So, just what did it take to turn around a three hour engine change in two hours? A nod to the Team who got the job done ahead of qualifying in Shanghai.
While there is no good time to have an engine failure during grand prix practice, there is absolutely a bad time. And that time would be on Saturday morning, during FP3. When the car is returned to the garage after the session, the crew has to disassemble the rear end of the car, install new components, assess any damage (a catastrophic failure tends to spread the misery) and get the car back together. Under ideal conditions it’s a job that might be completed across the better part of a day. Today, Daniel Ricciardo’s crew had about two hours.
There was a time when a job like this just wouldn’t have been possible. When the hybrid engines were first introduced in 2014, everyone not involved in the build could go home for the day, safe in the knowledge the task wouldn’t be completed before morning. The timescale dropped pretty rapidly as the teams became familiar with the process. Also, as is true of all components on the car, refinements crept in to make the process easier to accomplish. “The time has certainly come down,” agrees Chris Gent, Daniel’s no.1 mechanic. “The installation is a lot better than it used to be, making it much easier to work on now – but it’s still a massive job.
The first job is ripping it apart and working out what’s happened.
F1 cars aren’t built on a ladder frame chassis. Rather than being dropped into a cradle, the internal combustion engine is a fully-stressed member of the car. To get it out, the whole rear end has to be taken apart, removing the rear wing/rear suspension and gearbox assembly before the engine can be accessed and unbolted from the survival cell. Given the warren of pipework, ducting, cabling and ancilliary systems, it’s not exactly a quick-release operation.
Daniel’s crew had some good fortune in that the trackside marshals were disciplined with their extinguishers. While the risk of fire has to be dealt with properly, watching from the garage, and knowing they’re going to be on the clock, what the crew don’t want to see if a car buried in extinguisher foam.
Based on the palls of white smoke pouring out of the rear bodywork, the crew were able to anticipate an engine change and begin preparing a spare. In the end the decision was taken to change virtually the entire power unit. Counter-intuitively, this is more straightforward that a piecemeal replacement of components. “It’s only the energy store that we didn’t change,” says Gent. “It’s easier to change the complete unit rather than bits – it’s also more sensible because you don’t always know which bits need changing.”
While the rebuild – which also included changing the radiators – is being conducted on Car Three, Car Thirty-Three isn’t standing still. It still has the usual raft of Saturday lunchtime work required – though with an eye on context, Max’s crew hammer through their own programme, and once this is completed, dash across the garage to help out with the fitting of sidepods and top body.
“I’m not sure how many people were around the car but it’s a lot!” says Gent. “Everyone helps, even if it’s just cleaning up. It’s a lot of people in a small area but we’re pretty good at working around each other, and we work very well as a team. We were right on the limit. There wasn’t any spare time for anything. It was touch and go whether we made it or not.”
It’s only the energy store that we didn’t change
While it’s furious activity for the garage crew, things are comparatively quiet for the driver and his engineers, none of whom are able to get into the game without a car to work with.
“The first job is ripping it apart and working out what’s happened – but at that point we’re not really involved in the process,” says Daniel’s race engineer Simon Rennie. “We have to park that, and get our minds into what we’re going to do in qualifying. Essentially, we go our separate ways: the people involved in car build are flat out and we’re staying out of their way.”
CCTV cameras in the garage keep the engineers apprised of the repair work, allowing them to have a rough idea of when – or if – the car will be ready in time to participate in qualifying. “There are milestones in your head,” says Rennie. “I’m sitting in the engineers’ office, glancing at the feed, thinking ‘if the gearbox is on this time, we’ll be OK. Then: OK, the gearbox is on. If the floor’s on at this time, we’ll make it’.”
Rennie confesses that his confidence was not absolute this afternoon. “Normally I’m quite optimistic about these things,” he says. “Genty and his crew do an amazing job and they’ve turned it around so many times from being absolutely nowhere. We’ve been in impossible situations and still got out – but this time my optimism was a bit dulled. Half an hour before the session, I went over to the garage to take a look and the crew were still coming around from the back of the garage with armfuls of pipes and brackets.
“The gearbox got pushed around to the back of the car 15 minutes before the start of qualifying and at that point I was working out the latest time we could fire up and complete a run in Q1. We needed to get going with just under three minutes of the session remaining.”
It was pretty tight, but we probably had another 30 seconds in hand.
In seasons past it would have not been unusual to save time by having the driver clamber up and strap in while the car was still up on stands. That’s suddenly a very difficult proposition: the extra height of the halo means there isn’t much room between it and the lighting rig. The drivers are fit and limber – but contortionists they are not. Hence the driver waits until the car drops, and has to contain himself with pacing or staring.
“Daniel was pretty calm,” says Rennie. “I’d told him to mentally prepare for the possibility that he might only get one shot at it. Ideally I’d have liked to give him at least three laps, five if possible – but as the clock counted down that looked unlikely. He was ready though: very calm and prepared to deliver when it mattered. That said, he was obviously quite keen to get on with it because he had a massive drift coming out of the garage.”
Once the car was down on the deck, fuelled, with oil topped-up and a driver in place, it wasted no time on niceties. The usual finishing touches – taping-up the bodywork panels to smooth the lines – were ignored, and after a couple of fire-ups, Daniel was waved out and down the pitlane, the last driver to get on track, with no time on the board and the clock ticking down inexorably towards the chequered flag.
“It was pretty tight,” says Rennie, “but we probably had another 30 seconds in hand.”
“I didn’t expect to get out – but I was ready to go and excited when I did,” added Daniel in his post-session interview, having eventually qualified P6. “What happened this morning wasn’t the mechanics’ fault but they had all the pressure to put the new engine in the car in time and they did very well. I think they have broken their own record for an engine change several times and they did it again today.”
From the cockpit he’d been more succinct. “I appreciate you guys getting me out. Thank You.”