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Inside Lotus, Interviews, Issue 44 - Spring 2012

James Allison: Technical Director of Lotus F1 Team

Based at Enstone in Oxfordshire, the Lotus Formula 1 team is competing in the 2012 season for the first time under the Lotus name (Group Lotus is now its chief sponsor; it was previously racing under the Renault name). The team’s Technical Director, James Allison, talked to Dave Leggett .

James Allison

DL: As the F1 season approaches, there is obviously much to do to ready the team and cars. As the technical director, can you describe how the pre-season preparation schedule works and what the priorities are?

JA: From a technical director’s point of view there shouldn’t be too much that changes as a result of the season approaching. The team has a very strong group of people and the different functions are covered by the different managers and resources in the different areas.

For example, on the production side, there is a small army of people putting about a 1,000 works orders a week through the system in order to try and get everything ready on time – this work looks after itself without much of my involvement.

In a similar vein, our Race Engineers are busy preparing for the new season, making baseline set-ups and preparing analysis sheets….it’s all happening because the team is divided up into functional groups that know their business and are doing it.

My usefulness in this period is not really anything special. I guess there’s an opportunity for me to get involved when something unusual or unexpected happens. For example, there was the problem that we had in the second winter test when we had an issue with our chassis. That involved me greatly because that was definitely something steering us towards the rocks and I needed to make sure we were taking all the right steps to make sure we were okay.

But the kinds of things I’m interested in, as technical director, tend to be on longer time horizons.

DL: So how do you see the role of the technical director and how it fits with the team objectives?

JA: Every team will tend to be different but I’ll give you my view of it.

A lot of people ask me this question and I find myself trying to describe what is an utterly thrilling job with words that maybe make it sound boring! When you take away all the thrill and fun of what I do, you’re left with an engineering management job and when you start describing the constituent parts of that, it doesn’t sound like much fun, but you’ll have to believe me that it is.

The technical director has to create and maintain a technical environment where the team is capable of building and running championship winning cars. And this has to be done in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone along the way.

So the technical director attempts to create the environment where the combined efforts of hundreds of engineers can bring us success.  It’s fairly mundane at one level: I have to make sure that we have the right calibre of staff in the right posts so that the smaller groups of devolved engineers in particular areas of responsibility – transmission, composite design, mechanical design… – are capable of getting the job done.

I have to decide how to allocate resource – that’s very important. For example, how much do we place in the current racing car compared with how much we are investing in next year’s car and indeed, with the challenge of 2014 coming up [a very substantial change to the regulations], how much effort do we put in now to ensure that we are starting to be ready for what will be a very different Formula 1 in two years’ time?

The technical director has to make other resource decisions such as: what should our balance of effort be in terms of designing the product, compared with how much effort should we make on improving the manner in which we go about designing the car? If we put all of our effort into the former, then we extract all of the creative skill of our designers into the car, but we run the risk of our design process getting stuck in a rut. A certain amount of effort needs to be devoted to improving the manner in which the work is approached.

And how much do you put into real blue sky stuff that may not pay-off but if you don’t have a portfolio of different projects, you are likely to fall back with respect to a more enlightened team.

So resource allocation is key.

And I have to control budgets. We are lucky to be generously resourced but you have to make sure you are spending that in a wise way and not exceeding budgets.

Another key part of the job is retaining a relationship with the governing body of the sport. All the technical directors of the respective teams contribute to the formulation of regulations through the technical working groups that meet with the governing body. That’s a vital investment in the future of the sport.

And we have to make sure that we are getting the most out of the current set of regulations so that our team has understood precisely where the boundary line is between what is and what is not permitted. Generally speaking, what isn’t permitted is higher performance than what is, so you need to run right up to the boundary and understand where the loopholes are, where grey areas are and stay the right side of that line.

Management of technical risk is something else that I have to look at. In every year there are aspects of the car that are more or less the same, from a design point of view, as the year before, but there are also aspects that – if not a step into the unknown – do constitute a new development or new method of designing a part or realising a part. Every time you do something you haven’t done before, there is an element of technical risk. The technical director decides how much we can bite off and chew and has to be responsible for putting in place programmes that mitigate that risk in case it doesn’t pay off for us.

