How high-tech F1 changed the role of racing engineer

In Formula 1, a racing engineer was used to taking a driver’s feedback and translating it to modify the car. But now, this role has become very complex. It requires a person not only to take care of the piloting aspect, but to be at the top of a communication chain that includes the pit wall, the garage and the remote factory to offer real-time analysis. To put it simply, a race engineer is now an interface fed by live data to the driver.

The recent weather-affected Grands Prix in Russia and Turkey, where race engineers and drivers had crucial decisions to make, highlighted the importance of the relationship between the drivers and the pit wall. It was the perfect proof that the engineer now has to channel all the extra information that comes his way, whether it comes from the pilot like strategists, weather experts and data analysts in the garage or at the factory.

The radio messages we hear are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the successes and failures of the pilot-engineer relationship. Indeed, it is not a question of a one-way street where the engineer takes into account the information of the pilots to better adjust the car. From now on, it is a constant dialogue and its role is to be the backbone of a successful weekend at all times. For Laurent Mekies, competition director at Ferrari and previously worked with Arrows, Minardi, Toro Rosso and the FIA, the work of a race engineer is much more proactive today than it was ten years ago.

Laurent Mekies, Racing Director, Ferrari, in the Team Principals Press Conference

« The biggest evolution of this role has been the coaching of the pilot », he explains to “Fifteen or twenty years ago, a track engineer could hardly give driving advice like he can do today, because there was no real time data available like now. Formula 1 has a lot The level of analysis and estimation in real time now gives us a much deeper knowledge of the tires. We can also read a lot more parameters in real time and overall there are more sensors on the car. This allows us to interpret the data we are receiving from the car in real time and get information which is then transmitted to the driver. « 

The growth of the teams and the positioning of the race engineer as a funnel through which all the information feeding the driver passes from many external parties means that communication is king. Messing up this process and letting wrong information get into the system can make all the difference between a potential great result and a complete failure. The growing complications of this expanded role make good communication training a prerequisite, as does ongoing performance analysis.

« Each team has its own type of communication procedure, which goes beyond the ability of a single engineer », specifies Laurent Mekies. « We do tests and there is specific training. After the race weekends, we listen and analyze again both the communications that we hear over the radio between the engineer and the pilot, and those which take place in the internal chain of communication. If we take the example of Sochi, this information included the weather forecast, the condition of the tires of all the drivers on the track, the car and the lap pace of the opponents, and all the data read in real time. It is a chain of command combined with communication protocols, exchanges and decisions that go through the remote garage, the garage on the circuit, the pit wall and, finally, the pilot. We need time for discussion, decision and communication. « 

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG, and colleagues on the pitwall

There is, however, one aspect that must be tailored to each individual’s preference: what the pilot likes and wants to hear. Each racing engineer ends up developing their own approach to fulfilling their role, trying to marry the flow of information with the character of whoever is in the cockpit.

« Not all pilots want the same amount of information », confirms Laurent Mekies. « Not all want them at the same time or in the same way. There are riders who want to be motivated, others who prefer to be left alone. There are riders who constantly ask for the times, and this information serves as a point of reference. But there are others who prefer a quieter approach, with minimal communications. The relationship between engineer and pilot is fundamental and it is necessary to understand the correct approach. to put the pilot in the best conditions. The way of communicating, like the tone, must be understood in context. Sometimes an exchange that seems more excited targets the personality of the pilot and brings what he needs in the best possible way . « 

Just as the drivers are under pressure to do what is expected of them on the track without making a mistake, the margin of tolerance is reduced as to what can go wrong from the pit wall. The job of a racing engineer is not easy. « This is not a role for the faint of heart », slice Laurent Mekies. « The challenge is to make fewer mistakes than everyone else because everyone else does. »

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