Brawn GP boss urges UK motorsport to think global

Nick Fry, chief executive officer of Brawn GP speaks to The Engineer about his vision for the future of Formula 1 (F1) and how an international approach is critical to securing advanced engineering expertise in the UK.

On the eve of the penultimate race weekend for the 2009 F1 season, leading talents in UK engineering have converged on Sao Paulo to promote partnerships with one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

As a key figure promoting the cause, Nick Fry, chief executive Brawn GP, speaks to Ellie Zolfagharifard about his vision for future of F1 and how an international approach is critical to securing advanced engineering expertise in the UK.

What makes Brazil such an attractive prospect for business development?

Britain has got 200 years trading history with Brazil. In the last couple of years especially, UK exports to Brazil have come up very significantly. It was about £525m of trade out of the UK last year and that was nearly 50 per cent up on the year before.

I think another reason that is particularly important is, apart from the size of the Brazilian economy, which is the biggest in South America, it is also the first South American country to officially come out of recession. So it’s growing quite fast, it has a very broad portfolio of businesses and this makes it a very good country to target for increasing trade.

How can F1 help in promoting business between the UK and Brazil?

F1 teams epitomise how good the British economy is at advanced engineering. You’ve only got to look at the location of the top F1 teams, where certainly six of them, and even arguably seven of them if you include Toro Rosso, are UK-based companies.

We have the benefit of, on average, 600 million people worldwide watching F1 per season and if it’s a good race on Sunday there will be between 120 and 130 million people watching the Brazilian GP. We have a huge advantage where we can promote British expertise in advanced engineering and be the poster boy for what the UK can achieve, hopefully with our cars and other British designed cars at the front of the grid and winning the race.

Can innovations in F1 be transferred to production cars?

A lot of the thinking about making things lighter and making things smaller tends to make its way into mainstream automotives. Most of the F1 cars are now using quite advanced damping systems with rotary dampers, which are very efficient. Over time these are likely to find their way into road cars.

If you go right back to the earlier days of F1, even things like safety belts were pioneered in car racing. In the field of safety we really do lead the way and the FIA have worked hard on improving the safety of F1 cars through extremely advanced crash structures.

While some people might think F1 cars are just built and then go racing, we actually have to go through very stringent crash tests just like you would on a road car, and what we’ve been able to master on the front and rear impact, and side impact notably, is the use of composites to absorb the energy. Those things do cascade into the road car industry. If you look at the more advanced road cars – like the Aston Martins and the Lotuses – they have adopted that technology using composite tubes to absorb energy.

The other thing we’re very good at is the development of lightweight materials and that is going to be absolutely critical to the mainstream car industry for the reduction of CO2 and improvement of the environment. The composites we tend to use are expensive, but history shows that the more the technologically becomes utilised in other areas, such as commercial jets, the more the technology becomes available to mainstream automotives.

What role do you think F1 can play in promoting the green agenda?

I think we can really help in two ways. The first way is spreading a message. If you go back to things that have gone from F1 into roadcars, taking the clock back ten years, it would be difficult to imagine a Ferrari road car or any other high-performance road car using an automatic transmission, because changing gear with an old-fashioned gear lever is just what you did. It’s only when paddle gear shifts went onto steering wheels in F1 that people thought that if an F1 driver can do it, then they could get over the emotional upset of doing it in their road cars.

I think that having energy saving features in F1, like KERS, does make those things more accessible and more interesting to people in road cars. So firstly there’s a marketing side to it and secondly, I think we can help the development of the technology. KERS is an example that possibly hasn’t worked as much as we would have liked because of the global recession. It’s enormously expensive to develop the system and as a result, only some of teams are using it.

But I think the job the F1 team has to do in the next 12 months is to develop a proper environmental strategy where we are identifying not just KERS, but other things too. It might be further developments of synthetic fuels, it might be a bigger push on energy-friction reduction, it might be using the aerodynamics system not just to create down force but to make the cars more efficient.

