VIRY CHATILLON (France): At a quiet airport west of Paris every Wednesday morning, they board a plush eight-seat Piper Cheyenne III propeller aircraft for an hour-long flight across the Channel. Most of them look like managers in a multi-national company on a trip to discuss global product strategy – and in a way, they are.
But as specialists in aerodynamics, electronics, carbon composite materials, stereolithography and the other esoteric disciplines involved in making the world’s most technologically advanced racing cars, the goal of their company, the Renault Formula One team, is simply to win races.
Although spectators of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, this Sunday will see 20 apparently identical cars – beneath the different sponsor’s colours – the means and effort put into building those cars by each of the sport’s 10 teams is entirely individual, and with the involvement of seven of the world’s major car manufacturers, knows relatively few limits.
Renault’s weekly air shuttle from Paris to Oxford is part of the team’s effort to draw together its people from its engine plant at Viry Chatillon, its Technocentre near Versailles and its chassis factory in Enstone, in the Silicon Valley of world motor racing.
The competition is so strong, however, that despite Renault’s staff of around 700 – 300 in France and 400 in England – and the resources of its parent company, which has detached 19 experts mostly from the Technocentre design shop, the team has still not won a race since it took over the Benetton team in 2000.
Yet after the first three races, Renault’s efforts at consolidation and its choice to follow a new testing rule have made the team one of the biggest surprises of the season.
Both of their drivers, Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli, have finished in the points in each race lifting the team to second in the series, 16 points behind McLaren-Mercedes and 13 points ahead of Ferrari and BMW-Williams. Alonso, at 21, became the youngest driver to score a pole position, at the second race, in Malaysia.
“The success of this year’s car is down to the integration of the engine with the chassis,” said Flavio Briatore, the team’s flamboyant Italian director, who guided Benetton to world titles with Michael Schumacher in 1994 and 1995. The engine integration is a result of the effort by the team to improve communication, which Pat Symonds, the director of engineering, calls essential to success.
As an engine manufacturer, Renault powered the Benetton and Williams teams to six world constructors’ titles in the 1990s. It is now trying to succeed where it failed in the 1980s, making both engine and chassis. The team finished seventh in 2001, still as Benetton, but using an innovative 110-degree-angle V10 Renault engine. Last year, as Renault, it finished fourth.
Operating a racing team from two factories in different countries is a balancing act at best. At worst, it leads to irreconcilable communications problems, as Ferrari found when its design office was based in England in the early 1990s.
Although Renault’s new engine was considered revolutionary for its wide angle and other internal functions, it had reliability problems and vibrated too much. This season, Briatore was appointed head not only of the chassis factory, but also the engine operation in Viry Chatillon.
“Because we are now 100% Renault, there are no more secrets,” said Briatore. “This was one of the big issues between the engine supplier-chassis supplier relationship. Everybody wanted to keep little secrets in their pockets, and sometimes it damaged performance.”
Briatore said that although videoconferencing and e-mail help, they have limits. “If you overuse e-mail, like a lot of people, especially engineers, it is very dangerous because you no longer have contact between people,” he said.
The open floor plan of both factories is also designed to increase communication between engineers, according to Luca Mazzocco, a marketing account manager who gives tours at Enstone to the press and sponsors.
Built into a former open-pit mine, the Enstone factory is a state-of-the-art facility similar to others in the sport where each team is required to build its own cars. Unlike some teams, however, Renault practically refuses to subcontract at all. Even the elaborate exhaust pipes, which look and sound like a saxophone tied in a knot, are handmade.
Mazzocco said that is one of the last of the traditional car manufacturing processes used by the team. For today’s F1 cars are built from carbon fibre cloth that is pressure-cooked over moulds in giant autoclave ovens. The parts are tested in the team’s wind tunnel – 24 hours a day, six days a week. Test parts are made by four stereolithography machines, a kind of three-dimensional computer printer that builds components out of plastic resin. These are fed by the computers of the more than 70 researchers of the aerodynamics department.
The factory in Viry Chatillon, which is devoted to making the 800-horsepower engines, has several soundproof workbench rooms, resembling videogame arcades, where technicians “drive” the engine virtually around the racetracks before each race.
They may be qualified engineers and technicians, but they also agree that they are also frustrated racing car drivers getting their kicks as the engine re-enacts computer-memorised revs and gear changes made during previous races around the tracks.
Briatore is not a frustrated racing car driver. Before starting in F1 at Benetton in 1989, he set up a network of Benetton stores in the United States. He has worked as a ski instructor and in the restaurant business.
“I’m not the engineer, I’m the manager. I make decisions,” he said. “Producing engines, producing cars or producing chocolate is the same. You produce a product as efficiently as possible and to have the best product as possible, whatever it is.”
Briatore and Symonds have made some prescient decisions this year. Under new rules teams can receive extra testing time on the Friday morning of a race weekend if they test less between races. Renault is the highest-placed team to have taken up the offer.
This has allowed Alonso, in only his second year in the sport, more time to learn the tracks. It has also helped the team adapt the car better to the track for the race than their stronger competitors.
With competition like Toyota, BMW, Ford, Honda and Ferrari, the team is well aware that it is not the only one with the resources needed to win. The secret, says Symonds, is in the mix.
“You can have huge facilities, you can have a thousand people, but if you don’t get everything going in the same direction it’s never going to work,” Symonds said. “It’s like a chef making a great dish. Someone can go out and do the shopping for him. But if he can’t cook, it ain’t worth eating.” – IHT