for the extra lap, meant their second cars could run fast to the flag without needing to worry too much about running out of battery power. This impressive group all set their fastest laps in the last part of the race, reeling in cars which stopped earlier and were now having to think twice about using their full 150kw power maps.
For Bird, in front from the safety car restart, he had to focus on his own race and did a great job. After taking the lead he managed the gap well and did the same with the car’s battery.
Being out in front he controlled the pace and energy usage and had plenty in hand when everyone approached the pitstop window from lap 16 onwards.
As many began to stop on lap 17, Sam had good pace and one eye on the group he knew could cause a threat towards the end.
He circulated again, but being the first car round each lap had to decide before the others wether to stop or not. On lap 18 he continued, a move I considered a little risky at the time, for another lap.
The risk became more apparent when the chasing pack all stopped moments later for their second cars. Whilst Sam wasn’t in danger of losing track position on pace alone, the chance of safety cars in street races is high, we’d already seen two earlier in the race.
If someone had got out of shape in their ‘cold’ and relatively unfamiliar second car on an out lap and hit the wall, the race leader, the only man now not to have stopped, would’ve found himself languishing at the back of a very long train of cars once he finally did pit and the BMWi8 safety car returned to the pitlane.
As it turned out, he pitted a lap later, with the television graphic showing the car’s battery at 3% and returned unruffled to the front of the field, but the unnecessary risk was present nonetheless.
Whilst the tv battery percentage graphics need to be taken with something of a pinch of salt, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have been able to go too much further, but with hindsight, on another day it could have caught the team out to great effect.
I count myself incredibly lucky to have worked for a Formula One team and gone into the last day of a season with the chance of my driver emerging as World Champion, on three separate occasions.
On one of those memorable days, with Kimi in 2003, we went in as underdogs with only a slim chance of the outcome we so desperately wanted, similar to Nico Rosberg and his Mercedes crew in Abu Dhabi.
We needed, on that occasion, for our rivals to slip up, together with a great result for us, but sadly it wasn’t to be and Michael Schumacher, took the coveted crown.
In 2007, as a team we found ourselves in the rare but currently familiar situation of going into the last day of the campaign knowing either of our two drivers, Alonso and Hamilton, could be victorious with the right results. On that day however, a third man, the underdog in Kimi Raikkonen and his shiny new red Ferrari, would emerge as the new champion and we painfully missed out again.
2008 saw one of the sports most memorable finishes in Brazil and as a team, we once more walked into the circuit that day knowing we had an amazing opportunity, but once more felt the weight of expectation of millions of fans around the world, the heavy British Media presence and not least, the pressure we piled onto ourselves.
The reason for recalling these very special occasions is to try and describe my feelings on the day and in the days building up. To give some insight into the way the guys and girls at Mercedes might be feeling this weekend as they approach, what will be for many, the biggest day of their professional careers.
The thing to note about these situations is that it’s like the holy grail for a Formula One team. Just as a driver has dreamt of becoming World Champion since the first day he jumped into a junior racing car, the mechanics, engineers, designers, support crew and everyone inside the team are equally as passionate and dedicated about what they do and that title means just as much to them.
For me, that weekend in 2003 meant everything. We were a close-knit crew on Kimi’s car, had shared wonderful highs like our first win together in the Malaysian Grand Prix and suffered heart breaking lows like engine failure whilst comfortably leading the European GP.
Our chances on the day were statistically slim to say the least, but that didn’t matter to me, we had a chance and I was incredibly proud of that alone.
As it turned out, we did all we could, but the results will forever show that Michael scored two more points than we did and was Formula One World Champion. I was heartbroken.
Most people would say that Schumacher and Ferrari deserved the title that year, he had after all won six races to our one, just as Lewis has ten victories to Nico’s five today.
But to me eleven years ago, just as it’ll feel to the crew on Nico’s side of the garage in Abu Dhabi, it’s just the guy with most points at the end that deserves the title, not the manner in which they collected them.
The opportunity to even fight for a world championship is incredibly hard to achieve, so if and when that chance comes around, it means the world to those involved.
2007 was different. As a team we hadn’t won a championship since 1999 with Mika and if I’m honest it showed.
The internal fighting between teammates is well documented, but from a team point of view we allowed our focus to stray from the big picture of team success to concentrating too much on beating the other side of our own garage and not giving anything away to the ‘enemy’.
