SYMONDS SPEAKS OUT
On ‘Crashgate’, Senna and making Williams winners
There’s a certain irony that won’t have escaped Pat Symonds as he walks into the Williams Conference Centre for lunch. Scattered all around are cars and pictures reecting Williams success with the Rothmans-sponsored machines that must have been the bane of Symonds’ life a few decades ago. And yet, his time with Benetton and Michael Schumacher was just one sector of a career that has seen many memorable highs and one desperate personal low.
Saying that, lessons from 2008’s ‘Crashgate’ have added to a depth of experience that has no equal in F1. When the FIA holds press conferences for team representatives on the Friday of each race weekend, those with Symonds on the panel are unmissable. His eloquent descriptions demonstrate the breadth of his understanding, while he can speak with clarity on the most complex technical matters. And now we have an hour or so of reection, purely for F1 Racing. Maurice Hamilton: When you were at Royale, and Hawke before that, in the late 1970s, did you actually design the entire Formula Ford car? Pat Symonds: Yes. You’ve got to remember there was only one person designing anything in those days, particularly in a small company. I drew every part that needed to be drawn; all the layouts; everything. I used to draw it, assist in making and building it, drive to the circuit, be a mechanic – do everything except drive the bloody racing car! That’s the way it was then. MH: What a way to start; a bit of everything; suspension, engine, chassis. There were no aerodynamics then. So what about body shape? PS: It was all done by eye. We didn’t use a windtunnel – I mean, we didn’t even have computers then. I graduated in 1976 and the PC didn’t come out until 1981. We knew about computers – but they were something you used in university. Depending on the type of computer, you either prepared your job on punch tape or on a deck of cards – which, at some point, you’d drop and have to shuffle and put them all back in. You’d put your job in and come back three days later for the results. It would say: ‘Error on line 10’ – and you’d start again. MH: And that would be done in seconds now? PS: You’d hardly notice it’s been done. Hawke was a fantastic grounding because we used to make a lot of parts there; we had a really good machine shop. We did fabrication and made an F3 car, so I learnt about monocoques and things like that. There was a Portakabin with a drawing board, and that was my office. Hawke was owned by British United Air Ferries and we’d get involved with the aircraft, tting accident data recorders and stuff like that. You saw how things were made, which you didn’t learn at university.
I then went to work for Royale. It was different because they didn’t manufacture anything. You’d design the car and Arch Motors made the chassis, Specialised Mouldings did the bodywork, Sabre Fabrications – which became Reynard – did suspension parts, and so on.
“Once Flavio has assessed people and trusts them, he gives them autonomy. He seemed to think I knew what I was doing”
That meant you had to design a little bit better because other people were making the parts. So, rather than a sketch that you’d take into the workshop and say: ‘Yeah, just do it like this’, it was different at Royale. But, to be honest, I never thought that any of this would be a career. It was a three-year project, and that was supposed to be it before I went into the motor industry.
I’d met Rory Byrne and he had moved on to Toleman. I knew [Toleman boss] Alex Hawkridge quite well and we got on. Many of the previous guys were intuitive designers. I’d done a Masters Degree in Automotive Engineering and there weren’t many like me around. Alex quite liked that. When he decided that Toleman were going to build a F1 car, he invited me to join Rory. MH: Although a back-of-the-grid F1 team initially, Toleman must still have seemed like an exciting place for a young guy to be? PS: It was. I started on 2 January 1981 as employee number 20. That’s all they had. They’d run their championship-winning F2 car with a Hart turbo engine and that looked fantastic. Then we decided, because we knew so much more than everyone else who’d ever been involved in anything, we’d have our own tyres by going with Pirelli. Why not? We were just so ambitious you cannot believe it.
It soon became obvious we had to get in a windtunnel. I was charged with nding a windtunnel and working out how to make models and things like that. I was also race engineer. I think my title was R&D engineer. Whatever the title was, you just did everything. MH: Toleman were moving forward, scoring their rst points at the 1983 Dutch GP. But I guess a big moment for you was when Senna arrived at the start of the following season? PS: Alex is a forward thinker, a risk taker, and he went after Senna. With respect to Derek Warwick and Brian Henton, we could see this was a major step-change having Ayrton drive for us.
