Circuit breaker

Car developer Triple Eight’s technical director Kevin Berry explains the vehicle refinements that helped Vauxhall clinch its second successive British Touring Car Championship title. Berenice Baker reports

In a last gasp of summer sunshine at the end of September, VX racing’s Fabrizio Giovanardi clinched his second successive British Touring Car Championship(BTCC) title. It marked the end of another successful season for Vauxhall (which also collected the team and manufacturer awards) for the car’s developer Triple Eight, and for the competition itself, which is increasingly seen as an exciting alternative to F1.

It is easy to understand the sport’s appeal, and why its fans believe it is better than F1. Developed at a fraction of the cost of motorsport’s flagship vehicles these cars are, cosmetically at least, similar to those most of us drive. Like county cricket and third division football, the sport is less remote and its stars more approachable.

The engineering challenges, however are no less acute. Talking to The Engineer after this season’s success Kevin Berry, Triple Eight’s technical director, outlined a design and development process that is as onerous and challenging as any other in motorsport.

Even while toasting victory, Berry has his sights set firmly on the unending process of refinements that will bring rewards next season. ‘The priorities at the beginning of the season are to get the car working and on the track and developing throughout the season,’ said Berry. ‘By about July in the middle of the season, we’ll already be looking forward to the following season, so we’ll be trying to analyse our performance over the course of this season — how the car has performed, where we think our strengths and weaknesses are — both physically in terms of parts and reliability, and also in terms of performance.

‘Then we try to draw up a plan of where we’re going to focus the development budget we have. At this stage, all our energies are focused on preparing for next season. It’s very much an ongoing cycle that never really finishes.’

During August and September the team works on design, R&D and testing projects with the aim of doing detailed design for the next season. In the autumn it carries out detailed design and new car part design for the following January, when it can begin testing. ‘Any new parts we’re to test are available to go on the car by mid-January for track testing for next season,’ said Berry.

One aim of BTCC is to keep the costs down so teams compete on a similar footing. The regulations only allow four test days with each driver during the course of the season, so Berry emphasised it is important to do all the performance and reliability development before the start of the season, with the aim of not doing any testing during the campaign itself.

Berry believes good preparation in the winter was key to Vauxhall’s success this year. ‘I’d say we didn’t have the fastest car there at all times, but we scored a lot of points early in the season, whereas many other people who weren’t as well prepared weren’t scoring, and that served us well towards the end of the season, when the competition were catching up,’ he said. ‘For the second half of the season, up until the last round, we scored points in every single race with no failures, so it was about consistency and reliability.’

The technical and racing strategy the team adopts is designed to get the best out of individual circuits’, and areas they feel they need to improve compared with the competition are fed into the winter design.

‘We’re always looking for a little more development in engine power, but we struggle on certain circuits because our car is one of the longest in the field,’ said Berry. ‘We’re less strong on some of the circuits’ slow, tight corners, and we perform better on those with more long, flowing corners. We’ll be looking at changing our chassis performance to improve our performance through the slower corners this winter.’

The BTCC is governed by regulations overseen by motorsport’s governing body, the FIA. A racing vehicle has to be based on a four-door production road car of a minimum production run.

But Berry was keen to stress that any similarities to their milder-mannered road-going cousins are purely cosmetic. ‘Although it resembles the road car quite a lot, it is very much designed from scratch as a race car,’ he said. ‘The key thing for us is reducing weight. A standard road car is around 2,000kg, and we have a standard weight of 1,140kg we have to be over at all times.’

To keep the weight as close to this limit as possible, Triple Eight removes unwanted brackets and mounts from the body shell but has to use the base engine components — the standard engine block, cylinder block and castings of the engine. However, within the engine, the internal component limits can be freely changed within certain controls.

‘The crankshaft, pistons, con-rods and valve train are all bespoke manufactured parts made for our race car, within certain defined limits, such as the maximum compression ratio, maximum valve lift and valve size,’ said Berry.

‘There are minimum weight limits on the crankshafts, con-rods and pistons just so there’s freedom to design your own parts within a reasonable structure so that costs are controlled. We also have to use some standard road car components such as the suspension uprights and wheel bearing packs.’

Safety regulations are also laid down by the FIA. ‘We’re mandated to use a tubeless steel rollcage within the body shell,’ said Berry. ‘But to make the most of it we also use it to contribute to the stiffness of the car so we can tune the suspension better.’

When essential features such as the safety cage are customised, they are certified by automotive engineering test specialist MIRA and submitted to the FIA for approval.

Between seasons, the type of technology Triple Eight uses does not change hugely from one year to the next. ‘It’s more an evolution,’ said Berry. ‘In the first year with a new car there’s a massive design process, in the second there’s a large redesign, then in the third year it’s more refining details in terms of performance and technology.

‘We’re constantly talking to manufacturers about different technology that is available and trying to implement it in the car, whether that is electronics or materials or composites to bodywork. We always look for stiffer, lighter, more suitable materials.’

BTCC’s cost-limiting regulations affect the approach taken throughout the lifecycle of the car and over a racing season. ‘At the start of the life span we have to submit a document which details the parts on the car — engines internals, bodywork or suspension modifications we added,’ said Berry. ‘Over the course of time, we are only able to change around 50 items over three years. Although we’re constantly trying to change the technology of what we’re doing, there are reasonable cost controls that give everyone a chance to have a competitive car without having to spend outrageous sums of money.’

Competing teams are only allowed four engines per car a year, and each race weekend they can only take 16 new tyres plus six old cars from a previous event. ‘We have to ensure that we’re confident that one engine is capable of covering enough mileage so that four will do the whole season,’ said Berry.

Berry’s team has a new challenge on the horizon. The Vectra is nearing the end of its production run.

‘There’s a good chance we will be continuing with the Vectra next year, and considering different models for 2010,’ he said.

‘The decision process on that is done in partnership with Vauxhall. It has a model it is interested in using from a marketing point of view, we have to look at the regulations to see which models are eligible to be used, and from the shortlist use simulation software to evaluate which has the best potential to be a winning racecar.’