Sky Sports F1 Exclusive: Pat Symonds Q&A
Chewing the fat with Marussia's Technical Director on the challenge at the back of the grid, F1's changing fortunes, and making progress...
By Mike Wise. Last Updated: 30/04/13 9:41am
Formerly a title winner with Benetton and Renault, Pat Symonds tells Sky Sports Online about the very different challenge he faces as Marussia's Technical Director.
Development always seems a difficult balancing act for teams: when to keep pushing and when to look ahead to next year? It's a decision that will prove even more crucial this season owing to the fundamental rule changes that come into effect for 2014.
But if managing resources in order to maximise results is a headache for the top teams, the pain is worse for those outfits without deep pockets. For a team like Marussia, struggling financially and perennially bottom of the pile, it's particularly acute. What they don't lack for, however, is experience.
This season sees Pat Symonds' return to a hands-on role as Marussia's Technical Director and, if early results are anything to go by, the presence of the former Toleman/Benetton/Renault man is already having a positive effect.
But can they maintain such progress? Indeed, can Marussia simply maintain their presence on the grid? Here, Symonds discusses the challenges they face and, having won titles with Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, explains how life is different at the back of the grid.
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Some background information first, Pat: when did you first become involved with Marussia?
PS: "I first got involved with them in February 2011, but it was a very low key consultancy job. They wanted me to have a look at the operation and make some recommendations, so it was a two-day-a-week job that I was doing along with a number of other things."
What did you recommend?
"The real fundamentals were that the team needed to relocate down into 'Motosport Valley'. But above all, they needed to be in charge of their own destiny. I found the whole thing of having a Technical Director of a team (Nick Wirth) who was also the owner of the prime contractor to the team a very odd state of affairs, so I suggested we do things a little bit differently.
Marussia parted ways with Wirth Research soon after. Uniquely among F1 teams, they had previously adopted a design and development approach that relied wholly on CFD technology, rather than combine it with the use of a wind tunnel.
"I formulated a plan that culminated in the building of the 2013 car. I think everyone liked the plan, so then they asked me if I'd execute it, which hadn't really been on my radar. But I must admit I liked the people, I liked the outfit and I thought, 'This is a lot more fun than my last few years with a big team'. I was trying to semi-retire; I didn't want to get back into working seven days a week, but 18 months I can do.
"I then made a sort of fill-in plan to get the team a 2012 car while I worked on 2013. That was going to involve working with Wirth Research; I wouldn't say it was a question of blame or fault but that fell apart. So at Monaco in 2011 we decided to accelerate the plan and instead of doing the 2013 plan, we'd also do the 2012 car. So the 18-month plan actually became a 37-day plan! Thirty seven days after that, on July 4th 2011, we took over the factory in Banbury.
"The whole engineering philosophy changed, with the reliance on CFD. The emphasis shifted, although we still rely on CFD a lot. But there was the partnership with McLaren and the use of their wind tunnel...things like this. It really was a new beginning and in my mind that was the start of the team."
Obviously you've have world title-winning success at your former team under both the Benetton and Renault guises. How does being a Technical Director at Marussia differ?
PS: "It's interestingly different. At Renault, it was all about keeping a good operation running smoothly. There were plenty of very good, experienced people there; a lot them had worked there for a long while and knew how to work together. It was also a well-equipped facility. In short, everything you needed to run a Formula 1 team was there."
You were there pretty much from day one, weren't you?
PS: "I actually joined the nucleus of the team on January 2nd 1981, so I saw it through Toleman, Benetton and Renault.
"I think what we have at Marussia is really like how the teams were, in terms of numbers, in the early 1990s. It's going back to that level where you can't simply think, 'I want to do this, Fred. Can you do it?' Because Fred doesn't exist - Fred's busy doing something else. So you either do it yourself or park it and think of it as part of your long-term plan.
"But it's not exactly the same, because we're still expected to do the job the big teams do. Back in the early 90s you could have a team of 200 people and you designed as much of the car scientifically as you could. And what you couldn't, you didn't. Whereas now, you have to do a much more thorough job because you're up against some formidable opposition. Back in the early 90s, cars used to break down a lot. That's not acceptable anymore; we just can't have those sorts of things happening.
"So it's not the same as it was but a lot of the spirit's there. And what's really attracted me is the ability to mould it in the way you really want it moulded. Renault were and are a superb team, but with the luxury of time to think you definitely realise there are things you can do better. It was very nice to have a very clean sheet of paper and be able to improve on some of those things. It's gratifying that people have come to work for us who worked at other teams. I think they like the way we work and how we do things as a business."
How far can Marussia go? Because they seem to be wearing a financial straitjacket - if that's not too strong a description...
PS: "If anything, I don't think it's a strong enough description - it's really tough in Formula 1 at the moment. The fact is, outside the top four teams everyone has some financial concerns. And even in the top four you've got Mercedes who, while they haven't financial concerns, there must be other concerns there - that they don't go the way of Honda and Toyota.