Moving to Michelin for the 1984 car, the TG184, was a massive step forward. But one of the drawbacks of going with Michelin was that Ron Dennis wouldn’t let us have the latest tyres. But in Monaco it was wet – and there was no older-spec wet tyre. It was suddenly a level playing eld. And we all know what Ayrton did there; nishing second and almost winning. We really grew up that year. MH: You said it was a step-change with Ayrton. I guess you’re referring to appreciating the breadth of his mental capacity; his ability to think of so much detail while driving quickly. PS: Exactly. We didn’t have any instrumentation on the cars: we had a rev counter and temperature gauge and that was it. When we were trying to work out gear ratios, we wanted the driver to tell us what the revs were at a given point. I remember telling Derek that we needed to know what the minimum revs were in a particular corner and he said: “I can’t tell you that – I’m way too busy at that point.”
Ayrton would tell you the revs in every corner; he’d tell you what the temperature was, how the car was handling, what the tyres looked like and what the engine sounded like because our main bit of ‘instrumentation’ was the actual noise. It was second nature to him. On top of that, he had an uncanny ability to drive around corners fast… MH: I remember seeing him at the end of his second race with you at Kyalami. The press room looked right down on parc fermé and he had to be lifted from the car. I know the TG183 was heavy [the 184 did not arrive until later in the season], but Ayrton wasn’t t, was he? PS: That was the one area where he let himself down. He was so supremely condent in his ability that he didn’t actually pay attention to detail. I think it was a real shock to him and, of course, we rarely did race distances in tests because the cars often weren’t reliable enough. It took a long while to get his tness up. MH: You referred to Monaco, which is well documented. But I remember you telling me later that – and you see it very briey on the Senna lm – Ayrton clipped the kerb at the Harbour Chicane with the right-front. He smacked it in quite a big way, didn’t he? PS: Absolutely. It was pull-rod suspension with rockers down at the bottom, and he cracked one, which we found when we took the car apart. Would the car have nished? We’ll never know.
But, at the time, it was another indication that we’d grown up as a team, typied by my
emotions afterwards. For days I wasn’t sure whether I was just so happy we nished second or so pissed off that we hadn’t nished rst. Ultimately, I was pissed off. MH: As you say, this was the start of Toleman really moving forward. There was a lot of restructuring, including the purchase of the team by Benetton and, I guess from your point of view, the arrival of Flavio Briatore on your doorstep. What on earth did you make of him? PS: We had no idea he was coming; no idea who he was. The rst race that year (1989) was Rio. We had a little hut we used for engineering meetings. Flavio just arrived – from nowhere as far as we were concerned – for this race. He walks in with another guy, sits down and starts chatting. This other guy was clearly embarrassed because he realised we were in the middle of a meeting. He said to Flavio: “Are we disturbing these chaps?” Flavio said: “Oh, don’t worry about them. They’re just engineers.” I thought: ‘Hmm… I’m not going to get on with this guy.’ We then discovered he sold pullovers – which is not being very kind because he’d actually set up a pretty effective network of Benetton franchises in America – but he wasn’t a racer.
For a while, we didn’t really have much to do with each other but then Flavio started to get quite interested in everything. The thing about Flavio is that once he has assessed people and trusts them, he gives them autonomy. He seemed to think I knew what I was doing, so he let me get on with it. We worked well together for a long while. Flavio is a fabulous lateral thinker and that’s what you need in this business. I can’t say he was the same with everyone, but I always felt I knew where I was with him. And I knew he’d never stab me in the back. But, equally, I knew one day he might stab me in the front. And if he did, so be it. I wasn’t bothered. We got on alright. MH: Flavio was a prime mover in snatching Michael Schumacher away from Jordan just after his F1 debut in August 1991 and having him sign for Benetton. How did that relationship develop? PS: Michael is still my favourite of all time, both as a driver and as a person. I think the world of him. As soon as we got to know each other, there was implicit mutual trust. A completely decent man – against all impressions created by the British press, particularly in ’94 with the battle against Damon Hill when the media turned
“Michael is the nicest guy I ever worked with; a team man through and through… a good human being”
against him. He responded to that in a negative way, but, in reality he is the nicest guy I ever worked with; a team man through and through.
