Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motor sport, but does it have any real world value to the automotive companies involved?AMS talks to Julian Reed, Head of Manufacturing at the ING Renault F1 team
The shape of a 2007 Formula 1 (F1) car suggests that at sometime in the past it shared a common ancestor with the road car: the DNA is more or less the same but it’s very difficult to see the relationship anymore. It’s regularly stated that F1 has become too specialised to have anything in common with the automotive world.
The six carmakers involved in the world championship would beg to differ, arguing that F1 retains its relevancy and adds more to their business model than a marketing buzz alone. Among the strongest supporters of this view is Renault. The French carmaker has repeatedly restated the view that running an F1 operation has a positive impact on its mainstream operation. It enters the 2007 season as defending champion, having achieved a double of doubles, winning driver and constructors’ championships in 2005 and 2006. In both years it has spent significant parts of the season competing against rivals with observably faster cars – but on those occasions when Renault hasn’t enjoyed outright pace, it has had peerless reliability to fall back upon: speed alone doesn’t win many Grands Prix.
The Renault F1 Team is an Anglo-French operation: engine design takes place at Viry-Châtillon, in the southern suburbs of Paris. The rest of the car is designed and constructed in England, at Renault F1 Team’s technical centre near Enstone, Oxfordshire. The first two months of the year are perhaps the busiest in the calendar for the Enstone operation. Renault will build six cars for the 2007 season, the first completed and on test at the end of 2006, the rest in various states of manufacture and shakedown over the winter months.
In years past, winter was the busiest season in the factory with furious activity in January and February, falling away once racing began. Now the slow down is only marginal: developing an F1 car is a continuous, constant process.
A statistic from one of Renault’s main rivals suggests that during the eight months of the racing year, the big teams will implement an engineering change, on average, every thirty minutes.
Julian Reed, Head of Manufacturing for Renault F1 Team at Enstone, is somewhat sceptical about that figure: “If I had to guess, I’d say that by the end of the season, around 20 percent of the current design specification will remain.
Whether or not that constitutes an engineering change every 30 minutes depends on what you class as an engineering change.
There are fault fixes and we do see a high number of updates, particularly at this time of year when the car is new. A better statistic might be that we see performance developments coming through at the rate of three or four a week.”
Seen in a certain light, the factory at Enstone bears a passing resemblance to the operations of many low-medium volume road car manufacturers. Despite its eminence on track, the Renault F1 Team is a frugal operation, well down the order for overall budget. The formal lakes and marble concourses built by some of its rivals are absent. Around 550 people, 200 of whom are tasked to manufacturing operations, work in a modern industrial unit. It has design and admin offices, quality laboratories, a sizeable machine shop and composites fabrication facilities. All that’s missing is a production line.
“We break down our manufacturing into four main arms: machining; composites; fabrication and purchased parts – the latter being very important to us,” says Reed. “The ancillaries are rapid prototyping, sub-assemblies, inspection and then various logistics, stores and production control tasks that make everything work. We’re driven by dates: our main objectives are to meet specific test target dates, race quantities, development parts, and car builds as required by the team.”
F1 holds its place at the pinnacle of motor sport by a relentless determination to maintain a technological lead. In design terms this translates into massive simulation and analysis, with the large teams using the same computing capacity as a major aerospace project – only while the Joint Strike Fighter or Airbus A380 might spread that over a ten-year programme, an F1 team repeats the process every year. It is therefore surprising to see that the manufacturing operation relies on the same tools and techniques as many other high-end industrial processes.
While composites fabrication is a labour intensive operation, the similarities are most obvious in the machine shop. “We have technical partnerships with Charmilles and DMG: Charmilles on the wire and spark eroding, DMG principally on the milling and turning,” says Reed. We might use more exotic material grades but the processes are what you might find elsewhere. 80 per cent of the machines are less than three years old because our business relies on having the fastest, most accurate equipment that we can get.
The faster we work here, the less we have to subcontract. Our suppliers do an excellent job for us, but the demands we place mean they can charge a premium – working in house makes us more cost-competitive.”
F1 is regularly berated, not least by its own governing body, for the scale of the modern teams, and on face value the presence of 200 manufacturing staff might seen overly generous for the production of six cars. In mitigation, however, the production aims of an F1 team are different to those of a carmaker, and indeed different to those of every other motor sports franchise.
“Talking about the number of chassis that we produce is a little misleading,” says Reed. The race team might take three or four chassis with them to an event – but there may be eight and upwards sets of other major assemblies. We might have seven or eight gearboxes, eight sets of rear suspension, six or seven sets of front suspension, eight or more engines; and as I’ve already mentioned, new parts are constantly in development and everything, in reality, is changing every three or four races. The number of components that we make is massive in comparison to the stark number of bare chassis.”
