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I love engineering, don’t get me wrong – Large Hadron Collider, folding wingtips on the new Boeing 777, the Millau Viaduct – but engineers are making a right mess of Formula 1. I see evidence of it every weekend, from over-complicated cars that can’t start a race because a single sensor failed, or finish a race because some other over-complicated part of the ‘power unit’ (engineer-speak for engine) wouldn’t charge the ‘energy store’ (battery) resulting in an irritating ‘issue’ (problem) involving a ‘loss of drive’ (breakdown). Engineer-speak itself is equally annoying, infiltrating every ordinary conversation between otherwise ordinary people. ‘Ooh, it’s raining – must deploy my umbrella.’
But back to engineers. Since Toyota set the trend for £250million-plus annual budgets, F1 teams have had to find more intricate ways to spend money in search of performance. That’s how engineers have been left unrestrained these past ten years, creating a world of unnecessary complexity. Take the humble racing driver. Engineers see drivers not as brave sportspeople prepared to put their life on the line for glory, but more as light bulbs. Screw them into the car, switch them on and watch them do their job. Pre-programmed race strategies are concocted on a laptop and it’s the driver’s job to execute that plan to the thousandth of a second, every lap.
Of course, this hardly ever works out. The weather intervenes, the driver spins, or something breaks and the whole plan goes out the window. Engineers hate it when that happens. I like to imagine them slamming shut their laptops, crossing their arms and shouting over the radio, ‘Oh, just do it yourself, then!’
” Pre-programmed race strategies are concocted on a laptop and it’s the driver’s job to execute that plan to the thousandth of a second, every lap”
Engineers also hate it when the driver has to think for themselves because that renders them dispensable. For instance, when something breaks, the bods on the pit wall usually order the driver to retire the car as he can’t possibly deliver their carefully calculated lap times. But at last year’s Monaco Grand Prix, Daniel Ricciardo had other ideas. His Renault MGU-K (sorry: the motor/generator unit that runs off the engine) short-circuited and burned out, leaving the Australian 160bhp down with overheating rear brakes. Initially, he was given a very gloomy prognosis and space was cleared for his car in the garage. But Ricciardo was able to drive around the power loss, managing the rear brakes, and helped by Monaco’s narrow track positioned his Red Bull so that the chasing Sebastian Vettel couldn’t overtake.
At the end of the race, his engineers did indeed throw their arms up, but it was to salute their driver, who in winning had achieved something computer simulations had predicted was impossible. Not that securing an unlikely Monaco Grand Prix victory against the odds did Ricciardo any favours: he hasn’t been on the podium since and has fallen out of love with Red Bull Racing, perhaps concerned about the reliability of next year’s Honda engines and the subtle favouritism being shown to his young teammate Max Verstappen. So instead Daniel takes his reputation as best overtaker in the business (not to mention good-humoured, low-maintenance, all-round good bloke) off with him to the works Renault team.
The ramifications of Ricciardo’s move are still being felt. Kimi Räikkönen moving back to Sauber for a couple more carefree years in the sun before retirement, with Charles Leclerc taking his pressure-cooker seat at Ferrari. Meanwhile, at McLaren said goodbye to both Fernando Alonso (his choice) and Stoffel Vandoorne (not his choice) and replacing them with Carlos Sainz and Somerset’s Lando Norris, whose name alone practically guarantees him a drive in F1. Norris insists he isn’t named after Lando Calrissian, rather his mum came up with the name. A shame, really, as the task Norris has ahead of him with McLaren makes the final raid on the Death Star look like a kids’ tea party.
Lando’s being compared to Lewis Hamilton, which is unfair, as he won’t have anywhere near the testing and preparation Hamilton had when he entered F1 in 2007. Much less the expectation of a race-winning car: at the moment, the McLaren is very poor, nowhere near challenging for podiums or race wins, never mind making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
Still, at least Norris has patience on his side – by the time he’s got all those rookie mistakes out of his system, McLaren should be back to winning ways. Meanwhile, young Lando, go about your business, do exactly as you’re told and keep any funny ideas of your own to yourself. The engineers will love that.