For us, a Formula 1 race isn’t over until our drivers see the chequered flag. But what if something unexpected happens before then? Well, our race still isn’t finished - because we’ve been expecting the unexpected.
“You might find yourself way off the leading group and seemingly in a bad position,” says Will Joseph, Lando’s race engineer, “but as we saw in Azerbaijan last year, the race is never over.”
On last year’s opening lap in Baku, Fernando Alonso’s MCL33 was hit by another car. Fernando suffered a double puncture in the impact and only through a supreme feat of skill was he able to guide his damaged car back to the pits.
The images on TV suggested that Fernando’s car was a write-off. It wasn’t. A superb performance from our pit-crew got him back under way and he raced from the tail of the field to claim a remarkable points finish.
“Everyone has their specific roles,” says Will, who was Fernando’s race engineer last season. “So as soon as we see an incident occur - whether through the TV monitors or the drivers reporting it on the radio - each person responsible for an area of the car starts to give feedback about what they can see in the data.”
Both our cars are equipped with hundreds of sensors that measure vital performance parameters from brake, engine and tyre temperature readings to wheel movements, suspension loadings and accelerative forces. This rich stream of data flows in real time to the pit-wall, trackside garage and Mission Control in the McLaren Technology Centre. Interpreting that data quickly and collaboratively is the key to understanding the degree of damage the car has suffered - and what steps can be taken to stay in the race.
“We have a factory-based aerodynamicist responsible for looking at the aero loadings on each car, so they will report any changes they see,” says Joseph. “We have a vehicle performance engineer trackside, and they monitor the suspension movements and loadings, which can inform us about potential internal damage.
“We also have people looking at the brakes and control systems - anything that’s performance or safety-critical - and you correlate that with what you can see on the TV images to build a picture of the damage before the car returns to the garage.
“Sometimes, such as in this year’s Chinese Grand Prix where Carlos and Lando were involved in a collision on the first lap, you don’t have a clear answer and you need to make an extensive visual check once the car has come in.”
Usually in car-on-car impacts it’s the exposed and vulnerable aerodynamic surfaces that are easily damaged: the front and rear wings, the bargeboards, and the slotted sections on the non-structural area of the floor ahead of the rear wheels (known as ‘spats’). If a car has been pushed over a kerb or sent airborne, as Lando’s was in China, there may be concealed damage to the underfloor area and diffuser.
Since an F1 car’s aerodynamics work in harmony as part of a complex and inter-related system, losing an item of aero furniture might not cost downforce in itself, but it might change the balance of the car or cause other components downstream to work less efficiently. The effects may not be immediately clear.
“If you have floor damage like we had with Fernando in Azerbaijan, you know you’ve lost a lot of downforce, but it’s better to get back out there - and then, with the benefit of more performance information, make the decision about whether to continue. If you have, say, a damaged radiator that’s leaking, you would probably withdraw the car immediately. But the key is to reach an informed decision as quickly as possible.”
“You do have some time. For instance, in China the incident [when Lando was hit by Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat] happened at Turn 6. Effectively that means we had until the car reached the exit of Turn 14, and the pit entry, to make a decision.
“From a strategic point of view we had already considered what would happen if there was an incident on lap one, so there was no question of what tyres to put on and what the implications of that would be. The only decision we needed to make was whether to ‘box’ - to pit - or not. Was there enough damage to the car to warrant a stop?”
Obviously there are limits to what can be repaired while the race is ‘live’. The front wing and nose can be changed as a single unit, but even this is relatively time-consuming and generally undertaken only when there is a clear and obvious issue.
From there it’s down to the driver, their race engineer and the rest of the team to manage the impact of damage that can’t be resolved immediately. This is where teamwork becomes even more critical to the outcome of the race: only the engineer speaks to the driver, and they have to function as the conduit of information, channeling suggestions from the strategists and other engineers.
“If you know you’ve lost a lot of downforce from one end or the other you might change the wing angle at the other end to try to compensate,” says Joseph. “Beyond that you can recover some of the changed balance with what we call the ‘toys’ - the differential settings, brake balance, engine braking and so on. That’s something the driver has to do via the switches on the steering wheel.”
There’s no escaping the fact that you might be running not just at the back of the field, but also with a gap to the car ahead. Even so, you’re still in the race - and a timely safety car deployment might erase that gap in one stroke. That didn’t happen for Lando in China, but it did for Fernando in Azerbaijan, putting him right back in the heart of the action.
“Effectively you are playing the long game, hoping for something to happen that will bring your driver back into play,” says Joseph. “It can be disheartening seeing your driver running off the back of the leading group and knowing that something abnormal needs to happen for you to get back in the game, but you have to play for that.
“You have to maintain the same level of detail and the same level of involvement as you would if you were running at the front of the race. There’s everything to play for.”