When cameras roll, the drivers are the main actors within any team. But in order for their talent to turn into results, the role of the engineer is crucial. The vital link between driver and car, each engineer has his own speciality. Whether aerodynamics, hybrid systems, engines, data, his actions cannot be separated from the driver’s performance.
To understand this key role, spotlight on the three men within TOYOTA Racing: Mathieu Le Nail and Jean-Philippe Pélaprat, both race engineers, working respectively on the TOYOTA TS030 HYBRID #8 and #7, and also on Jérôme Rochard, data engineer, in charge of making the most of the data gathered from the cars.
Track and race engineers, Mathieu and Jean-Philippe share the development of the car during the test sessions. They define the set-up, validate new parts, determine the running plan and manage the engineering team. This is a real coordination job, like the conductor in an orchestra. And in the race, although each manages his own car, the link is never really broken, and the team works as a whole.
To optimise performance
Before moving to endurance racing, Mathieu built up solid experience in F1, a world that focuses on pure performance.
« In F1, during the races, I was the performance engineer, and car engineer during the test sessions. Endurance and F1 are quite different things. F1 is based on performance, and the strategy really depends on the car’s level of performance. In endurance, there are far more parameters to manage. Technologically, there is no real difference. F1 is more specialised in aerodynamics, but the budgets are also higher. However, in terms of systems, the level is higher in endurance. For an engineer, both categories are interesting.»
A large part of the track engineer’s role is to make the car reliable, to make sure it corresponds to the regulations and, of course, to make it as fast as possible. During a race weekend for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), in which TOYOTA Racing is competing for the second season in a row, everything is thoroughly planned. In a six-hour race, there is no place for improvisation. Mathieu looks over this very precise timetable.
« First of all, you have to get the car through technical scrutineering, and then set up the running plan for the weekend. The number of runs per session, the number of tyres that will be used, the stint order, the quantity of fuel to use, the various set-up options to test considering the nature of the track… So many different points which are vital to master.»
But in terms of the choices of each engineer concerning ‘his’ car, collaboration is necessary in order to optimise the tasks.
« Of course, we make some joint decisions for both cars, but we also consult each other to decide who will test what, in order to optimise the running time. There may be some subjects were each of us will work more specifically on ‘his’ car depending on the requests and needs of ‘his’ drivers, and these demands can be slightly different from one car to the other.
During these race weekends, it’s my task to define the running plan and the set-ups in coordination with the other engineers, the performance engineer, the engine specialist, the hybrid engineer, the data engineer… How should we put the car together, how should we set it up, which main elements do we need to check during free practice? For qualifying, we need a speed strategy. The procedures changed this season, and we only have two laps for each of the two drivers taking part, in order to set our time, which will be the average of their lap times. The car must be as fast as possible while keeping the race preparation in mind: a six-hour race where every strategic decision can have serious consequences on the final result.»
The highlight of the endurance racing season, the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans remains an event that cannot be missed. But this unique race needs specific preparation and heavy involvement from the whole team. To aim for victory in this legendary event is something that cannot be left to improvisation. After the test sessions and the first two WEC races, the deadline is fast approaching…
For the track engineers like Mathieu, this period is totally different from the rest of the season. Everything is focussed on a relatively long period from the official tests on 9 June through to the end of the 24-hour race on 23 June at 3pm.
« For us, the 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway with the test sessions on 9 June, when we can get a lot of the work done. These tests allow us to get a first feel for the car’s set-up. Even if we already know the requirements of this track, it allows us to determine a basic set-up. For the drivers, they can get used to an essential part of Le Mans, namely the traffic. »
This is followed by a week’s break, before diving back into the whole ceremony of the 24 Hours, which, for most of the teams, starts on the Sunday before the race.
« During the actual week of the 24 Hours, the first stage is to go through the technical verifications, including the ‘weighing sessions’, under the intense media spotlight. Even if it seems obvious, you still have to check that your car is in conformity with the regulations, and that is a vital step.
The days before the race are also used to define the job lists for the mechanics, allowing you to work through the running order even before the sessions start. There is not much time between the sessions, and so you have to be as organised as you can, and anticipate as much as possible.
The practice sessions take place on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, we have six hours, including two hours qualifying, and four hours on Thursday. As only the best time from the three qualifying sessions is taken to define the starting grid, it leaves us some breathing space, so the first day can be considered as a final test session to prepare the race.
It is also an opportunity to work with the drivers and to do some simple tests like checking on the radio communications from around the track, setting the type and the frequency of the information to send, such as the traffic or the gaps between cars. In this area, each driver is different. Some are quite chatty and want to hear everything, while others are more silent.
