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Car set up

May 29, 2012

When Lewis, Seb & Kimi etc, return to the pits during practice or qualifying & the car disappears amidst a whirlwind of mechanics, engineers, tyre blankets and cooling fans, just what are they up to? We’ve all heard commentators talking about the team ‘working on set up’, but what exactly does that mean?
Here I’ll try to explain from the team’s point of view what’s going on.

Long before the light goes green at the end of pitlane, signifying the beginning of a session, F1 teams have put a plan together in an attempt to choreograph proceedings. Upon arrival at each Grand Prix, drivers meet with their respective engineers, who’ve already discussed potential options with strategists, aerodynamacists and management, and will go through what’s been learnt since the last event. Countless people in various departments will have been trawling through gigabytes of data, simulation results, wind tunnel results, findings from the cars themselves as well as evaluating any potential upgrades that might be available. The race engineers will be armed with a summary of this information, how it may be applied over the race weekend and it’s potential advantages in various situations, ie. qualifying, race, different weather conditions.
On Thursday afternoon each driver, together with their engineering teams, will normally walk the track. The purpose of which is not to learn which way it goes, but to study in close detail each lump and bump in braking zones, any aggressive curbs to stay away from and the ones which can be used to gain advantage, surface changes, positions of grid slots, safety car control lines, pit entry & exit, pitstop box position, DRS trigger & activation zones, overtaking opportunities, optimum KERS deployment zones as well as a myriad of other circuit specific details. Driving for hours in an F1 simulator is one thing, & they are incredibly accurate, but there’s no substitute for seeing the track in it’s current state with your own eyes!
With the walk complete & notes taken, an engineering meeting will normally take place with all necessary parties. That includes the drivers, race engineers & assistants, control systems engineers, team management, chief mechanic, Pirelli engineers, engine system engineers, aero engineers, strategists & anyone else considered relevant. The purpose is to discuss what options in each area of the car & team are available for each driver over the weekend.
Following this & after more detailed discussion between driver & engineer, a run plan is produced outlining the proposed course of events during FP1 and FP2, this will then be communicated to each set of mechanics. It will set out initial timings for each run, how many laps each run will consist of & the envisaged changes to the car in between those runs.
Run plans vary, but may consist of an installation lap early in FP1, followed by two runs later on different tyre options. Simulation work & previous data will have given engineers a good idea of the required changes to the car to adapt to the different tyre compounds. If a driver has a good balance between understeer & oversteer on the soft tyre there may be a change to aero levels, roll stiffness or differential locking etc. to achieve that same balance when switching to a harder tyre compound. The same may apply when running different fuel levels.
Any run plan has to be adaptable of course, if a driver comes in after his first run reporting that things are definitely not as they’d expected, set up changes & an extra run may be required to find the right car balance before meaningful tyre evaluation can be carried out.
So on Friday morning, with driver strapped in, radio checks complete & a sea of people surrounding the car, the race engineer monitors track activity using the GPS tracking system available to all teams. Even though pit lane may be open & it’s only an install lap, if it’s possible to find a decent gap on the circuit, that’s always preferable.
With the car sat just off the floor on short stands & tyres wrapped in heated blankets, the number one mechanic in charge of the car awaits a signal from his race engineer to send it out of the garage. He, in turn signals to the rest of his team that it’s time to go, blankets are removed, the car’s lowered to the ground & the driver’s waved out into pitlane.

Whenever a car returns to the pits in the session, the team’s ready to meet it, with brake fans if necessary, & reverse it into the garage.
From there mechanics carry out their standard procedures: car back on stands, tyre blankets back on, any cooling fans as required, refuel & have a good look over the car whilst driver & engineer discuss the run on the radio.
As the driver describes the car’s handling characteristics, the race engineer will hopefully be able to suggest options for improvement in certain areas. This can include mechanical changes, things like anti roll bar stiffness, torsion bar or spring stiffness, revised damper settings or adjustments to the car’s ride height. It’s not unheard of to adjust ride heights by as little as half a millimeter as part of a set up change. Aero levels can be trimmed, mostly with front & rear wing settings, tyre pressure adjustments too can have a profound effect on their performance over a run & are constantly being monitored & corrected.
As well as the mechanical changes carried out by the technicians, data sent back from the car to the pits is studied & analysed to look for improvements in each area. This can include giving feedback directly to the driver on his technique. Data is compared with that driver’s quickest laps, but also with data from the other car to find areas where each can improve. It may be that one driver carries more speed into a particular corner, but his exit suffers as a result & the data may be able to show that the quicker way is a slower, more controlled entry, allowing a slightly different line & earlier onto the power at exit. We might be talking 3 or 4 kph difference or less than half a meter of track position at turn in or braking points, but that’s how closely it’s all studied.
The car’s electronic systems controlling things like gearbox, engine, KERS, DRS & differential operation are also constantly tweaked as part of set up changes. Things like the amount of diff locking or engine braking can be optimised at different levels for each corner & even parts of each corner. These changes are performed by systems engineers, usually stood at the side of the garage, with computers connected to the car via the ‘umbilical’, a large cable plugged in every time the car’s in the garage. This allows fast, secure download of onboard data from the car, & digital code to be uploaded & embedded into the onboard management control systems when changes are required.
All of these changes happen simultaneously & can take no more than a couple of minutes to complete. Mechanics & systems guys inform the race engineer when the car’s ready & once again everyone waits, poised for the next run.
Gains in laptime are all about finding tiny increments all around the lap & most set up changes end up with a compromise, or trade off, against another part of the car’s characteristics. Often, the car will come back after it’s run, having made all of the changes, only for mechanics & so on to be asked to go back on everything they’ve done in order to run another comparison with the original set up, sounds frustrating to undo all of that work, but that’s the job & if it means a quick car at the end of the session, nobody minds.

Marc Priestley

Originally published at


From → Formula One

  1. Hello Marc,
    Excellent and insightful article. A while ago I have written something similar – would you mind looking at it and let me know if there are any inconsistencies? Thanks in advance. Here’s the link –

  2. Reblogged this on A Personal, How-to, Tips And Reviews Blog and commented:
    Catatan betapa rumitnya setup mobil balapan F1.

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