Ayrton was a great driver, but he barely knew the name of his mechanics. Michael didn’t just know his mechanics, he knew the names of their wives, he knew their kids. He’d arrive on Thursday, go round the garage, talk to the guys and ask how little Johnny was getting on at school. He remembered everything. And while that may have helped build the team round him, I don’t think that’s why he did it. I believe he was genuinely interested. Only a few people know he’s quite a philanthropist but that’s not in the public domain. I think it justies my statement that he’s a good human being. MH: Towards the end of ’93, Michael’s second full season with Benetton, you had a fully active car. Was that one of the most advanced cars you’ve worked on? PS: To this day, yes. It was pretty sophisticated, much more than, say, the McLaren system. It was similar to Williams but maybe not quite as sophisticated as Lotus. But it also had four-wheel steer. It was interesting because our drivers were Michael and Riccardo Patrese; what you might call the rst of the PlayStation generation against the last of the deck-of-cards generation. Riccardo just hated everything about the active car and the four-wheel steer, which had an unnatural feel. Michael wasn’t technical. He wasn’t a mathematician or a physicist or an engineer, but he knew damn well that if that gizmo made the
car go faster then he wanted to exploit it to the maximum. He got really involved in it.
I’d started the project during a short period at Reynard – a group of us had left because we didn’t like the way things were going under Flavio – but we came back to Benetton and got involved with some Ford guys who were really interested in what we were doing. The idea was to introduce the four-wheel steer in ’94 and we’d done a fair bit of the design and rig testing. Then we were told midway through 1993 that these driver aids would be banned at the end of the season. So we decided to race it as soon as possible because it was bloody good.
It was a stunningly sophisticated system. It knew where it was on the circuit, which corner it was in. It would then sense that the driver was actually turning into the corner, so it would help him turn in. Then it would look at whether the car was understeering or oversteering, and it would adjust itself to correct that. Then it would set itself up to get maximum traction out of the corner. It was a fabulous bit of kit.
Michael loved it. You could talk to him about how you set it up and he’d follow it. He didn’t want to know the equation, but he wanted to know what the graph looked like, the output if you like, and how he could exploit that. I really enjoyed working with him on car setup because he gave you the feedback you wanted – and it was always honest feedback. If he didn’t know, he’d say so. But he had a damn good memory. We’d be at somewhere like Spa and he’d say: “At Turn 6 it’s doing this. D’you remember when we were at Imola, it was just like that and, if I’m right, we did this and that sorted it.” I’d have a quick look at the records – and his recall of a previous experience would be right. MH: Talking about a previous experience prompts me to ask about the suspicion in 1994 over items remaining on your software from the previous year. What was the story behind that? PS: I think we should start with the ’94 car itself. The rst time Michael drove it in testing, he as good as said we were going to win the world championship with this. It was a wonderful car. Although it was an entirely passive car, it owed an awful lot to the active technology because we’d learnt how to model suspensions and things like that. But it suffered an awful lot after Imola when [as a reaction to Senna’s fatal accident] they brought in all the restrictions. It had fantastic downforce but they cut the diffuser off, put the plank on – all these sort of things. But that’s a different bit of the story. There was controversy over launch control because, in this fully automatic car we’d been running in ’93, one of the things it had was an incredibly sophisticated launch control, so good that we’d just pick up places off the grid.
This was in the days before standard ECUs: in fact, we used to build our own chassis controller. At one particular race, the FIA found there was a way of setting up the launch control which was banned. I said: “I can’t believe it: let’s have a look at the start.” As it happened, and it was bloody lucky really, it was such an absolutely shit start that it was obvious it wasn’t an automatic start. The FIA scrutineer came to the factory and we looked at the data together. I thought: ‘Thank God for that. At least it shows it’s not there. That’s the end of that.’
