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And they're off

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After the final F1 race of the 2010 season in November, you’d imagine that following a spot of excessive partying, each team would disperse across the globe and spend some well-earned time with their family and friends, eating, drinking and sleeping without the perpetual hum of an engine haunting their dreams.

After all, mechanics, team bosses and drivers had just completed a 19-race season starting that March, involving more than 80,000 miles of air travel and being away from home for more than a third of the year. But the fact is that the four-month stretch between the end of one F1 season and the start of another is really not the time to head off to an all-inclusive in Mauritius. It’s a hectic period of fitness, contract negotiation and - the most important job of all – the creation and assembling of more than 4,000 parts that make up a modern-day F1 beast.

Not surprisingly, those with the toughest job during F1’s four-month hiatus are the people tasked with building the new car, whether they’re mechanics, designers or aerodynamicists. “There’s no such thing as an ‘off-season’ in our world, because our design period for the 2011 car started around March or April last year,” says Williams’ technical director Sam Michael.

As the final race of the 2010 season wrapped up in Abu Dhabi, Williams’s 2011 model was undergoing wind-tunnel testing, having already benefited from months of painstaking design tweaks in a bid to shave tenths of a second off a lap.

THE MONEY PIT

The question is, of course, exactly how many Great British pounds are pumped into making the car as streamlined as physically possible? Well, all teams use something called Computational Fluid Dynamics, which is basically a wind tunnel in a computer – a highly complex operation that relies heavily on the cognitive power of a supercomputer. While Renault has an underground CFD facility at its Oxfordshire HQ which cost around £35 million, Williams’ £10m version – the size of about 10 fridge-freezers – is almost modest in comparison. Even so, it’s still capable of performing a trillion calculations per second, all necessary to work out the effects of potential new parts. It completes the same amount of work in 12 hours that would take one of Bill Gates’ standard PCs a slightly humiliating four months.

It is brain-melting software such as this that has helped Renault think up their radical side-exit exhaust – probably the most noticeable design departure in the forthcoming season’s cars (pictured main and below). This unorthodox positioning has allowed all the hot gases to be channelled to the back of the car to blow into the diffuser (the part that organises the air under the car) and engineers are hoping this energy will help with the downforce, the law of physics which prevents an F1 car taking a leaf out of an aeroplane’s book and disconnecting with the track.

A team’s new car is often simply a refinement of the previous season’s but every now and then, the rules change and completely new parts need to be conjured up — 2011 is one of those years. ‘Moveable rear wings’ have been introduced, leading to more high-speed overtaking, or so the theory goes. Surprisingly, overtaking isn’t as easy on the track as it is on the M25; the dirty (or turbulent) air F1 cars give off creates a wall of resistance for the trailing vehicles, which they struggle to overcome. Handily this year, when a car is within a second of another, drivers can press a button (think turbo boost) that activates a moveable rear wing, reducing the drag and instantly increasing the car’s top speed by around 7mph.

And while engineers agree it wasn’t a challenge in mechanical terms, the aerodynamic smarts needed to make the rear wings actually work was quite a feat. All teams began their 2011 plans by looking at the new part. It took the longest time to design, and it was the first to be completed, taking in total around six months from mid-summer to the new year.

‘Frantic rush’ would be a polite way of describing the process of piecing together the moveable rear wings and several-thousand other car parts that make up an F1 vehicle, and that all comes to a head in the busiest month of the F1 calendar: January. “During the season, the mechanics and I typically work 12 hours a day, then 10 hours or so over the weekend when we’re not at a race,” says Michael. “But the second half of January and into February is madness — you’re talking 18 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s tough but there’s a no-failure policy in F1. If we don’t make the car we won’t get to the track.”

To keep everyone on time, ultra-strict deadlines were imposed in January and February. Team Lotus, for example, had rotating 12-hour shifts for mechanics once mid-January arrived, meaning the factory was always open as the team rushed to get the car finished. But there’s no shift work for the hardest-working people in F1: the senior engineers. As the car build reached its critical phase in the penultimate week of January, some members of Team Lotus were starting work at 4am, going through until midnight, nipping home for a couple of hours kip and then doing it all again. And if making the car sounds like an almighty slog, it got even worse for senior engineers once testing started in Spain in February for three days. As the driver tried out the car for the first time, repeatedly pounding the track, engineers were up against it from 11am through to 5am, analysing reams of data about the car’s performance.

If life’s hectic for F1’s factory-based boffins, it’s pretty flat-out for the person running the team as well. John Booth, team principal at Virgin Racing, was snowed under in the approach to Christmas – mainly with signing a new driver for the 2011 season, resulting in the new addition of Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio as their second driver.

“We started talking to d’Ambrosio around November last year, and then you have to go back and forth to lawyers about eight times to get the contract sorted,” recalls Booth. “It was only completed a couple of days before we announced it on 21 December – and that was one of the simpler ones I’ve done. Signing a driver isn’t just a handshake any more, there’s far more legal detail involved. Drivers have quite complex management systems around them, and that’s the main difference to how it was, say, 10 years ago.” Booth should know: in 2000 he signed a young driver called Lewis Hamilton for his Manor team in Formula 3. “His contract was one sheet of A4,” he laughs. “I imagine it’s a bit bigger now. Doing the commercial side of someone like Lewis’s contract would probably be a nightmare.”

SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

New drivers and their cars are symbiotically linked long before they hit the grid – nailing down a name is vital to the car’s final specifications. “It’s important so they can have their seat fitting,” says Booth, “but it’s also essential because there’s a lot of work for them to do on the simulator pre-season.” The simulator is basically a multi-

million pound PlayStation that allows teams to test every part of a car’s performance on exact replicas of the Grand Prix tracks. The benefit for a new driver such as d’Ambrosio is that he can turn up to the season’s first race in Australia and already be familiar with the corners, straights and little bumps, despite having never previously driven on the track.

Drivers aim to be fit by mid- to late-January, so throughout January they have to follow a strict fitness schedule, which makes Christmas and New Year’s Eve not only a low-calorie affair, but surely a pretty tedious one too. “There’s barely two months to get in shape for the new season, so there’s no time for long holidays,” says Petri Lehikoinen, trainer to Team Lotus driver and fellow Finn Heikki Kovalainen. His 2011 fitness regime for Kovalainen began with a “few weeks doing endurance training and the second part working on strength; there’s also a lot of speed, agility and reaction work.” One key part of Kovalainen’s strict schedule this year, surprisingly, is badminton. “It’s great training,” argues Lehikoinen. “It’s very high intensity and you’re training endurance, agility, speed, reactions and hand-eye co-ordination.”

With the drivers in peak condition, official testing sessions began on 1 February, marking the final chance to iron out any mechanical issues and try various new parts before the season’s first race: Melbourne on 27 March. All eyes will be on the cars’ performance, and all fans will be hoping for Machiavellian scrapping in the pits and on the track. Fast, furious and all to play for – even if the engineers are already hatching plans for 2012…

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