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An F1 mechanic’s pre-season

January 29, 2014

What exactly goes on inside a Formula one team over the course of January and February as they head all too quickly towards the first Grand Prix of a new season?

Having been part of a number of pre-season campaigns, I can assure you it’s a hectic spell.
Most people head back to work after the Christmas break with a sense of trepidation, knowing what’s about to hit them and there’s really nothing that can prepare you for what this time can throw at you.
Often the very early days of January can actually be a little slow and tedious at times as the mechanics wait for the first car to be delivered into their racebays. Most areas of the factory are flat out, desperately trying to meet tight deadlines, but until the race team get their hands onto a new chassis, there’s only so much they can do. Having said that, there’s always pit equipment that needs making or adapting to suit the new car, things like radiator or brake duct fans etc, so there’s certainly no chance of anyone getting bored.

Once the first chassis arrives from the carbon shop, which is actually normally chassis 02 because 01 is the one that gets put through the FIA’s crash tests, the mechanics get their first look at what they have to work with.
The first few days are spent inspecting, adjusting and then pre-fitting some of the basic new parts that are available. It’s rare that all of the components are ready ahead of the chassis, just waiting to be fitted. Things move so quickly in Formula One that the first iteration of any new component can often be superceded by an updated version before it ever even makes it onto a car. That can mean a frustrating time for mechanics as they wait for the drawing office or production to create the part that might be holding up the fitting of other items in the build.
By the time we get to September, a familiar race car can perhaps be built up from scratch in around 24 hours if need be, but in January, when parts are scarce and some need modifying to fit properly, it can take a couple of weeks to get together.
Often, mechanics will spend days building up the steering and suspension components, fettling them to fit and operate perfectly, only to have to then strip the whole thing back down again to send the chassis off for modifications or to be painted. It might seem silly to carry out all that work, only to have to ‘undo’ it, but the first time things are put together is when the majority of any problems or areas of improvement are found, so it’s best to take the time at that stage and get it right. That way, in theory, when it comes to building up the painted car in preparation for the first test, it should go together correctly.
Any modifications to parts or the chassis obviously need to be mapped and fed back into the system to ensure that future components all come out to the same modified specification moving forwards.

One of the milestones of any new car build, particularly this year, is the first engine fire up and gearbox shift check. When McLaren fired up the MP4-29 for the first time last week at MTC, almost the entire factory gathered around the racebays to hear the new sounds and witness the dawning of this new era of Formula One.
Not only is it a test of the new engine, or power unit and gearbox, but it’s the first test of most of the new onboard systems too. Engineers from the team and engine partner crowd around laptops and pore over data, whilst mechanics check for leaks, correct clearances of moving parts and general working operation. The process can take all day, as gremlins are ironed out in software, mechanics prepare the car, the engine’s pre-heated, factory exhaust extraction systems are hooked up and everyone involved is 100% sure that their bit’s ready to go, before a slightly nervous gearbox mechanic presses the button on the starter for the very first time.

Once that bit’s successfully completed and the swarms of people dissipate from around the car, the mechanics are left to continue preparations which include fitting the car’s carbon fibre floor and attempting a first set up on the team’s measuring table. This is not only a chance for the team to implement the base set up onto the car, including things like camber, caster and toe angles of the suspension and steering, ride heights etc, but also the first opportunity for engineers to corroborate real life measurements and weights to those predicted in the design process. Hopefully, nobody finds any surprising results at this stage, but it’s not unheard of.
As the first test draws nearer, everyone’s working towards a deadline which is normally the last point at which the trucks need to leave to reach their destination, this year Jerez. In that time, the car, all of it’s spares, which are limited at this stage and any associated equipment needed to run the test must be finished, checked, tested and loaded onto the team’s trucks.
In the days of big fancy press launches, it was obviously the target to have the car ready to unveil for that date, ahead of the test. Whilst the banks of photographers lined up to snap the new challenger as its cover was pulled off by the drivers, I’ve known more than one occasion when the car was actually far from finished underneath the shell, even on one occasion without an engine under the bodywork, not that anyone noticed.
Usually, on the night before the car leaves the factory, finally in its near complete state, it gets whisked away at the last minute to be professionally photographed in a studio to enable the team and its partners to use the glitzy photos for promotions and to release to the media the following day.

From then on it’s into the unknown as the car hits the track for the very first time. From here on in no one knows what to expect. Everyone of course has high hopes, but until a driver gets in and begins to wind up the lap times after the first exploratory days, things could go either way.
The mechanics and engineers work long hours, even with the benefit of today’s night shift systems, as they check and change parts constantly, strip everything each evening for crack checking, or to swap components as used bits get returned to the factory for inspection. It’s at this stage that any faults or signs of wear are recorded and used to implement a strategic lifing system for rotating the car’s key components during the course of the season.

This year, more than any other, every team heads to Jerez and Bahrain not knowing where they might stand. The new technology has already caused headaches, particularly at this early stage as reliability issues mean lots of extra work for the guys and girls in the garages.
F1 cars are designed to be built in the factory and go quickly around a race track, they’re not designed with much thought for mechanics constantly having to change bits during January and February, so it will be a very long and very hard twelve days of pre-season testing in the life of a Formula One race mechanic in 2014.

Marc Priestley


From → Formula One

One Comment
  1. Jodum5 permalink

    Thanks. Is it harder or easier on teams and their staff that there’s less winter testing days to prepare for?

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