DL: To pick up on the thrills, what do you find thrilling about the job?

JA: I find lots of aspects of it thrilling. I have been in Formula 1 for over twenty years now and in whatever position I have occupied, I have always found it exhilarating that the sport affords the most direct and immediate feedback about the quality of your work. What the team designs ends up being realised on the car in a very short timescale and then it gets measured in a completely inescapable fashion. There’s no doubting who’s done the best job because there is a very, very clear way of establishing that and that’s taking a car and putting it on a track and seeing who is fastest. That is utterly thrilling.

The other part of it that has always been fun,and this fun has only increased as I have been given added responsibility, is that Formula 1 is all about teamwork. Anyone working in the sport has a very strong sense that they are part of a team that is all focused on one goal. In the best teams that feeling is very strong. It is a great feeling to be part of a group activity where everyone has put a lot of themselves into a project, where everyone cares a lot about it, where they know that not only their own wealth and the well-being of their families depends on it, but also that their sense of professional achievement is utterly dependent on how quick an exquisitely assembled bit of carbon-fibre, rubber and metal goes around the track.

Sharing that experience with the team is thrilling and to be fortunate enough to try to lead the technical team and motivate the technical team, in this environment, is extremely rewarding. When stuff goes well you feel like king of the world. It’s a great feeling and it’s very direct and very immediate when it’s going well.

DL: And I guess, as well as the highs, there can be big lows as well…

JA: Yes, that’s the downside. It’s completely crushing…

But we work in a business that is also a sport. I think we probably share a small amount of what elite sportsmen feel. The joy of the success is so overwhelming that it actually makes the lows associated with failure manageable. Those who have been fortunate enough in F1 to have sampled winning know how sweet it is and it is the lure of success that allows you to ride out the inevitable disappointments.

DL: And there must be very tight schedules to work to, hard deadlines to meet. Is that stressful?

JA: Yes, it is. Going into that first race or first test, it’s not a question of whether you are going to get there in time or not. If you are two or three days late there’s nothing left, there race has been and gone without you. You have to get things done on time or the company is finished. The pressure that comes with that is both thrilling and stressful in equal measure.

DL: As far as the new E20 car is concerned, it sounded like there was some intensive work required back at HQ to get the chassis ready in time after some unforeseen suspension problems arose when testing. How did the problems become apparent and how quickly did you determine the best way to approach it?

JA: The problems became apparent in the most unsatisfactory way, which was out on the track with the finished product failing in its designed working environment. That’s not something that we are remotely proud of. It should never happen and we should have seen that the design that we put together was not up to scratch before committing it to manufacture.

The design we produced for the anchor point of one of the legs of the front suspension to the chassis was capable of withstanding the design loads under ideal conditions. Indeed on our first chassis it tested for 1,800 kilometres with no problems. However, in the detail of that joint were undesirable features that meant the strength of the joint could not be guaranteed – when we ran our second chassis the joint failed almost immediately. Really you want a design that is comfortably strong enough, (ie the basic design has a good safety factor) and that every single item you make enjoys the same safety factor.

Having understood the shortcoming of the original design it was a question then of ensuring that we could redesign the anchor as quickly as possible in order to get the car back and up and running for the final winter test. We knew that having suffered the failure on the first day of the middle test that we were not going to be able to put that right inside the four days of that test, but that we had a fighting chance of putting it right for the final test a week later and that’s what we did.

DL: And that required going back to the drawing board…

JA: It required taking the unsatisfactory aspects of that joint design out and replacing them with a different detail that was inherently stronger, but most importantly, if you made ten of them they would all fail at the same load and that load would come with a comfortable safety factor.

DL: Landing 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen as a driver for this season was quite a coup. What do you think attracted him to Lotus and how important do you think his experience and racing style will be to the team’s prospects this year?

JA: Yes, I agree that is quite a coup to have a driver of his class join us. It is very important for a team to have a top notch driver line-up. Look at any of the teams that succeed over the years and it’s very rare that you get a great driver and a crap car or a great car and a crap driver. You have got to try and get a great car and a great driver together. So it is very good news for us.

