Mercedes F1’s glass-walled nerve centre is a place of stag­ger­ing tech­no­log­i­cal over­load

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - ANDY ENRIGHT

W “E GET GPS data from all of the teams. If Lewis wants to see the data from the last 50 ex­its from a corner by Vet­tel, we can give him that in­for­ma­tion.”

Think about that for a mo­ment. Now imag­ine how ev­ery F1 team can there­fore ex­trap­o­late how much power its ri­vals are mak­ing, how con­sis­tent ri­val driv­ers are, and which line through a corner works for any given sur­face, weather or tyre-wear condition. We’re sit­ting in Mercedes F1’s race con­trol room in Brackley and the tech­no­log­i­cal over­load is stag­ger­ing.

Out­side this glass-walled nerve centre are the big­gest brains in the or­gan­i­sa­tion, a whole floor of de­sign­ers in cu­bi­cles, most with Phds from places like MIT, Har­vard or Oxbridge. Their screens show var­i­ous it­er­a­tions of sus­pen­sion com­po­nents, body pan­els, hubs, flanges and other things I can’t iden­tify. In­side the con­trol room it’s quiet. Hamil­ton and Bot­tas have just scored a one-two at Bahrain. Brackley is a happy ship at the mo­ment. The data card for ‘Bahrain 5.412km’ and a lay­out for the track sits on the rows of key­boards and mon­i­tors in the con­trol room. In all, there are 126 mon­i­tors in here.

Our guide ex­plains how this all works on race week­ends. “We have 90-100 peo­ple go­ing to 21 countries on race week­ends. Our travel and lo­gis­tics depart­ment take care of all their visas and vac­ci­na­tions in-house. It’s a big task. The team take over 40 tonnes of gear per race. FIA rules dic­tate that we are only al­lowed 60 peo­ple at the track who can affect the per­for­mance of the car,” he ex­plains. Hence this place.

In the­ory, any of the 20 peo­ple in here on race week­ends can press a but­ton and com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with the driver, but team pro­to­col dic­tates that any re­quests must go through the race en­gi­neer on the pit wall. The data trans­mis­sion rates are in­cred­i­ble. “We use Tata sub­sea fi­bre-op­tic ca­bles to carry the data,” ex­plains our guide. “We’re al­most live. We’re 0.1 sec­onds from any race in the world, ex­cept for Aus­tralia. That sig­nal takes 0.4 sec­onds to ar­rive.” So much for the NBN. Ev­ery time the car passes the pits, it wire­lessly hands over gi­ga­bytes of data that then comes stream­ing into Brackley, 115km north-west of London, in less time than it takes to blink. There’s a cer­tain ex­ac­ti­tude to the en­gi­neers here. Woe be­tide any­one over­heard calling the 0.1sec de­layed trans­mis­sion a live stream.

The Brackley site is a legacy of the days of the old Adrian Rey­nard works. The Mercedes F1 team can trace its lin­eage from Tyrell to BAR to Honda to Brawn GP and then, in 2010, to the three-pointed star. It’s fair to say that the bud­gets have stepped up a bit since the vir­tu­ally pen­ni­less Brawn GP days. “Red Bull cer­tainly missed a trick in 2009,” laughs our guide. “We had such lit­tle money as Brawn GP that had they

just bumped a few front wings off in free practice, we wouldn’t have had the fund­ing to have re­placed them. They’d have taken the ti­tle.” Things have cer­tainly changed since then, as ev­i­denced by one de­signer telling us: “We en­gi­neer based on need, not bud­get.” Imag­ine how galling that must sound to Haas or Rac­ing Point.

The wind tun­nel on site was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped by Honda and fea­tures a 2.2-megawatt fan that’s so pow­er­ful that it’s seis­mi­cally iso­lated on a sprung con­crete block. With­out it, the rest of the com­plex shakes when the tun­nel’s in use. Although a full-sized car can fit in the tun­nel, FIA rules limit teams to a 60 per­cent scaled model on the grounds of cost. Wind tun­nels are hugely ex­pen­sive and even Fer­rari uses the old Toy­ota tun­nel in Cologne, along with Mclaren and, un­til this week, Rac­ing Point, who now buy time at Brackley.

The rules are dense, and there’s a vast for­mula which lim­its the com­bined time in tun­nels and also com­pu­ta­tional fluid dy­nam­ics (vir­tual wind tun­nel) test­ing that can be done. Tun­nel oc­cu­pancy is filmed by FIA cam­eras so teams can’t side­step the rules. The FIA also im­poses a manda­tory sum­mer break. That’s when the tun­nel gets a deep clean.

What’s per­haps most dizzy­ing about the process of con­struct­ing an F1 car are the things we don’t tend to con­sider. Sure, it’s amaz­ing that a 1.6-litre petrol en­gine can de­velop 635kw+ with another 120kw com­ing from a bat­tery be­neath the driver’s back­side. Or that ther­mal ef­fi­ciency is bet­ter than 50 per­cent; way bet­ter than the best road car pow­er­plant. It’s in­cred­i­ble to look at the ti­ta­nium gear­box that’s no big­ger than a lunch­box, which changes gear in three-thou­sandths of a sec­ond and which, as a stressed mem­ber, holds the whole rear crash struc­ture and wing. It’s the at­ten­tion to de­tail that’s as­ton­ish­ing.

