We are more than a month into the Formula One close season and the team’s designers and aerodynamicists are busy working on next year’s car.
But the design process is not something F1 teams only begin in earnest once the season is over.
Even with the ban on in-season testing – brought in prior to the 2009 season to curb escalating costs – a dedicated team of designers and engineers remain at the factory all year round, trying to find that extra tenth of a second in performance.
So how exactly does an idea for a new front wing go from a designers head to being bolted onto an F1 car at the track? And how long does it take?
In the first of my F1 insight series, McLaren’s Alistair Niven tells all.
He reveals what his role involves on a day-to-day basis; how he got to where he is now; his advice to anyone wanting to become an F1 designer and what he feels is the best car he’s had a role in designing.
How long have you worked for McLaren?
“I have worked for the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1 Team for approximately eight years.”
What is your current job title at McLaren Mercedes?
“Aerodynamic Design Engineer.”
What exactly does your role involve doing?
“As Aerodynamic Design Engineers we take the untamed concepts from our Aerodynamicists and convert them into credible engineered components that are ‘fit for purpose’ for either the Race Car or the Wind tunnel Model.
“In more detail, we take rendered aerodynamic surfaces and produce detailed engineering designs for our manufacturing departments or external suppliers; needless to say the whole process up to the material cutting stage is done electronically using CAD/CAM.
“We currently use ‘CATIA V5’ as our preferred CAD option. We tend to work in small teams concentrating on specific areas of the car.
“I spent my first few years at McLaren developing the geometry and aerodynamic concepts of the front suspension and braking system before moving onto the aerodynamic benefits of exhaust systems and rearward surfaces.”
How do these duties fit into the overall development of the McLaren car and the way the team operates as a whole?
“Although many of the mechanical and electrical concepts on the race car change throughout the season the largest amount of change takes place on the aerodynamic surfaces.
“An aerodynamicist can visualize an idea which we, as Aerodynamic Designers, convert into ‘realistic’ designs.
“These creations are transferred electronically to our manufacturers (either in-house or external) for the production process which can take the form of; machining, fabrication, moulding, rapid prototyping etc.
“The completed parts are often shipped straight to the track and assembled to the race car.
“This whole process regularly takes place within one working day. One working day in motorsport means 24 hours! So to summarize: Concept – Design – Manufacture – Transport – Assemble – Race.”
How did you get to where you are now? What qualifications and experience did you obtain prior to arriving in your current position with McLaren?
“I took a bit of an unusual route into Formula 1.
“I served a mechanical engineering apprenticeship after leaving school and then went to Glasgow University and studied for a combined degree in Aeronautical & Mechanical engineering.
“I was then offered a Lecturing post at a college in Barrow-in Furness teaching mechanical engineering to students working on the Trident submarine programme.
“Five years later I moved to Surrey, to take up a Lecturing appointment at Brooklands College, next to the famous Brooklands race track, teaching mechanical and aeronautical engineering.
“We designed and taught the first suite of National and Higher National Diploma’s in Motorsport engineering which is still running to this day.
“After twelve years at Brooklands I moved to Oxford to lecture on the automotive engineering degree course at Oxford Brookes University.
“Several years later I was asked to run a GT team back in Surrey and a year later joined McLaren as an Aerodynamic Design Engineer.”
How much of a F1 fan were you growing up? Did you always want to do what you do now or did you drift into it, almost by accident?
“I have been a motorsport fan for as long as I can remember, but my early passion was football and was lucky enough to play semi-professionally for over twenty years.
“I started racing motorcycles when I was eighteen on a Yamaha TZ350E before moving onto a Suzuki RG500.
“I blamed my lack of money for not winning, but looking back it was probably my lack of ability that was the primary reason!
“The main reason for choosing an Aero/Mechanical degree was that I really wanted to be an astronaut, but with the opportunities in that direction being few and far between I subsequently fell into lecturing.
“Looking back I have no regrets.”
Do you travel to races? How much involvement with the drivers, mechanics and team bosses seen at a Grand Prix do you have?
“As Design Engineers we are not required at race events.
“Originally, when ‘in-season’ testing was allowed, Design Engineers would attend two tests per year.
“The drivers on average come into the McLaren Technology Centre about once a week to either use the simulator or attend marketing events. They will have meetings with their Race Engineers to discuss car developments and up and coming race strategy.
“The Race Engineers will have been briefed by the Lead Aero Designers on aerodynamic improvements.
“Martin Whitmarsh or Jonathan Neale give a detailed debrief to the factory based staff on the Monday after every race.”
In your time at McLaren, what have been the biggest changes you have seen? How have these changes affected the way you and the team operate on a day-to-day basis?
“Without doubt the biggest change has been the speed of production, as mentioned earlier.
“An idea can be in the head of an aerodynamicist at the beginning of the day and less than 24 hours later it’s racing around a track on the other side of the world.
“This puts an enormous amount of pressure onto engineers, machinists, logistics departments and mechanics.
“The extra tension and excitement during this process tends to be the biggest surprise to most new employees from other industries.”
What is the best car you have had a role in designing?
“The obvious one is the 2008 Championship-winning McLaren MP4-23, but the previous years’ car, the MP4-22, was also great.
“This was the car in which Lewis Hamilton started his F1 career and started winning races almost from the outset, before narrowly missing out on the championship in his rookie year.
“But, as many Design Engineers will tell you, the best one will be next years’ car!”
What effect do you think the 2014 engine regulations will have on the racing?
“As the current regulations have been around for some time now, the gap between the front and rear of the grid has narrowed.
“I would imagine these differences will initially increase again with the advent of the new engines and all the complex chassis changes that will have to be incorporated.
“The existing engines are all producing a similar output, but that will change with the new V6 unit and will take some time for the engine suppliers to reach an equilibrium.
“From a spectators point of view I would imagine the noise may be a disappointment compared to V8’s, V10’s & V12’s of the past.”
What advice would you give to young people looking to get into what you do?
“Be very hard working, methodical, punctual and polite.
“Try and get as much hands-on experience as you can, working for nothing at weekends within other race formulae always looks good on a CV.
“Physics, Maths, Technology and English are the preferred A-level options at most good engineering universities.
“Grand Prix teams employ graduates from most forms of engineering including mechanical, aeronautical, electrical, software, product design etc.
“The National Diploma/HND in Motorsport Engineering is another route into F1 – it just depends on how long you wish to study for before you start your career in racing.”
In the next F1 INSIGHT, we’ll be hearing about life on the road as an F1 mechanic.