Winning formula

Formula One’s hi-tech future will call for a new generation of engineering drivers, says Tony Purnell


Formula One is set to change. Gone will be the V8-19,000-most-power-you-can-get-from-a-fixed-displacement motor, and in its place will be a ‘most-power-you-can-get-from-a-drop-of-fuel’ powertrain.

What I mean by ‘powertrain’ in this context is a petrol-electric hybrid, integrated with the transmission and controlled by sophisticated electronics. This is a huge change, not just to powertrain, but also to the very nature of racing.

Why? Well, the only way to get engineers focused on squeezing the last tiny percentage in motive power out of each drop of fuel is — you’ve guessed it — to limit the amount you’re given. This is very much the way forward for F1, and the way to encourage efficiency is to allow all forms of energy recovery in order to to scavenge more motive power.

The FIA has already outlined these thoughts as to the future for F1 — a set of regulations to allow performance differentiation in kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) followed by more KERS, and then heat recovery. This will initially be from the exhaust (turbo-compounding, turbo-generation, turbo-anything). All will lead to complex powertrains designed to be beautifully integrated systems rather than a collection of disparate components.

And the right type of driver will be a very important element to get any particular powertrain development to be the best of the bunch.

The main design decisions will, of course, be made on computers running simulation programs, which themselves will be development items. But the refinement, the last per cent that means the difference between winning and losing, will be done first on drivers in the loop simulators and then at trackside.

Until now, although it is useful if the driver can relate to the engineers and give a little bit more insight to any particular development, all that is really required of him is that he drives the vehicle he is given to the limit.

But in future a driver’s intuition and feel for the right development path will be much more of an essential element in influencing the direction of the technology. Because the more he can communicate with the engineers, the better he can understand the compromises faced and the competing elements that are being tamed, and the more likely he is to hit upon a way forward.

The trouble is, these systems are no longer readily understood by the armchair engineer and are more for the expert to get to grips with. Actually we are already at this point with KERS. This is why retired Austrian driver Alex Wurz continues his long career in F1, despite not being racing potential any more. He has this ability, no doubt helped by an engineering education (albeit cut short by racing) and a natural engineering mindset. Drivers like Wurz will be more valuable than ever as these new era F1 cars come into being.

There is a second trait that will be more desirable — the ability to think about strategy in a detached way while still driving the car as fast as it can go. Michael Schumacher had this in spades, which was one of the key factors in his success.

The strategies may get complex and subject to constant revaluation in the future as drivers have to factor in the intelligent use of the ‘push-to-pass’ KERS button, drive along restoring energy and conserving fuel all at the cost of lap times so they can unleash a blinding burst of speed to overtake or gain while others are in the pits. It may be that staying behind another car is the smart thing to do in these conditions and choosing your moment to overtake; not just in terms of race-craft but also by having effectively improved the performance of your car. All this points to drivers with more brains, or at least the right type of brain. Here again, having the mental ability to think and relate as an engineer trading off all the various factors and implementing the optimum strategy will serve the driver of the future well.

Fortunately there are some up and coming drivers beginning to knock on the door of F1 who show signs of having these abilities and for UK fans at least there is one who fits the profile — Oliver Turvey, who is leading the British F3 Championship. And he has achieved this during his final year studying engineering at Cambridge.  

None of this, of course, will be an adequate substitute for being quick, so the Lewis Hamiltons of this world will still be up front. but sitting in the fastest car may depend far more on the driver’s ability to assist the engineers in making it the quickest car than ever before.



Tony Purnell is the former team principal of the Jaguar and Red Bull F1 racing teams, and is now a technical consultant to the FIA