Most of the changes to which Reed alludes are incremental rather than revolutionary: aerodynamic tweaks to body parts, thicker sections on components seeing unacceptable failure rates, thinner sections on components that conversely aren’t failing as expected. “Only very rarely do we see radically different shapes requiring new manufacturing techniques or bespoke FE analysis, and this allows us to be very responsive to change. If the designer understands the properties of the part he is involved with, and we know how to manufacture it, integrating a production change to the car need not be a lengthy operation.”
Changes in the Formula One rules and regulations, designed to reign-in cost and promote closer racing are altering the traditional approach to the process of designing an F1 car.
A freeze on engine development is now in place, and a standard electronics package is shortly to be introduced. Together will the introduction of a control tyre and murmurings about standardised aerodynamic parts, it’s a radical shake-up of the established order, polarising opinion on many different issues. One thing that does seem certain is that the value of a reliable car, always high, is set to gain even more prominence.
A cornerstone of F1 is a test and inspection regime close to absolute: “We 100 per cent inspect everything apart from things like washers; items like that we only sample. Components are liable to pass through inspection several times during the manufacturing process – prior to coating or treatment, for example, then again after that treatment, and finally once again after assembly,” says Reed.
One hundred per cent inspection has become more prevalent in the automotive industry, but only in safety critical applications or areas of specific prominence: volume, cost, speed and the availability of technology preclude against anything more exacting. Instead, carmakers can rely on a healthy prototype evaluation stage and a ramp-up period to identify and expunge faults. F1 operates on a different timescale and volume, and in this it is perhaps more akin to the aerospace industry. The two industries see considerable technology transfer and staff crossover. The sense of this is straightforward: motor sport and aerospace are tasked to produce something as light and as strong as possible, in low volumes and intended for regular, labour-intensive servicing.
They have much in common.
So where does that leave the concept of F1 being relevant to automotive manufacturing? Historically F1 has been able to point to the wealth of innovation that has developed in the sport and eventually trickled down into road car use: everything from anti-lock braking to paddle-shift gearboxes;
Renault itself was instrumental in the 1970s development of effective turbo-chargers. But with F1 now operating as a highly specialised business, that flow has dried up. F1 teams have invented resins that, when cured, allow a carbon-fibre panel to take paint better, allowing supercar manufacturers the option of offering a class A paint surface warranty, but beneath the skin there is little transfer.
That the link between track and road is alive and well, therefore, comes as something of a surprise, but it depends on what you perceive as being a relationship. F1 can’t offer component technology to its automotive relatives anymore, but the skills base of an organisation that excels at reduced lead times has become a valuable commodity in its own right.
“Renault Group certainly looks at our processes as much as our technology,” concedes Reed. “We have 15 people here from Renault Group, on average for a two to three year secondment. “They are here both to impart experience and to gain knowledge from us – it is very much a two way street – and they tend to be involved in the more long-term development. We have specialists from group involved in CFD analysis, FEA structural analysis – NVH for example – and many other aspects of the operation. And far from being a minor issue, the collaboration is very much at the forefront of the concept of Renault being in F1.
“The road car programmes benefit from what we do. Possibly we don’t yet have much of an impact on production models, but Renault makes over 700 prototype cars a year, and in recent history the speed with which these can be made has a direct bearing on time-to-market. We have skills in this area and passing that knowledge along to the group is obviously useful. Part of this is our experience in managing the flow of information. At this time of year we like to manage our production control operation on a minute-by-minute basis but primarily it’s the F1 operation’s ability to manufacture with very short lead times. While a gearbox might require several months’ lead, less complex items we are expected to turn around in a matter of hours.
“For example, we’re expert in the use of rapid prototyping, and have a collaborative agreement with 3D Systems to that end. The majority of use is in the wind tunnel but we also make patterns to be used to create the shell for investment casting. RP parts also run on the car, and their usage on track is increasing every year. At the moment this is limited, but as technology changes and resins get stronger, that usage will increase.
“If you go back a decade, work in F1 was seasonal, with a busy winter and perhaps a quieter summer. That has evolved, particularly since teams have commissioned their own wind tunnels – our own is running 24/7 – and because the pace of development is pretty constant, there is never really an opportunity to back off. However, we are still busiest between October and February when the new season’s car is in development. The longer we can give the designers the better the design is going to be, and so we therefore compress manufacturing times. With Renault Group taking away our techniques in this area, inevitably it will allow them to speed up their own development.”