There was an odd atmosphere inside the team, a feeling of paranoia wherever you looked, both in terms of second guessing what the other half might do, but also that on this most important of days, the slightest mistake by any member of the team could swing the title either way.
We had the current World Champion in Fernando, who’s entire nation already hated the brits and blamed the team for his political difficulties that year, on one side.
On the other, Ron’s prodigy, the new poster boy of British sport with the my own nation willing him to win, in Lewis.
The individual pressure to succeed as a mechanic on days like this is big, but the pressure not to fail is far, far greater.
I remember feeling terrified that we’d missed something all the way through Sunday morning, something I’d never normally feel, as I was experienced, confident in my own ability. I’d prepared cars and guided young teams of mechanics through countless high pressure race days before, yet this one felt different.
We should’ve had a feeling of pride amongst the whole team, a morning of both sides of the garage wishing the other luck with team management doing the same.
Instead, when management did give their Sunday morning speech to the assembled crews, it had a feeling of the referee calling two fighters into the middle of a boxing ring to lay down the laws of the bout, before both sides retreated to their corners for a team huddle.
Of course that’s an exaggeration, but the sentiment’s the same. Instead of approaching the race weekend as we should, like any other, we raised the tension ourselves, led by our own two feuding drivers.
It’s when you begin to do anything differently to normal, that mistakes can creep in. We were all highly skilled, more than capable of doing our jobs, of preparing the cars, working with the drivers and engineers, delivering perfect pitstops and race strategy.
On a normal Sunday morning there would’ve been no doubt, we’d be relaxed, the car would be ready and we’d be watching the GP2 race on the garage screens ahead of the Grand Prix.
On this day however, there was fear throughout the team, I could see it on the faces of my team mates, I could see it in their behaviour, I could feel it myself.
When you get your car onto the grid on days like this, the job should be all but done. But as a mechanic, you look around the car, sat there with cooling fans in and tyre blankets on, computers plugged in etc and desperately look for a missing bolt or loose nut that you might have forgotten. If anything does go wrong today, more than anything you don’t want it to be your fault.
Experience gets you through these things, but for the younger guys at Mercedes, who’ve perhaps never been in this situation, it’s incredibly daunting.
Despite my extensive experience in 2008, by which time I was no longer working on the cars, but overseeing the guys who were, the pressure again was formidable.
We had only one driver to focus on this time around, but again we made strategic mistakes by approaching the race looking for the fifth place we needed for the title, rather than going out to win as we normally would.
As a result we came perilously close to letting it slip away and the emotional roller coaster we all went on that day I will never forget.
I’ve no doubt they will be trying to do just this, but Mercedes need to go into Abu Dhabi like they’ve gone into every other weekend of the year.
Focussing too much on each other, or on desperately making sure both get the same equal treatment, could mean the things they can normally do with their eyes closed, get overlooked.
Whatever happens may the best man, and his crew, win the title on Sunday, but the whole team should all be incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved.
What exactly drives a Formula E car if it has no internal combustion engine? We know it’s battery powered, but what kind of battery? What does it look like? Where is it in the car and how does it compare to the batteries we know from around our homes?
I recently spent a morning with the clever folk of Williams Advanced Engineering, the division of the Williams Group that we all know and love for their Williams Formula One Team, that take knowledge and technology gained through F1 and develop it for use in other markets.
Williams is an impressive company. They, together with my old team McLaren, have led the way in diversifying from their core Formula One businesses and putting their impressive skills, knowledge base and competitive natures, together with the ‘can-do’ attitude prevalent in the very top level of open wheeled motorsport, to use across a variety of sectors.
Through five years of developing high end battery technology for Formula One’s KERS and now ERS programs, Williams Advanced Engineering were well placed to extend that know-how into meeting the unique demands of a fully electric race car battery.The company was approached late in the day when another partner pulled out of the project after getting nervous of the tight timescales involved. The Williams Group however, are very used to dealing in impossibly tight and immovable deadlines and reacted quickly to design, develop and produce the forty car batteries, plus a number of spares to deliver to the teams
The Spark-Renault SRT_01E Formula E car was already well under way when Williams got the call and so the battery had to be designed to fit into a structural box, designed by chassis manufacturers, Dallara, and meeting the energy, power, weight and safety requirements mandated by the FIA.
The battery box, a large carbon fibre structure with bolt on lid, sits in the space most single seater racing cars use for the engine and fuel cell, just behind the driver.