But, of course, it turned into a huge witch hunt. It was my car; I was the race engineer and I am convinced there was nothing on that car. But that was a long time ago and, as I get older, I question myself: was there something that I didn’t know about? Was someone doing something that I didn’t know about? I don’t think so, because I saw the data, particularly on that day when it all blew up and I saw that actually it was a really shit start. So I would like to think that I did know what was going on – and there wasn’t anything there. But I always have a little nagging doubt in my mind because I have to say, with things like that, if someone wanted to keep it from me, it wouldn’t have been impossible. MH: You’ve spoken about Michael in glowing terms. How was your relationship with Fernando Alonso, particularly in 2005 and 2006? PS: It was a good period. Fernando was – and is – a fabulous driver. He seems so laid back, but his attention to detail is stunning. He’d sit in a brieng and you’d think: ‘Oh, he hasn’t listened to that.’ And then he’d ask you a question that really showed not only had he listened but he’d also understood everything and thought about the next stage. He was a really quick driver who somehow used to nd something else if there was a sniff of victory. I admired that, but at the same time I used to nd it a bit frustrating because I’d think: ‘Why doesn’t he do it all the time?’ Fernando was always 99 per cent but then there seemed to be this extra per cent when there was something to be gained.
But he wasn’t a team man like Michael and, from time to time, that would really upset people. At Suzuka in ’05, just as he was about to win the championship, he came out with all this stuff about not having any support in this team. That destroyed the team; everyone was just so upset. It was like: “Why did you say that? You knew we were doing everything we could.”
The one circuit Fernando was never any good at was Indianapolis, and that’s where, in ’06, Giancarlo Fisichella beat him. He beat him because Fernando didn’t drive very well.
Fernando came on the radio as he crossed the line and said: “I bet you’re all happy that I got beaten by Fisichella” – or something like that. And you think: ‘Bloody hell! What is the matter with this guy?’ Saying that, I have the utmost respect for him and I’d love to have him in a Williams. But we didn’t have the closeness of relationship that I’ve had with other drivers. MH: Renault at the time seemed to be a very close-knit little unit…. PS: That goes back to Benetton. It was something we really had. In the days when Michael was with us and we couldn’t run [because of tobacco advertising restrictions] ‘Mild Seven’ on the car, we had ‘Team Spirit’. That wasn’t a coincidence. It’s an ethos; one I’m working on here because it means a lot to me. MH: On the subject of team ethos, I don’t know how much you want to talk about Singapore ’08, but obviously the team was torn apart by that. PS: It was. MH: And your life was terribly torn apart by it too? PS: Yes. MH: How do you reect on it now? PS: I think it was an abject lesson in life. It doesn’t matter how many good things you do in your life, you do one bad thing and that’s what you’re remembered for. You know, you can be the best driver in the world, driving along the road, make a mistake – and you can kill yourself.
I have always been completely honest about the whole affair. Every word I’ve ever said about it is the truth – and I would say I’m the only person who has ever told the truth about it. I can live with myself. I wish I’d never done it. I wish I knew the whole story, because there are bits of it that I’m not sure I completely understand or know where it all came from. Other people have lied completely and utterly about it. But I think now, however many years later, everyone knows that I told the truth. I think everyone has respect for me for doing that, even if they would never agree with the mistake I made in doing it.
I recently had a long chat with Max Mosley and also with Jean Todt. These guys know what went on. They know I took a bullet for others and
“I really have paid for my mistake, but I think the change of life it brought about didn’t do me any harm”
I hope the people respect me for that, even if, as I say, they don’t like the mistake I made.
In terms of the mistake it was an enormous error of judgement more than anything else. As you know, there is an awful lot of gamesmanship in F1; there is an awful lot of stretching of rules and so on. At the time, while I knew it wasn’t right, in my mind it wasn’t as bad as other people made out. It was a bit of ultimate gamesmanship.
The fact that some moronic driver can’t even drive into the wall in a safe manner is nothing to do with me. That is not what the plan was. So… yes, it’s difficult. And I really have paid for it. But, you know, I’m a perfectly happy person now. I’ve got a great job and I really enjoy what I’m doing. I also think the change of life that brought about didn’t do me any harm. MH: I was going to ask if you nd, as time goes by, that your appreciation of life and all the things around you that mean a lot – your family, your work and so on – are put into perspective by something like this? That period of thinking about it must have done exactly that for you. PS: It did. I was very, very depressed afterwards. My wife was fantastic; she helped me through it all and said: “Come on, you can do it again.” I got into writing which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. MH: Yes, I’d noticed. I have to say I’m glad you’re back engineering again because having you as a writer was a worry for the likes of me! PS: [Laughs]. Also, working as a consultant, I got involved in non-motorsport projects that,
“I did enjoy Marussia, but it was frustrating because there wasn’t the budget to do the job properly”
as an engineer, I found fascinating. If you ask me what’s my passion, my rst answer might be motorsport or engineering. But if I stop and think about it, my rst passion is learning. That’s what I love. I’m a total and utter nerd. The internet was invented for me. MH: What about the period with Marussia? That must have put a different perspective on things? PS: Boy, I learned a lot there. It really was back to basics. When I left Renault, it was quite specialised. We’d gone to this two technical director type of thing – Bob Bell looked after aero and the factory and I focused on the racing. It was expanding and I was losing touch.