The first night session is also very important to gauge the positions and to get your bearings in these rather specific conditions. As for the second and third sessions, they allow you to set the time that will determine the grid position. But at Le Mans, there is a specific parameter which cannot be ignored, namely the traffic management. More than anywhere else, it is a key factor to set a good time, and choosing the right window to set your time is vital. The race set-up will be slightly different, because we will no longer be aiming for absolute performance but for efficiency over the duration. You don’t need to be fast over one lap, but to maintain the car at the best possible level for 24 hours…
There is no running on Friday. We refine the final details for the race and we make sure that the team can relax as much as possible before the next two days. All the parts, all the options, are carefully prepared in order to be ready in case of the ‘unexpected’. We go through various scenarios, and try to anticipate everything in order to react as quickly as possible should we need to change strategy or face up to new elements. »
Saturday morning is the start of a very long weekend, after a week which has already been long and busy. With qualifying finishing at midnight, the team rarely finishes work before 3am… Everyone is already tired. The 20-minute warm-up allows the car to be checked, just in case teams had needed to make serious changes after qualifying.
« When the race starts, the first thing you have to do is to get your bearings compared to the strategy. You must not over-react to any particular situation. In terms of the telemetry, the race management is mainly based on the vital organs, with less focus on the balance of the car, as it is really no longer possible to change anything during the race. We can make adjustments, but it is no longer an option to really ‘change’ anything.
During the race, just like Jean-Philippe, I am on the pit wall, and I have an overall view of the telemetry. I try to limit the number of screens, in order to concentrate on the vital elements, but also on the performance parameters which allow us to control the evolution of the car (tyre and brake wear, for example). This vigilance continues while remaining in constant contact with the other engineers in the garage. We use us an intercom radio system (vocal) and instant messaging system (written). This continual supervision of the data allows us to estimate the degree of urgency of the information we have to give the driver. Communications are vital. The engineers have to be able to pass information on in a fast, clear and concise manner.»
Throughout the race, the two track engineers will remain on the pit wall… meaning that it is vitally important to manage their physical and intellectual effort and to spare themselves as much as possible.
« In order to last, you must not get over-excited at the start, but to keep calm and lucid. In the end, we are not the only ones to be checking the data, we have other engineers who are there to support us while taking a step back. This allows both Jean-Philippe and myself to have a good information base that we can use to take decisions.
These can be strategic decisions, such as the tyre choice considering factors like the track temperature, whether to double-stint, or the amount of fuel to put onboard. Will this change anything? What are the other teams doing? Does the driver need to know this?
David Floury gives us an overview of the global strategy, but he is also the link with the other car. The information he gives us allows us to take decisions concerning our car. For example, if the tyres are degrading rapidly, we will be able to anticipate. For this sort of issue, sharing information is vital.
In terms of the data provided by the other engineers, I take decisions on what will be done and I give this information to the Chief Mechanic, who will manage his team of mechanics to get the work done. From one impulse, everything leaps into action. The whole team reacts.»
And what about the communication between driver and engineer? Do you always listen to the driver?
« In terms of the drivers, communication is key, and goes in both directions. Sébastien and Stéphane both like to be talked to, Anthony less so. It is imperative to give them their objectives while informing them of what is happening around them. On the other hand, you have to be in permanent contact with the team, to be sure they will be ready to react, to let them know what will be done at the next stop.
The danger is to get stuck in a routine. You have to communicate often. I talk to the driver, but I also listen to what he says. Even if radio reception is not always ideal, I am often able to correlate his impressions with what I can see on the screen. This allows us to anticipate and to plan a response to any potential problems.»
Collection and use of the technical information
One of the players in this chain of information is the data engineer. Within TOYOTA Racing, this is Jérôme Rochard’s task. Jérôme takes care of the car’s vital diagnostics (engine, gearbox, chassis) but also of the fuel strategy and use in terms of the needs of the track engineers.
Another side of this important role is driver performance. This consists in analysing the use of the car by the drivers, with the objective of its optimisation in order to gain as much time as possible. Pit entry and exit, use of cold tyres, gear box usage, hybrid system usage, everything is dissected in order to make it as efficient as possible.
« Thanks to the sensors fitted to the car, I can gather, process and use the data, and collate it as quickly as possible for the track engineers. For the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 80% of the work has to take place before the race. All the tools have to be ready even before getting to the track, and will be finalised on site by preparing the two or three variables we will need. The race will show the use of all I have been able to create beforehand in order to speed things up. For specific situations, we will apply processes which have already been established, thanks to the experience gained in previous tests or races.
In some areas, I work alone on both cars, and for others, I am the back-up for the performance engineers who only work on the chassis performance of the car. For the 24 Hours, I am on duty from the start to the end, without rest, working in the technical truck. I stay behind my computers, following both cars from start to finish.
If there are mistakes in the tools, in the software, there will be mistakes in the race, which is why test sessions are so important to find all the small problems that can occur. We try to remove all weaknesses before the race to be as efficient as possible during.
For us, the test session on 9 June is very important as everything we have prepared needs to be validated before the race, two weeks later. We will only have those two weeks to react if anything needs changing.
Things are slightly different on the WEC races, especially in terms of fatigue as the races are ‘only’ six hours long. But in general we follow the same pattern, but over a shorter time, and with less time between the test sessions. »
Track engineer, data engineer or performance engineer, these men in the shadows are nevertheless the game masters…