The front wing on Nico Ros­berg’s FW07, in which he won the 2016 driv­ers’ cham­pi­onship, con­sists of 290 sep­a­rate com­po­nents. When you see a wing smashed off, bear in mind that it takes 50 man hours just to paint. There are only four air­brush artists in the UK skilled enough to paint the 3D-ef­fect three-pointed star onto the nosecone, and the front wing con­tains in­fra-red sen­sors that scan the front tyres, pass­ing that data to the pits so that tyre degra­da­tion can be viewed in (al­most) real time. They’re part of a suite of 400 sen­sors on the car which are used on Fri­day free practice, the num­ber of sen­sors then be­ing pared back across the week­end be­fore the car en­ters parc ferme in its light­est prac­ti­cal guise.

This year’s car (FW10) fea­tures 1100 hand-painted three-pointed stars on its body­work, each in­di­vid­u­ally coloured to blend with the black-tosil­ver fade the Mercedes cars have been us­ing since the in­tro­duc­tion of hy­brid tech in 2014. The paint team travel to each race, and in China and the US they use lo­cal Mercedes deal­er­ships as paint shops.

The in­di­vid­ual set-ups be­tween Hamil­ton and Bot­tas have to be taken into ac­count. The team gen­er­ates dif­fer­ent seats, but the pedal width and spac­ing is also cus­tomised, and each driver has their own pref­er­ences for colour codes on the wheel. Lewis likes pur­ple, ap­par­ently. The but­ton set-ups vary, and even es­o­teric things like the grip pref­er­ences and the thumb lengths of each driver are mea­sured to per­fectly po­si­tion the key con­trols on the wheel, ex­am­ples of which cost around $100K each. That’s an A45 AMG with some de­cent op­tions. No won­der the team get ticked off if the driv­ers throw them in the dirt.

We walk past the sim­u­la­tor where re­serve driver Ocon spends hours ahead of each race, pre­par­ing a brief­ing sheet based on his find­ings to the teams. The ‘en­gine’ for the sim­u­la­tor is rfac­tor Pro, the in­dus­try stan­dard also used by Red Bull, with tracks mapped to the mil­lime­tre.

Things get even more techy when we get down into the ma­te­ri­als fab­ri­ca­tion area. Here there are a set of five replica pit garages. Hamil­ton and Bot­tas’ boxes sit in the same po­si­tion as they’d be on track, Lewis to the left, Valt­teri to the right as you face them. There’s a ti­ta­nium halo struc­ture to hand prior to it be­ing wrapped in glossy car­bon­fi­bre. We’re told that its front sup­port af­fects driver vision neg­li­gi­bly and that eye track­ing demon­strated that driv­ers are look­ing obliquely into and through bends at brak­ing, apexes and exit points, while on straights they’re of­ten con­sult­ing the wheel, tun­ing diffs and check­ing lights.

The drive­shaft that sends all that power to the wheels sits on a work­bench. It’s 30mm in di­am­e­ter, not much wider than a Sharpie marker. There are 70,000 com­po­nents in the car and Mercedes is go­ing to RFID tag al­most all of them. There’s a parts desk where en­gi­neers can get hold of any­thing, but when it’s closed there are vend­ing ma­chines that con­tain the most pop­u­lar parts. Get­ting a new front wing end­plate is as easy as get­ting a Snick­ers on a rail­way sta­tion plat­form.

The CAD plans from the eggheads ups­tairs can be sent di­rectly to any one of 24 milling ma­chines (11 of them five-axis units) to cre­ate metal parts, or to the com­pos­ites depart­ment to cre­ate the fine lay­ers, or layups, of which car­bon­fi­bre parts are com­posed. Five au­to­claves big enough to fit an en­tire chas­sis into, which cure the layups at 90psi and 180 de­grees Cel­sius, hum in the back­ground. The team also has X-ray and CT scan­ners to check car­bon­fi­bre parts for mi­cro­scopic cracks or man­u­fac­tur­ing de­fects. It takes around 50 days to build a chas­sis and five are usu­ally con­structed per year. The team makes around 7000 parts per year in the com­pos­ites depart­ment and there’s an al­most sur­gi­cal clean­li­ness in there. Vac­uum ta­bles take care of splin­ters, which can in­jure em­ploy­ees and punc­ture the air­tight bags that are vac­uum com­pressed to bond the layups.

Some parts are bought in, but most are made in-house, es­pe­cially those with high in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty value. The metal parts are par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­ful. A steer­ing col­umn gleams like some­thing from a Ter­mi­na­tor movie, alu­minium bil­lets milled to sub-10 mi­cron ac­cu­racy (a hu­man hair is 70 mi­crons across) and we see samples of var­i­ous steels, alu­minium and ti­ta­nium, as well as Den­samet, a heavy al­loy of nickel and tung­sten that’s used for bal­last. A 30mm cube of alu­minium weighs 148 grams. The same cube in Den­samet is 969g. It’s also use­ful for putting to bed the ur­ban myth that teams use de­pleted ura­nium as bal­last.

We get a look at the seven-post rig that’s cur­rently run­ning a sim­u­la­tion of the Shang­hai track on a car. Four of the posts sup­port the wheels, the other three repli­cate grav­i­ta­tional forces on the chas­sis. It can repli­cate an en­tire sea­son’s run­ning in 3.5 hours and sub­jects new com­po­nents to a pun­ish­ing stress test. The cars sit on spe­cial bal­loon tyres supplied by Pirelli for this very pur­pose. Gen­uine race tyres would ex­plode given this treat­ment.

This fa­cil­ity has come a long way since Honda pulled out of F1 in 2008. Every­body who was laid off then has been of­fered a role back at the ex­panded plant. Mercedes-amg Petronas Mo­tor­sport has won the past five F1 con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onships on the back of the amaz­ing brains trust at Brackley. F1 might be cycli­cal, but it’d be hard to bet against a sixth suc­ces­sion.


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