For 60 days a year Gary Paffett pulls on his racing gloves and sinks down into the darkness. Paffett is a Formula 1 test driver for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, and a champion in the German DMT racing series– but most of his work isn’t done behind the wheel of a car.
“It’s all about preparation. Engineers can spend three months planning for one track test, and they have to prioritise every new aerodynamic part, every suspension part – and load the test car with far more logging sensors than we can put on a race car. So most of our work happens off the circuit.”
Paffett rides the multi-million pound Formula 1 simulator at the McLaren Technology Centre near Woking in Surrey for eight hours at a time. When he first used the simulator in 1998 it was a “steering wheel in front of a big screen”. Now Paffett sits in a mock-up cockpit, steering the car into the tight bends of every Grand Prix circuit. 70 laps flash by on the wrap-around-screens, while the test bed replicates each bump in the track.
Today he’s out in the open air, giving race tips at a Vodafone VIP day, and timing laps at a go-kart track near Milton Keynes. Like many race drivers, karting is where he started, and its low to the ground thrills couldn’t be more different from a day spent at the McLaren Technology Centre simulator.
The McLaren Technology Centre simulator is McLaren’s virtual test environment On Grand Prix weekends a team of aerodynamicists and engineers work through the night after Friday practice to read every piece of data fed from the car’s live telemetry system of hundreds of miniature sensors. By Saturday morning the car has to be recalibrated, and is ready for the final practice session..
Together with the team at the track, the McLaren Technology Centre engineers are looking at brake temperatures, pressure on the brakes, tyre degradation, speed, fuel consumption and spring settings. During race weekend they monitor a mapping system that allows strategists to see the whole circuit, where each driver is – and where they’re pitting.
“Between the Friday P1 we adjust the grip level so that we’re doing the same lap times as the drivers. We listen to their feedback and then we start trying to improve the car. The biggest changes happen between Friday’s P2 session and P3 – engineers at the track send a list of five things they want to try on the car; we try all of them and give feedback on them. The track team takes two or three of those things and fit them straight to the car.”
In extreme conditions every tiny tweak matters: This year drivers hit top speeds of 324km/hour on the Canadian Grand Prix circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, with brakes reaching 800c at peak pressure. But the most valuable feedback the MTC team need doesn’t come from a piece of technology, it’s from Gary:
“I’ve given feedback before to the team about things that they can’t see in the data – so they have to have a lot of trust in the test driver,” he says. “When you change something on the car, the difficulty is to tell what is different when you are driving it at high speed. That’s where test drivers really earn their money.”
There are moments of drama: At Silverstone a couple of years ago, Paffett says the team introduced a new floor that didn’t work, and he was helicoptered back to the McLaren Technology Centre to work through the night until they had found the solution… Read Full
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