Adrian Sutil on the life of an F1 driver

In an exclusive interview with The Engineer’s Ellie Zolfagharifard, Force India F1 driver Adrian Sutil talks about fast-changing technology, his relationship with his engineers and why risk will always be a key part of the sport he loves.

Formula One (F1) driver Adrian Sutil found himself promoted to lead driver of the Force India team when former team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella left for a dream move to Ferrari. In an exclusive interview with The Engineer’s Ellie Zolfagharifard, the German racer talks about fast-changing technology, his relationship with his engineers and why risk will always be a key part of the sport he loves.

How have regulation changes and new technology affected your performance as a driver?

When I went into F1 four years ago as a test driver the technology was already really advanced. Last year we had major rule changes. I would say until then we generally always had the same rules, the car looked very similar and everybody knew how to go to their limits with their car. When the changes came into place, suddenly the cars looked very different. What’s very obvious this year is that once you do an update for a car it can suddenly make half a second in a lap or even more. Sometimes you go in a wind tunnel, test a car there and put some aerodynamic parts on and go ‘wow’, so there are big changes and big steps because everything is new.

The technology and development is so good that at the end of the day we have cut 50 per cent of the down force from last year but our cars have improved on last year by four seconds a lap, so you are wondering where it comes from.

As a driver, how quickly do you pick up these changes when you get into a car?

Quite easy actually because you get in the car and normally what you feel is just an increase in more front and rear grip. You don’t really feel the change of speed of the car but you see the difference when you move up five places on the grid. You didn’t do anything different from driving and the car feels the same, you just go 1km/h faster around every corner and that’s where the difference comes from.

What is your relationship with the team’s engineers and how much input do you have in their decisions?

We always work very closely together. I’m driving the car so I know best what the car is doing and what it needs. There is always a discussion about what the right thing is to do. So I never say ‘OK we have to do that, no discussions’. My engineer speaks to me all the time, so there’s plenty of issues we can argue about to find the best solution.

How much technical detail do you need to know about the on-board systems?

It is important to know everything about a car ­­– about its functions, the set-up of the car and about the technical side. It is possible to drive to the limit and win races without knowing about the car, but you would never develop that car any further, and you would never change a bad car to a winning car.

So the driver input is important. Even with this technology and despite having more than 2,000 people behind you in a team, the driver’s technical input is still crucial.

How did you acquire your technical knowledge?

On the job. I’ve been racing for about 13 years and you pick up quite a lot of the basics when you’re young. Even in F1 you always learn more every year. That’s why you have to be open all the time. I never say I’m perfect now and will stop learning because technology goes on as everywhere else and it’s never-ending.

What are your views on using simulation technology to improve performance?

Some teams use simulation and some teams don’t because they don’t trust it. But I think it’s a good thing to do. In a simple way you can even do it at home with the games out there at the moment. They are really highly developed and very good, very close to the real thing. But there are some teams, such as McLaren F1, where it is well known in the paddock that it has some of the best simulations that include the motion of the car. I think this is a big help for its drivers, to go in there and do proper training in an actual F1 car. I’ve been in a few simulations and you feel maybe 80 per cent that you are in a car so you get your adrenaline and heart rate up.

Do you think technological research in F1 should be used for safety or speed?

They go together, but obviously safety is very important. A lot of innovations in F1 are taken over to normal cars on the road.

My debut in F1 wasn’t too long ago but every year technology is improving. In the last few years there have been some unbelievable crashes where you think the driver must have died but he just steps out of the car and is fine.

F1 is unbelievably safe and the research the FIA is doing all the time is very important. The circuits themselves are so safe. There are a lot of run-off areas and so much space to go off somewhere. It’s really hard to injure yourself but it can happen and still the risk is there. Technology won’t ever make it completely safe. I know driving is risky but that’s a special thing about it. Not everybody can do it, it’s a special sport and to control a car to its limit is very dangerous. So I think it belongs together, it has to in car racing. It’s not a safe sport. There’s a little risk and that’s why it’s such a special sport and so interesting.

With all these regulation changes, in the future do you believe cars will become more standardised and driver performance will matter even more?

I think there will always be differences in a car ­– that’s car racing. Even if everything is the same, the cars completely the same ­– we have it in GP2 – there are still teams that are winning and teams at the back of the grid because there is always something you can do better than the others.

Maybe you have better engineers running the car or a better setup on the car. You can never say ‘this is the best driver’. The driver’s performance is connected to the car and how he works with his car. He might be the best with one car but if he changes to another car then he won’t be able to drive it as well.

If technology had no limits, what would you add to an F1 car?

I don’t really know what I would change, but the challenge in F1 will always be speed. Every driver would say ‘give it a little more horsepower’ ­– maybe a turbocharger in a car or something. It’s never fast enough.

You always want more power and more speed. It’s already possible to create such a down force in a tunnel that you go upside down. I’m convinced if technologies had no limits and there were no rules then you would not be able to drive anymore because you would pass out.

When you finish your F1 driving career would you consider a technical career at one of the teams?

If I’m honest I don’t think I’m good enough in this area to become an engineer. My passion is driving ­– I need the adrenaline push, I love it. So I think I would still do something like that, being in car racing, being involved in driving. I would be bored sitting in front of computers all the time and just analysing data, I’d probably just be telling the driver that their technique isn’t right and I could do it better.

Driving is my passion and what I want to do. I’m now 26 and who knows what happens in the next few years. Right now I can’t imagine a life without the sport.

Be sure to visit The Engineer Online next week to read Ellie Zolfagharifard’s exclusive interview with James Key, technical director of the Force India Formula One Team.

Photo credit: Force India Formula One Team