Force India technical director James Key

Following our exclusive interview with driver Adrian Sutil last week, James Key, technical director at Formula 1 team Force India, gives Ellie Zolfagharifard the engineer’s side of the story.

Following our exclusive interview with driver Adrian Sutil last week, James Key, technical director at Force India F1 Team, gives Ellie Zolfagharifard the engineer’s side of the story.

How do you work with your drivers on technical development?

There’s three streams of development that a team would look at. One is performance, that’s just outright power performance, which is the most obvious bread-and-butter stream for everyone. The second is the subtleties of making the car more drivable. Control systems come into that and the driver plays a very important part in this. The third stream of development is reliability. You want to make sure the car is always reliable, but as light and robust as possible.

Do drivers pick up the control systems relatively quickly?

Yes, we have methods of teaching the drivers how to use the systems in the car. We have hardware systems at the factory and we already have a set up with the controls on, so they are able to train with a steering wheel with a real ECU in a virtual car.

The control systems that are around now are a lot less complicated than they were a few years ago, so there’s a lot less for the drivers to understand. There is more standardisation of the control systems. They will typically learn how to use a control system and the engineers will tune it at the track accordingly.

What is the relationship between the driver and the engineers?

You have a race engineer, a control systems engineer and data systems engineer. They’ll be the three engineers allocated to a driver and they spend a lot of time with him on the track and he spends a lot of time with them at the factory.

They’ll look after all the performance issues he has over a weekend, and most importantly look after what he feeds back to try and allow the team to develop the car better.

How much does it help for the drivers to have technical knowledge?

It helps a great deal. In my own experience it changes a lot the way you work with the driver if you have someone who is very good technically, and they’re coming back and saying ‘I think this is what’s happening’. Some of the top drivers can do this. I’ve worked with drivers like that and it’s fantastic, even to the point where you can be doing something on the car and they can be saying ‘actually this feels rubbish at the moment, it’s going to be slow, but on new tyres, in qualifying at 2pm that will feel really good because the car and track will have evolved by then’. They’re very clear on what they want to achieve. Working with guys like that is fantastic because you know where you are all the time. So it makes a big difference if you work with a driver who has an understanding of what he wants to achieve and how to provide the right information.

How beneficial are simulation tools to technical development?

I think they’re helpful if you get them right from a technical perspective. It’s not the same as a car, but it’s consistent. You don’t have to worry about the sun coming out, rain or crosswind. And the model you have in the simulation is full of data you understand, so there’s nothing there you don’t know. So if the driver comes out and says the steering is hell, we can go and find out why because we have everything the car does in the database. In that respect, simulations are great technically.

Do you think improved technology will make a driver’s job easier or harder?

I think in the future it will become harder, personally. If you look at it this year, where cars are more standardised, all the teams have been very close. It’s a lot more down to the drivers now to make the difference. The car still makes a difference between the cross line and the grid, but when you’ve got tenths of seconds between drivers in the cars, it’ll ultimately be the drivers that will win the race.

Photo credit: Force India F1 Team