It is a few hours before qualifying and I could feel the tension mounting behind the white panel walls of the Lotus F1 Team’s garage. The walls are the whitest I have seen; it is free of any sort of markings save for the large sign that is stuck on the wall of the entrance. The sign details what non-team personnel must never do when entering the garage; the greatest sin that one can commit inside is taking pictures.
You see, I could be working for another Formula 1 team and taking photographs is the easiest way to steal secrets. And in this business, secrets are most precious.
Which is a big pity because there are a quite a number of things that only a select few could ever get to see in their lifetime. Even diehard fans that travel with the team could only look into the garage from the front and never within. Yet, here I am, in my second Lotus F1 Team garage tour in two days. I have to thank sponsors TW Steel and Proton my experience as well as Mabel Dautzenberg and Francois Puentes of Lotus F1 Team for showing me around.
So let me paint the picture for you in words. The Lotus F1 garage arrived somewhere in the beginning of the week, in pieces. The mechanics then scrambled to assemble the garage that I am about to walk into. The garage was up and running between 24 to 36 hours.
The white-walled corridor is about 20 feet long and about 6 feet wide; the walls are about 8 feet tall – not enough to touch the ceiling of the garage but high enough to keep prying eyes out. The corridor ends with a door on the left and a sharp turn to the right.
Slide the door open and the first thing you will see is the amount of carbon fibre that is stored in here. Immediately in front of you is the underbody of the Formula 1 car set on a platform being wiped clean. In a sport where 1/100th of a second can mean victory, every thing must be cleaned of debris picked up during the practice session so that the car has got the most optimal chance of scoring points.
To my left, on the floor, I can see the three race seats that belong to the three drivers of the team – Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean and Jerome d’Ambrosio. The seats are very thin, made out of carbon fibre and devoid of any luxury cushioning, these are pure racing seats made to make the drivers feel every single vibration the car goes through. There are other body panels that are leaning against the wall and some are hanging in a very organised manner of course. From where I am standing, which is close to the door, I can see side pods, front wings and engine coverings – all of which are spares just in case. The ones that are being used in the race are in front of the garage.
Deeper into the room, an engine rests under cover. It is a Renault V8 engine (code name RS27) that produces about 750 hp and weighs about 80 kg. And it is small. If you’ve seen a V-engines of super car, this one is smaller, possibly half the size. But I can’t make sense of what I am seeing: what is that carbon fibre canister, what kind of metal is it made from, where do these tubes go? The only answer I get is, “I wish I can tell you but it is a secret.” It is said with a smile. I understand, with a tinge of disappointment.
I step out of the room and began to move into the other side. On the way, I see three custom-made headset holders made out of carbon fibre. There are not just to hold the headsets but also to recharge the battery in receiver that is connected to it. With this headset, the team and non-team personnel are able to hear the communication between the driver and the pit wall. FIA also listens in to the conversation to monitor if there are any team orders given out. Team orders are regulated in Formula 1 and FIA keeps close tabs on communications. You could also hear communication broadcasted on TV. However, you don’t get to hear all of the chatter, only the juicy ones.
As of now, only Lotus F1 has this ‘cabinet’ but I am told that it is only a matter of time before the other teams have the same. I guess there are some things you cannot put a tight lid on. Oh, did I just let the cat out of the bag?
Now, in front of me are six computing stations. Here is where four of Renault’s engineers and two of Lotus F1’s engineers monitor the engine. The feedback coming in originates from the sensors that are connected to the racecar. They monitor everything that has to do with the car and engine – from hydraulics to engine temperature. Per race, there are 15 megabytes of data that is being sent from the car to the computers, of which will be fed back Enstone in real time. In case you didn’t know, Enstone is where the headquarters of the team is located.
For Lotus F1, every single byte of data is important. Without the budget of the bigger teams, Lotus F1 does wind tunnel testing on a 40% scale model of the racecar. The bigger teams do theirs with a 60% scale model. Obviously bigger is better because then the team has a more accurate reading on the aerodynamics.
The telemetry is also shown to a very privileged audience back in Enstone where the boffins there will explain the readings during a race. The data that gets sent back will definitely be analysed. From the data, changes will be made to the car. At the moment, Lotus F1 makes a change to the car once every four races, which makes the evolution of the car constant.
What is also constantly evolving is the engine oil and fuel that goes into the engine. The team carries with them a mini lab that examines and analyses the oil and fuel.
How does the engineer (there is only one person) monitor the health of the engine? Through the engine oil.
Think of it has a doctor drawing blood from your body, from which the doctor can tell if you are in the pink of health or will drop dead within the hour. It is the same for the engine. The engineer, through a spectrometer, measures the particles of the engine oil – he does this every single time the car comes back into the garage. This is the only way to check the health of the engine. Dismantle the engine without approval and FIA will slap the team with a hefty penalty.
And then, there is the fuel analyser as well. Because Formula 1 no longer allows refueling during a race, each team must squeeze every last bit of performance from every drop of fuel. So each team will develop its own fuel, within a 10% margin from the homologation set by the FIA, for better consumption and more power. It sounds like what fuel companies would write in the ads isn’t it? Again, every Formula 1 closely guard the secret to their fuel, but a sample must be sent to FIA – for obvious reasons.
Far back behind the Total Oil and Fuel Analysers, I can see a Perspex walls where the KERS systems are inside. I am not allowed near it.
Instead, I am being ushered to the Garage Grandstand. From this vantage point, I can see the engineers and mechanics – in full concentration – putting the cars together. Kimi’s is on my left; Romain’s is on my right. Each car has its own team of engineers and mechanics working on it.
Here’s something you may not know: the engineers that are working from the point of the driver’s shoulders to the nose are called ‘front-end mechanics’ while those working from the driver’s shoulders to the rear wing are called ‘rear-end engineers.’ Each has their specialist roles and responsibilities to follow.
I see Kimi’s car is ready. It was just yesterday, at this very same spot, that I watched James Allison, the Technical Director, and five other people who are probably engineers, are mulling about the gearbox. The gear ratios and cogs are in a tub and there is clearly a problem. It is only late last night that I learned the gearbox had to be changed. The team completed the change at 4:00am.
Here is the layout of the area: in the middle are the various toolboxes and fuel pumps and it acts as a separator between the two cars. On top of the toolboxes is where the driver’s helmets are placed and beneath it are fans that ventilate the inner part of the helmet. Every box, every tool, every plug and every hose in there comes in pairs – one set for each car.
The fuel pumps are also quite interesting. Two hoses are attached to the car during fuelling. One hose fuels the car while the other hose removes the air from the tank. On average, the fuel tank with fuel would weigh between 80 kg to 120 kg. The exact figure is secret; I asked.
A mechanic jumps into Kimi’s car, starts it up and goes through the various engine mapping. The revs sing with every turn of the dial, or growls when the rev limiter button is pushed. Then Romain’s car goes through the same rehearsal. The final Free Practice session will commence soon.
In spite of the increased nervousness of a team about to field their cars, the quick and calculated movement of the personnel is tempered with a certain calmness that can only be achieved by constant practice, respect and trust among teammates. A splash of professionalism does help the situation too.
After the race, the garage will be torn down, packed and shipped back to Enstone. The entire process will take the mechanics somewhere between 12 to 14 hours. Out of the 540 that work for the team, the 72 personnel who are on the ground in Sepang will make their long-awaited trip home.
And then, it all starts again in Shanghai.