You’d probably have to ask him yourself what attracted him. I can give you my opinion of the kinds of things that are attractive about us.

While we don’t – yet – have the technical resources and depth of some of the bigger teams ahead of us on the grid, we do have a very impressive facility here at Enstone. We have strength in depth on the engineering front which is more than capable of developing into a team that can genuinely have a claim on winning a drivers’ and constructors’ championship. We have owners committed to the long-term and investing in the team to make sure that we are able to operate at the absolute highest level. And we have serious intent with a campaign in which we intend to push ourselves forward, year-on-year, to make sure that we are capable of winning a championship in 2-3 seasons from now.

And all of those intentions are absolutely resolute here at Enstone, in the ownership of the team and amongst the employees and I hope some of that resolution was attractive to Kimi when he decided to join us.

DL: And I guess you are looking for various things, qualities, from the driver?

JA: Yes, you want a few things from a driver. The single most important thing you want is a guy who is fast and consistently fast. Even if he never opened his mouth, never said a word, that gives you a baseline from which to assess everything.

If the guy is a random number generator because he can sometimes go fast, sometimes not, you don’t know whether it’s the driver or the car and you don’t know where to attack the problems. All the great drivers remove that whole area of doubt from the engineering side. You know when he gets in the car he’s going to wring whatever lap time is possible from that car and if it’s not fast enough, it’s because the car is not fast enough. If, for example, tyre wear is too high, it’s because it’s eating the tyres too quickly, it’s not the driver…you want that consistent baseline.

If the driver is also articulate and capable of explaining to you what it is he feels is a limitation on the car, then that’s a very valuable bonus. With Kimi we are fortunate to have both of those things. He is very clear and very articulate in focusing on the things that we need to do. You don’t want a carpet bomb of random noise from the driver, but a clear set of ‘do this, do this, do that…’, that’s very helpful.

And finally, when you have a very experienced, proven driver and you have a young, fast and raw driver, the benefit to the young, fast, raw guy in having the proven guy to work with and learn from is massive. The access to the data of the other car and the approach that the other car is taking through the weekend is completely and transparently visible to the newcomer. That helps the young driver ratchet themselves up the learning curve more rapidly.

DL: How important is driver feedback versus what the electronic sensors and telemetrics tell you? For example, are there times when you have to trust the driver’s judgement when the data is apparently in conflict with the driver’s assessment?

JA: There’s very rarely a conflict between the two because the data is excellent for certain things and lousy for others.

The driver, for example, can’t tell you how hot the radiator is or whether he has overheating tyres. Some things lend themselves to objective measurement very easily. Data is terrific for that type of thing. Data can be good for seeing when the driver is over-revving or making small errors in the way he is using certain systems in the car. The drivers don’t fight against that; they regard that as a helpful thing because it is data they can’t gather any other way.

But data doesn’t have much to say about the handling of the car. You could generate a channel that tells you whether the car is understeering or oversteering and that’s a mathematical channel, but it doesn’t tell you what an acceptable level of understeer might be. That is very much a driver preference and different drivers can tolerate different levels of understeer, or at different points of the race or track. You need to rely on the driver on what’s acceptable and once you have that threshold of acceptability established, then you can use the data to judge whether you are delivering what the driver wants. But you need that input from the driver.

Where handling is concerned, data is not helpful in giving you absolute values, but it can provide guidance once the driver has provided a baseline on how to interpret the data.

DL: From a technical point of view, what do you see as the major strengths for the Lotus team?

JA: We have good facilities here. Any engineer looking around our factory would conclude that we have enough kit here to get the job done. In almost every area of our engineering enterprise we have people of the necessary calibre and experience in order to compete for championship honours.

You might say, well why aren’t you then? The reason is that Formula 1 is ever such a punishing sport and it is no good having nearly everything right, you have to have everything right. The job for our team over the next year or two is to ruthlessly track down the bits that we believe are below par and eliminate them. So we’re not just content with the 95% of our factory that is championship performing level, but so we can look at this company and say that every bit of it is where it needs to be..

Everything I have just said is generic to any F1 team.