So I go to Marussia and I’m thinking: ‘Jeez, there’s plenty to do. Let’s get on with it.’ From getting involved with the layout of the design office to achieving the best communications, to details of CFD against tunnel testing; I learned a lot. I did enjoy it, but it was frustrating because I knew there was never going to be the budget to do the job properly. But I’d like to think I left the place in a much better state than I found it. MH: The results tend to prove exactly that. We’re talking about your vast experience coming into play, both at Marussia and now here at Williams. PS: Yes. When Williams rst asked me to join them, I spoke to Frank and Patrick Head, and Adam Parr. But I couldn’t quite see how it would work. I had a bit of an idea of what might need doing, but it just didn’t seem that anyone agreed with me and nothing came of it.
I got more and more involved with Marussia and then there was a sea change at Williams, initiated by Mike O’Driscoll, the CEO who, I have to say, is a stunningly impressive character. He and Claire Williams got together and said: “Well, we can’t polish this any more, we’ve got to change it.” They went looking for someone to help them do it. I was the one who agreed, I guess.
I’m thoroughly enjoying it here. It’s a fabulous team with wonderful facilities and a lot of really good people. And, at last, that willingness to change; I think that’s where, previously, it hadn’t worked because it was quite an old fashioned company with enormous blame culture… the sort of things that just don’t work these days. I’d like to think I’ve managed to change some of those attitudes.
Last year, when I arrived, there were bits going on the car at every race that didn’t work because there was this blind panic about having to make the car quicker. I’m proud this year that, with one exception, every single bit we’ve put on the car has made it go faster. And the one exception was a very deliberate ‘Let’s take this to the limit and see.’ We went over the limit and it didn’t work. But we learned from it; we revised our techniques a little. It’s that integrity of engineering that I think we needed here.
Don’t get me wrong, the Mercedes engine was definitely a big attraction in coming here. But the fact is that last year we had a Renault engine; a Renault engine won the championship and we finished ninth. This year we’ve got a Mercedes engine and we’re in front of two other Mercedes teams who were signicantly better than us last year. Our stars have aligned, but we’ve worked for it as well with good pragmatic decisions. MH: Getting back to what we said before, you’re pulling in this fantastic breadth of knowledge… PS: Exactly. I can have a very meaningful discussion with my aerodynamics group. Aero has moved on since I did it, but I can keep abreast of it. I know what they’re doing, I can challenge them, I can come up with daft ideas. I try not to micro-manage; I want to take the bigger view. It’s been hard this past year because there’s been a lot to put in place, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel. The team have regained their desire to win and their self-belief. MH: It’s been great to catch up, Pat. Many thanks. PS: A pleasure.
Senna’s performance at the 1984 Monaco GP is the stuff of legend. But as Symonds reveals, if the race had not been red-flagged, Senna may not have finished after cracking the suspension on his Toleman
After a bad start, Symonds grew to admire Benetton boss Briatore for his lateral thinking
Michael Schumacher at Spa in 1994 at the peak of his title battle with Damon Hill. He was disqualified after his Benetton’s ride height was deemed to be too low, and Hill inherited the win
“Fernando is a fabulous driver… but he wasn’t a team man and, from time to time, would really upset people”
After being dropped by Renault in 2009, Nelson Piquet Jr told the FIA he had deliberately crashed his R28 at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix on the instructions of his team. The ensuing furore was dubbed ‘Crashgate’ and resulted in a five-year ban from F1 for Symonds and a lifetime ban for team boss Flavio Briatore
Bottas, at the wheel of a resurgent Williams, leads McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen at this year’s Spanish Grand Prix