Patrick Head on the future of F1

5 min read

Patrick Head, director of engineering and co-founder of Williams F1, speaks to The Engineer about eco-friendly racing, why budget restrictions could drive innovation and his hopes for the future of the sport.

Following our exclusive interview with Brawn’s Nick Fry, the director of engineering and the co-founder of Williams Formula 1 (F1), Patrick Head, speaks exclusively to The Engineerabout his views on eco-friendly racing, why budget restrictions could drive innovation and his hopes for the future of F1 as the 2009 Grand Prix season draws to a close.

What’s your schedule like in Sao Paulo?

I arrived early this morning, a bit earlier than I usually come out for a Grand Prix, to attend the UK Trade & Investment event. The whole conference here is about promoting collaboration between UK and Brazilian advanced engineering sectors. So I’ll be speaking with companies at that event about creating engineering partnerships between the two countries ahead of the race weekend.

Why are partnerships with Brazilian companies such an attractive prospect?

Williams has had a good link in the past in terms of Brazilian drivers and sponsors. Part of the direction of the engineering initiative here is on ‘green’ activities and we’re involved in that in many ways.

F1 cars might seem dirty, expensive, fuel-consuming devices but, in fact, they are all about efficiency. They have been designed to be fast around the track but, to be competitive, they have to be efficient. Recently, we’ve had kinetic energy recovery systems [KERS] involved in F1 as a way to promote and drive energy efficiency and energy storage. We’re heavily involved in that, both for our own F1 car and for Williams Hybrid Power, which has developed a technology solution for mobile energy recovery and storage.

When will the technologies you mention be transferred to production vehicles?

It’s already happening. I have some interest in a company that’s already marketing large electric delivery vehicles in the US. I think we’re going to see much more in the next five - and certainly 10 - years in the form of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles. The pressure on all these vehicles will be for lighter construction. Although in F1 this is done in low volumes, a lot of the materials and techniques we’ve been using will have direct transference to the automotive market.

Will the push to lower costs in F1 drive innovation or stall it?

Obviously there are many micro-innovations going on the whole time, but in a way I think F1 was at its most innovative when you go back 15 years or so when we had 200 or 250 people.

We got larger and larger over the years - some of the F1 teams are up around 1,000 or more people - but we’re going to be pushed back in the next couple of years down into the 350s, 280 odd people, and I suspect it might create an environment in which the spirit of innovation can develop more strongly.

So bigger teams are an obstacle to innovation?

I think with the proliferation of people, you’ve got each engineer working on very small parts of the vehicle without necessarily great knowledge or understanding of the associated parts that interface with the part he is designing. If we are able to get back to a lesser number of people with a greater responsibility for the vehicle, I suspect that it might improve innovation.

At the moment, we’re experts in the absolute development of minute parts to the nth degree. I think it will be quite good if we are able to step back a bit and it would be a good thing if we had a bit more freedom with the technical rules.

There has been a lot of speculation about Williams’ activities with KERS. Where are you with its development?

We have a KERS programme going on in-house. We’ve developed our own 60kW motor generator unit and inverter controller for running it. We’ve also got interest in Williams Hybrid Power, which is a separate company but operates within Williams. That company has got a number of contracts with car makers where we’re installing high-speed flywheels in experimental cars for them to evaluate that technology, which works by storing braking energy and releasing it into the system at the appropriate moment.

Will KERS play an important role in making the sport more energy efficient?

I think, in the short term, the cost reduction and resource restrictions on the teams are going to have more influence on what is going on within F1. However, F1 is a great ‘skunk works’. It’s a good environment for pushing new technology forward very rapidly. A number of the teams running KERS in 2009 have done a very successful job. Unfortunately, it’s just come at a time when budgets are being restricted. As part of an agreement between the teams, KERS will not be present in F1 2010, but we’re pretty certain it will be returning strongly in 2011.

What role can F1 play in addressing the skills gap in engineering?

A huge role. We get a lot of young engineers wanting to come into F1. It’s high profile and it’s also very interesting and there are very many diverse skills, all of which have to be integrated to produce an F1 car.

We have an opportunity to sell our activities so that young people see it, but in truth there are just as many very interesting engineering technical challenges that don’t, unfortunately, get so much publicity, whether they be in trains and vehicles or even in things such as bridges and buildings and other infrastructure.

How does the 2009 F1 season compare to others in recent years?

I think one of the things that has been outstanding is how close all the cars are. When you consider that the technical regulations and the aerodynamic and mechanical regulations governing the performance of the car changed completely from 2008 to 2009, it has really showed that all 10 teams involved in F1 are at a very high standard.

There are no weak teams in there at the moment and there has, in the past, been three or four weak teams right at the back. Now, the grid can be covered by less than a second from front to back. So it’s amazing how close it’s become and the racing this year has been extremely good. Here we are coming out of a season where, in the past, every race was won by either Ferrari or McLaren. This season, I think McLaren has won two races and Ferrari one. Most of the races are now being won by Brawn and Red Bull. Apart from the fact that I can’t name Williams in there, I think that that’s a very healthy thing for F1.

How will F1 cars change in the next two decades?

I’m sure they’ll get more energy efficient. I think there’s a likelihood that we’ll be going to something like four-cylinder turbo-charged engines, maybe two-litre engines. Maybe we’ll be back to racing again on a fixed amount of fuel, where it’s up to us to use it during the race in a way that gets the best result.

I think the racing from the public point of view has to be honest out-and-out racing. The idea of people on fuel efficiency runs I don’t think will appeal to the viewing public. Meanwhile, on the structure of the cars and the development of the engines, transmissions and whole power train, I believe they will become more sophisticated.

Were you always interested in F1 or did you have other aspirations within engineering?

I think I was corrupted at an early age. My father raced quite successfully in the 1950s and I suppose I got a bit of a bug then. I did my degree in Mechanical Engineering at UCL and then went to do a bit of motor racing, thinking eventually I’d have to go take a proper job. But luckily, with the help of Bernie Ecclestone promoting F1 very successfully, I’ve been able to avoid taking a proper job all my life.

What are your hopes going into the Brazilian GP?

We actually had a pretty poor GP in Brazil last year as Williams and I’d like to see a much stronger result this year with a reasonably close fight with the teams around us to maintain and try and advance our position in the championship.

The story is that it is likely to be quite mixed weather over the weekend. I think the challenge for us will be to be on the right tyres at the right time and make sure we don’t slide off the track or in the gravel traps. If we do that, then we can probably end up in the points. Unless there’s a very unusual race, I doubt that we’ll be standing at the top step of the podium - we’re not fast enough for that yet.