But, specifically to Enstone, I believe that there are aspects of our team that are very special. Many people who have worked here over the years would all agree that it has always been a team with very few internal politics. It is also a very open team, too. I have worked in a few places and most of them keep certain sections of the team silo-ed from one another as a means of protecting themselves because such a structure ensures that no individual knows that much about the whole team. We have always taken a different approach and we feel that people will feel more a part of the team if the team is open. So we take a calculated risk in involving everybody in our plans and our objectives, so that people know what’s going on. That has always led to a very convivial atmosphere with everyone feeling a part of the team.

I have worked here two or three times in my career at different levels of seniority. Even though it is an entirely different group of people now to when I first joined twenty years ago, the underlying culture of the team – an open, friendly approach – has stayed constant and it’s quite special.

DL: And how many people are there?

JA: It changes constantly, but it is somewhere in the region of 520.

DL: What are the biggest challenges that the team faces, technically?

JA: The general technical challenges are constant, but in particular 2014 is bearing down on us in a hideous fashion – there’s so much to do and so little time.

But all of it would be easy if no-one else were competing with you. The slowest car on the grid is an awesome bit of kit and an incredibly fast car with some super engineering on it. The challenge is that you have to work in this dynamic environment competing directly with another 500 or 600 people in another factory twenty miles down the road who are just as dedicated and just as obsessed with it as you are and who are doing their level best to ensure that they screw you – not in a Machiavellian way, but by putting a car on the road that beats you.

That’s the nature of the challenge. If you stop running at full pelt even for a few days, someone else will pull out a tenth of a second on you. There’s a completely inexorable pressure knowing that all your competitors are relentless and you have to be relentless plus if you are going to beat them.

It’s only the fact that you are competing with these other buggers that makes it hard.

DL: What is actually happening in 2014?

JA: At the moment we have a 2.4-litre V8 and unrestricted fuel – in terms of quantity. You can put as much in your fuel tank as you want to. The current rules only permit a very light hybrid motor – 60 kw – that can be used for around 7seconds per lap.

The future environment is a smaller engine V6 which is heavily turbocharged (the current engines are normally aspirated) and with heavy hybrid 120 kw electric motor. In addition, there is a further sizeable electric motor/generator coupled to the compressor and turbocharger. Any excess heat energy over and above that needed to compress the inlet charge can be vectored by the coupled motor/generator either to provide extra drive to the car or to be stored in an on-board battery for later use. Conversely if you have a dearth of energy available in the exhaust at a given moment and you need to get the turbo spinning faster, then you can vector energy out of the battery via the coupled motor/generator.

This all combines to produce an engine of very similar performance to today’s but with about 30% less fuel consumption. Furthermore the 2014 rules require that we use a maximum quantity of fuel during the race, with that limit being progressively reduced each year so that we are forced to make the engines more efficient over time. The imperative for the teams will be not to allow the power to drop, even though the fuel used is dropping.

So the idea is that the rules force the sport to become more efficiency driven rather than appearing wasteful in its use of energy.

DL: Do you use 3-D printing in the manufacturing of parts?

JA: Oh yes, we use that quite a bit and we have been for almost a decade now. Aerodynamics departments in Formula 1 couldn’t exist without that technology and it has changed the economics of manufacturing in our business.

James Allison

James Allison

After graduating from Cambridge, James put his engineering skills to immediate use in Formula One by joining the aero department of Benetton in 1991. A couple of years later he moved to Larrousse as Head of Aerodynamics before returning to Enstone for a second time with Benetton, this time as Head of Aerodynamics in the mid-1990s.

A five-year spell with Ferrari began in 2000 as James oversaw trackside aerodynamic operations during the most successful time in the Scuderia’s history.

In 2005 James returned to Enstone to join the Renault F1 Team in the role of Deputy Technical Director as the team won back-to-back drivers’ and constructors’ world championships.

In 2009 James moved to his current role as Technical Director.

Author: just-auto's Dave Leggett

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Lotus proActive is an e-magazine published quarterly by Lotus Engineering, covering engineering articles, industry news and articles from within Group Lotus (Cars, Engineering, Originals and Racing).

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