It’s what’s known as a ‘stressed member’ of the car and that means it bolts structurally directly to the back of the chassis or monocoque and transmits all of the torsional, or twisting, forces from front to rear and vice versa as the car’s on track. The electric motor housing and gearbox casing bolt directly to the back of the battery box, continuing the structural nature of the car’s main assemblies.
This is common practice and is the same basic layout as a Formula One car, just swapping the engine and clutch housing for the electric drive components in Formula E.
This means designers are able to more efficiently control and utilise the loads going through the vehicle with suspension design, rather than having a flexible chassis, that twists and contorts over bumps and through corners, giving an unpredictable feel to the driver at racing speeds. The FE battery box contains over 150 individual lithium-ion cells, each one roughly between the size of an iPad and an A4 padded envelope and stacked upright in rows.
Lithium-ion batteries are nothing new, they’re what we all have in the back of our mobile phones and laptops, but whilst all part of the lithium-ion family of batteries, the cell chemistry is designed specifically for the needs of each application and that’s a closely guarded secret at Williams. With all those cells connected together in series, the FE battery is capable of delivering 200kw, or around 270hp.
An innovative cooling system is integrated into the battery box to help maintain stable temperatures across the entire unit.
A non-conductive fluid, known as a dielectric, is pumped around the inside of the battery case and around each cell, before being circulated through a traditional style, sidepod mounted, cooling radiator and back into the box.
As energy is transferred from the battery into the car’s electric motor at varying levels, depending on the driver controlled, steering wheel mounted map switch position and of course the accelerator pedal demand, the chemical reaction in the battery cells generates a considerable amount of heat.
Equally, during the rapid charging process with the cars in the garage, the reverse chemical reaction, transferring lithium ions in the opposite direction between one side of the cell and the other, also heats up the battery considerably.
With the car stationary inside the garage, powerful blowers and dry ice are used to cool the radiators and consequently the battery while it’s recharged, a process which takes around 45 minutes, but one that can only begin once the unit has been pre-conditioned, or brought into the optimum temperature window by the team.
Batteries have to be strictly maintained and their cell temperatures are carefully monitored at all times by a sophisticated battery management system (BMS), sitting inside the box on top of the cell modules. The system has the ability to shut down cells if required, or switch to a reduced power failsafe mode if things get a little too hot.
Williams have given detailed guidelines to the teams on how to operate the battery within its performance parameters, but are well aware that the competitive nature of motorsport means that they’ll always be looking to find ways to gain advantages through areas like the car’s regenerative system, or ‘regen’, over each race weekend.
Pushing too hard lap after lap will overheat cells, so efficient and strategic deployment of the energy available is absolutely crucial to performance in Formula E.
More than one driver in Beijing hit temperature limits, resulting in the system reducing power until normal levels were reached, so teams will be well aware that the high ambient temps in Malaysia need to be respected.
Williams engineers have also programmed new, slightly reduced, limits for the amounts of energy regenerated by the motor/generator unit under braking, that can be fed back into the battery whilst the cars are on track for the Putrajaya race. The reduction won’t cause any noticeable difference in the spectacle, but is simply an extra measure to make sure batteries maintain their performance under these tough conditions.
Looking towards the coming years of Formula E, it’s hoped competition will drive innovation, particularly in battery technology and electric motors as technical regulations are opened up to manufacturers.
Williams Advanced Engineering are already assessing a number of options, including the possibility of becoming an electric motor supplier, again utilising their expertise gained in F1 with ERS.
There are various battery development paths the series could take, ranging from increased power or energy density, to rapid charging or even battery swap technology, all of which will help to accelerate progress in the key areas of electrical energy storage and deployment, something Williams hope to be able to benefit from as they look to transfer their own learning into the automotive world and beyond.
Whilst it may be easy for the cynics to criticise the shortcomings of battery technology today, the opposing view and the one I hold, is that the battery we’re using in Formula E is already an incredibly advanced piece of kit, but the competitive nature of motorsport should help to push forward development much faster than in the ‘real world’.
I hope we might look back in a few years, using today as a benchmark and marvel at how the technology’s progressed, citing the fact that if Formula E and Williams Advanced Engineering hadn’t taken the plunge in 2014, we might never have got there at all.
You can catch me on this weekend’s ITV4 Formula E show, starting at 5am on Saturday, with highlights on the same day at 6pm.