"So everyone's worried. But the difference between the haves and the have nots is just immense - and it's not getting any better. Under the last Concorde Agreement the new teams including Marussia did get some payout from FOM; it wasn't a lot of money but it was a significant part of our budget, because our budget was so small. And when you take away things like that, it really hurts.
"I said that I really like the people here. They're racers - (Team Principal) John (Booth) and (President) Graeme (Lowdon) particularly, they're in the Frank Williams mould. They're not going to let this team go. So we will survive and the great thing about us is that we're small, so if things get tough one day we can pull our horns in a little bit. And if we get more money we'll use it wisely, because we're used to not having much money.
"I think that's reflected in our development last year. If you compare qualifying times in Malaysia between 2013 and 2012, Lotus and Force India both used softer tyres in 2013 than they did in 2012 but, excepting that, most people had improved by about 0.75 per cent. Marussia were 2.5 per cent quicker. Things like that make you think: 'We're going places.'"
The look of experience: Symonds' arrival has coincided with Marussia making a competitive start to the 2013 season
But isn't that down to Marussia having KERS this year?
PS: "That's part of it, but it's certainly not enough to explain that. It's down to a few other things on the car as well."
So what are the team's targets for this season?
PS: "I always like to set targets that are higher than we might realistically achieve. The obvious target is tenth in the Championship but I don't find that a terribly exciting target, I'd like to target higher than that. I'd love to get into Q2; obviously I'd love to score a point. But more than anything, I want people to look at the team and respect the team - and I think that's started. I'd be happy to take our car and park it in any garage up the pitlane. The quality of our car is good.
"I know people in just about every garage and they do look at the car and say, 'That's a nicely designed and well-engineered car'. That gives me a lot of gratification. You get that respect from continually improving; points can't be that far away.Might you score points this year?
PS: "It would be very hard to imagine we'll get points. The engine rule change next year might equalise things a little bit but I don't know. Let's see."
Let's talk about drivers. You've worked with some of the greats but because of Marussia's financial constraints, you're now working with two rookies. Is that lack of experience a hindrance?
PS: "It's not ideal. It's lovely if you can work with the great drivers because they're such a pleasure to work with. But, more than anything, what I wanted to see was continuity and, in Timo (Glock), I felt we had a guy who was contributing an awful lot to the team. I knew we were going to make some good steps forward in 2013 and I would love to have had him as a benchmark, to see how we'd done.
"We couldn't do it - it was a commercial decision - and I'll say to anyone that listens that not only is Timo a great guy for the team but also such a nice guy, just the way he took the whole thing was really, really superb. So I was really concerned: we'd had a lot of changes and two rookies. But it's not just that: a lot of our guys at the team are quite young, so it's all quite difficult.
"But I can't say I'm disappointed. Jules (Bianchi) has had some exceptional showings in the first couple of races. Max (Chilton) has all but matched him in testing and everything when the conditions have been right, so I don't have any concerns about Max's speed either. I know the press are focused on Jules but Max is doing a good job as well. In actual fact, because we've given them a better car this year it's not been as much of a problem as I thought it might be."
Is it pleasurable in other ways, like seeing a young driver develop and gain confidence?
PS: "Oh absolutely. I've seen a lot of them come along...and now I see their sons as well!"
Those were the days: Pat Symonds and Ross Brawn during their time together at Benetton
On to next year now, when major rule changes come into effect - changes that don't come cheap by the sounds of it. As an engineer, you must find such changes very stimulating but you're also a responsible senior member of a team with financial constraints. How do you reconcile the two aspects?
PS: "I probably switch sides. When we were first talking about this prior to my leaving Renault, I was firmly in the camp of believing it was the right thing to do. I'm very conscious that if you don't anticipate public reaction then it's too late - you can't react to a reaction. Personally, I'm a climate change sceptic but I don't think that matters. The fact is that most people are not and I was very concerned that one day people would turn on motorsport. It's the fur coat syndrome: you can't wear a fur coat these days and time will come when you can't use copious amounts of fuel. I applauded the FIA in that they anticipated the problem and I think they took a very pragmatic approach to it. The whole thing of recovering energy from heat as well as kinetic energy is a great idea and something we really will lead on and develop a lot of new stuff.
"But the engines are going to be expensive. The new teams came in with the Cosworth engines - I know a lot about what engines cost from my time at Renault but I don't understand how Cosworth do what they do for the money, they do an absolutely fantastic job. We're going from one extreme to another. Caterham are probably paying a lot more for their engine and KERS than we are and still have to take a hike up for the 2014 engines. But for us, it's a very, very significant fraction of our budget.
"On top of that, it's the workload - it's immense. It's immense for the big teams and even harder for us. And, like it or not, we've got to finish development work on the MR02 in a few weeks' time. We don't use tunnels continuously - we do two weeks in, two weeks out - but in a few weeks we stop the 2013 stuff and it's full on to 2014, because we just haven't enough people to leave the design of the car late. And it's a very difficult design problem; it's so unlike the current car, there are so many areas we have to do fundamental research on."