Will KERS make a come back in 2011?

I think it is highly likely it will come back in 2011 in a far better form that it is at the moment. Currently it’s the preserve of the rich teams. McLaren and Ferrari run the system, but most of the other teams have struggled to make it work properly. The agreement among the teams is that while we’ve all agreed to have a year off to develop the system, we want to come back in 2011 with a system with a lower R and D cost and a lower variable cost [that costs] a lot less to run. There are companies such as Williams who are well into developing that technology and I believe that they are developing it not just for F1 cars but also to sell to road car manufacturers.

Which technological achievements have you been most proud of this season, given Brawn’s success?

One of the areas where we stole the march on everyone else this year was on the so-called ‘double diffuser aerodynamic’ system, which we pioneered and everyone else copied. That definitely gave us a head start.

I don’t think there is anything else on the car that is clearly unique, or is the answer to why we’re doing so well. The thing I’m particularly proud of is that the car is very good all round. It’s lightweight and we can carry a reasonable amount of ballast. Also, on an F1 car you have to have a very package-efficient rear-suspension system to maximise the aerodynamic bodywork contours and the amount of down push you get at the back of the car. I think we’ve done a good job of making such a system.

You have to remember our team is half the size of most of the front-running teams, so we can’t afford the level of resources to just develop lots of different things willy-nilly and hope they work. We’ve had to work in a very focused way, to only work on the aerodynamics improvements that we think are going to provide the benefits. We have to make sure designs go straight from drawing board into the wind tunnel and onto the track. The efficiency with which we’ve worked is probably just as much as key to our success as things like the double diffuser.

What leads so many F1 teams to Britain?

The top engineers – Ross Brawn would be a good example – seem to have a very good shop-floor-level understanding of how things are done, combined with conceptual design skills. I don’t think this is something that has appeared overnight, but it has evolved over decades.

I also think that the general openness of the UK economy, in terms of a lot of cultural diversity, has actually helped. What is noticeable to me in my team is that there are a lot of different people with different nationalities who have been educated in a slightly different way. It’s interesting to watch an Italian engineer working with a British engineer because, although they may have the same academic background in theory, the way they’ve been taught is entirely different. Generally, the openness of the UK to accept people outside its borders has helped the situation and has produced a lot of lateral thinking, which has enhanced what we originally had.

For example, until the end of last year we were working with a lot of Japanese engineers, similar to the way Honda works, and within the course of two months we switched to a German engine and were working with German engineers. Our engineers were able to switch very quickly and I think their openness to different ways of thinking that has led us to the position that we are currently in.

In what ways will F1 cars change in the next 20 years or so?

I think the biggest change we’ll see will be with the power train. Looking forward 20 to 30 years, it is easy to foresee a completely zero-emission engine in an F1 car. Whether that be electric or some other propulsion, I very much doubt it will be running on fuel as we currently have it.

The area that continues to evolve is aerodynamics. There is a direct and linear relationship between the number of hours we spend in a wind tunnel and the improvement in aerodynamic efficiency. I think that what’s going to happen is, whereas at the moment we have to add on wing devices that hold the car onto the road, within that time frame it is going to be completely integrated into the shape of the car.

What are your hopes going into the Brazilian GP?

I hope it will be an exciting race and if the weather is wet, which it is forecast to be, that guarantees a lot of thrills and spills. For our team, I hope we can settle the Constructors’ Championship. We only need one point, which would be great for a team that was close to not existing at the beginning of the year. For both our drivers, I hope they’re successful in winning the Drivers’ Championship.

Its important for us to be completely fair on this. Once we’ve won the Constructors’ Championship then the drivers have got this race and the one in Abu Dhabi to settle the Drivers’ Championship. I hope its one of ours who is successful.

Be sure to visit The Engineer Online on Saturday October 17 to read Ellie Zolfagharifard’s exclusive interview with Patrick Head, co-founder and director of engineering at AT&T Williams F1