So development of the 2013 car stops fairly soon then?
PS: "At the moment, I'd say the last bits we'll really bring to the car will be around Silverstone time. The big teams will be developing later. But that's aerodynamically: I am hoping we have a few little tricks up our sleeve later in the year, which are some of the bits we could carry through to 2014."
But the engineering challenge must be quite something?
PS: "It's absolutely fascinating. I've been known over the years as a strategist, in fact I was probably one of the first to start thinking about strategy in a slightly lateral way. And, to be honest, I got bored of it. There's so many clever guys here and they all come to a similar answer - and then it's not fun anymore. But I think that strategy is going to be really interesting again next year, because you really haven't got all the energy you want for the race, you haven't got as much fuel or electrical energy as you'd like to use. Therefore how you use it is a very strategic decision. And I think there's some fascinating game theory that can go on behind it. I just hope it doesn't bore the public because I don't think they want things that are over-complicated.
"I'm passionate about Formula 1 and probably even more passionate about engineering. But I do appreciate that this is a sport and it relies on the people watching it. So the first thing I want to do - even at the expense of my passions - is give people something that's good to watch and exciting. I think we'll get that next year but I'm a little bit worried that in years to come, as everyone hones down to this near perfect answer as to how to run a race, it may get boring again and maybe we'll have to change a few things.
"But next year I think could be good, because one of the things that makes for a good race is when you have a different performance profile amongst the cars. What I mean by that is that you might have one car that's very quick at the beginning and slow at the end and vice versa. And while those of us sitting at our computers know what the outcome's going to be, it's not going to appear like that when you're watching television. That to me is a good race and I think we'll see a fair bit of that next year."
We see that in races already don't we? Drivers get told to save fuel, for example...
PS: "We always run the minimum amount of fuel and we're used to fuel consumption racing. Some of the old school may think what we're doing next year is very new, but it's not. And because we can monitor things so closely these days, you don't run out of fuel. You take it to the limit - and a bit more sometimes."
Where do you stand on the issue of saving tyres and fuel? Is that grand prix motor racing for you? Because it sounds like it isn't for a lot of people.
PS: "I go back to what I said a moment ago, that the most important thing is to provide a good show. And I don't think anyone can argue against that. Over the last few years, largely because of Pirelli, but also I think the ban on refuelling, the racing has been better. Okay, does it mean that Fernando cannot drive ten-tenths for 56 laps anymore? Yes it does. Is that a bad thing? It's different.
"And it's not new. Unfortunately, I've been around long enough to remember the days before we changed tyres and refuelled cars, and you definitely tried to conserve your tyres then. And you tried you conserve your fuel as well in the turbo era."
Obviously the greater emphasis of next year's changes is on powertrains. But the aerodynamic rules are changing as well. The FIA have back-tracked haven't they?
PS: "The evolution of the aerodynamic rules has gone to some extremes and back again. Where we are now is that the 2014 regulations are reasonably different to 2013. At first sight, they don't seem to be: the front wing has got a little bit narrower and at the rear, the beam wing has disappeared. To the casual observer that doesn't seem very much but it really is fundamental: the front wing determines the whole flow structure around the car, it all starts from there, and the most important thing is to manage the air - both on the front wing and, just as importantly, the air that's coming off the front wing.
"So when you get a fundamental change to it, it really does make you think. We did it in 2009 when we went wide. There was a lot of talk about the effect of double diffusers that year but in reality getting the front wing right was more important - even than the double diffuser.
"It's quite a conundrum at the moment. We're working hard on it, just as I'm sure everyone else is. It's just that they've got more people working on it than we have. It is going to be quite different: the cars are going to have lower drag and lower downforce. But that's not a bad thing."
So there's still going to be an emphasis on aerodynamic efficiency?
PS: "Yes, absolutely. Right back at the beginning of the determination of the 2013 rules (which were subsequently put back a year) the idea was to have a very, very low drag car. Now, in fact, it was a little too low drag and things have come back from that. But there were all sorts of ideas going round, including going back to ground effect cars."
How close are Marussia to sealing an engine deal for 2014?
PS: "'Close' is the answer."
Is it between Mercedes and Ferrari?
PS: "It is really, yes. Renault have made it clear they've got enough on their plate. Both Ferrari and Mercedes have been very positive with us. I say it's near, because if it's not then we're not going to have a car. My original target for getting a 2014 engine deal was the end of May...but it was the end of May 2012. So we are behind where we want to be."
Jules' arrival was very last-minute but presumably that must have an impact on negotiations?
PS: "It absolutely hasn't done us any harm, it's brought us a little bit closer to Ferrari. But Ferrari genuinely wants more teams: because everything is so new, I hesitate to call us guinea pigs or anything like that, but it's better to have a few more samples of your product out there, finding out what goes wrong and what's working. I think that they wanted another team anyway and the contact through Jules has done nothing but help."