Bell’s Formula for success

Posted on 6 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

For Bob Bell, Renault Formula 1’s managing director, the motorsport industry is virtually unrecognisable from that he experienced in the early 1980s as a rookie aerodynamicist at McLaren International. He tells Edward Machin how the industry’s demands have produced masters of design and manufacture.

“Formula 1 is one of the very few businesses where the team design, manufacture and operate their own products. Most companies design things; some design and produce them, but very few do all three,” says Bob Bell, managing director at Renault Formula 1’s Enstone, Oxfordshire base.

It should come as no surprise that those in the sport work to rather extreme time scales — ones that would turn many manufacturers a whiter shade of pale. “Formula One racing, which I believe to be the peak of competitive sport, requires us to develop improved performance on a fortnightly scale,” he says. “This forces teams to work very rapidly in implementing the required developments. Seeing as you don’t accrue points for failing to finish, this performance has to be done very reliably.”

Bell is quick to attribute some of his success to his team. “Perhaps most importantly, and speaking for the industry in general, we have an incredible bunch of guys doing the job. They’re diligent, passionate, exceptionally hard-working and have a constantly inspiring professional pride in ensuring that they deliver to the utmost quality. Do you pay a premium in terms of employees’ terms and conditions? “Absolutely. That we push them that much harder and demand more is only to be expected. Somewhat a cliché, but it very much comes down to the people.”

Start your engines

Taking a PhD in aeronautical engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast in 1982, Bell, 52, found himself at a career crossroads. “My first leaning was to go into the aerospace industry, which was very buoyant at the time,” he says. “The technology was light years beyond the majority of other industries, but the number of people it took to get things completed and its extended lead times somewhat scared me off.” “I looked around for something that was hi-tech — maybe not quite as high, but hi-tech nonetheless.

I wanted something that had a really competitive element and, most importantly, an industry that involved real concept teamwork. Formula One seemed to tick all the boxes, and having pestered just about everyone in the business, one of them finally relented and gave me a job.”

He was McLaren International’s then technical director, John Barnard, who employed Bell as the company’s sole aerodynamicist. “I think he felt sorry for me more than anything,” he says with characteristic humility. “John’s wife, a lovely woman who is also from Northern Ireland, put in a good word for a struggling graduate, and I was off.” And off he was, rising to head of research and development at McLaren six years later, and overseeing one of the most fondly-remembered periods in the history of motorsport: the often acidic rivalry between drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Culminating with Formula 1’s 1988 season, in which Renault-Honda won 15 out of 16 races, McLaren began a process of diversification on the back of this success — the F1 Road Car programme, an electronics company and, most famously, its MAVerick Land Speed Record Vehicle, among others.

After a stint as technical director with the MAVerick vehicle, and then with Benetton as a senior aerodynamicist, Bell joined Jordan, “As all selfrespecting Irishmen eventually do,” he laughs.

Moving to Renault as deputy technical director in 2001, and assuming the department’s top seat two years later, things progressed rather smoothly for Bell and the team — winning the constructers’ championship in 2005 and 2006. Until last year, that is, when flamboyant team principal Flavio Briattore resigned in the wake of a race-fixing scandal.

“I was asked to man the rudder until we got settled again, which I was enormously proud to do,” he says. “With things somewhat more stable, I assumed the role of managing director in 2010, which is how we find things now. And that’s my career in a nutshell. Probably more lowlights than anything, I’m sure!”

Rapidly prototyping

If one looks any single facet of what Formula 1 does in terms of manufacturing, the individual process is not necessarily unique to the industry. When stitched together, however, things tend to become infinitely more complex and impressive.

“Take, for example, that we might want to produce a new carbon fibre wing for a vehicle,” says Bell. “While this might ordinarily take up to a year, if it was important enough we might create a male pattern, lay out a female mould from that and manufacture the finished component. When working to even tighter time scales, we would simply machine the mould directly from the solid. It would have a very limited shelf-life, but because we are making small quantities of our components it allows us to take short cuts to ensure high-performance parts get to the tracks where and when needed.” Similarly, rapid prototyping (RP) techniques — falling under the banner of advanced digital manufacturing — are omnipresent within the F1 industry. “It’s quick, can be produced to highly complex shapes and fits ideally for the low accuracy tooling needs we have.

You don’t always get many components out of it, nor is it the most stable of materials. For the time periods over which we operate, however, we can just about get away with things like that.” “The next step-change Renault is looking at concerns direct metal manufacture using RP techniques,” he continues. “When we acquire ownership of these practices it will mean that the team can simply cut out the pattern stage and go from CAD model to finished metallic component. It offers unique opportunities, given that with RP one can produce components that wouldn’t otherwise be realised.”

Manufacturing to meet designers’ ambition

Married to this, Bell highlights the fact that Formula 1 teams are continuously pushing their mechanical designers to remove weight from components — while making them even more geometrically complex at the same time. “Given that they are being squeezed from both sides, we are becoming increasingly dependent on intricate 3D machined metal components that require high-speed milling to produce them from the solid,” he says.

“An example of this is a hydraulic manifold, whereby all of our flow control valves and temperature sensors are co-located to serve as the car’s hydraulic system. Designing them with 3D modelling techniques is actually rather straightforward. The manufacturing tools and high speed cutting machines are working ever harder to keep up with the designers’ increasingly intricate componentry, however — that’s where the challenge exists.” “We are not there yet. While the industry is getting closer to ownership of the techniques required to make components, the material properties are still some way off in terms of consistency and ultimate specifications.” Things, he says, “Are very much moving forward, though, and it’s a hugely interesting challenge for the future of our sport.”

Renault toughs it out

Technical advances or not, even casual followers of the sport cannot have escaped the sense that Formula 1’s landscape is being irrevocably redrawn by the recession — with Toyota, Honda and BMW withdrawing due to financial pressures and “current developments in motorsport,” respectively.

“It has been a hugely turbulent period for everyone,” Bell says. “Until last year the majority of teams were owned by major car manufacturers who, the banks aside, were the worst hit sector. In looking to consolidate, they considered all offshoot activities, Formula 1 included. We have been incredibly fortunate with Renault, who has continued its support of us and Formula 1 in general. They could have walked away towards the end of last year, given that the company was harder hit than many manufacturers, but they didn’t.” Can he suggest why? Motor racing, after all, is seen by many non-supporters as little more than a vanity project — rich toys for richer boys; hardly the embodiment of fiscal austerity. “Two reasons,” says Bell. “Renault has a proud and virtually unmatched history of success in the sport. It is my feeling that the company was simply too hard-pressed to turn its back on this sense of loyalty to Formula 1. Similarly, and unlike some in the industry who saw things in terms of a zero sum ‘should we be in the sport or not?’ Renault said ‘there is probably a third way here: we can stay in Formula 1, but not have to pay so much money for the privilege.’”

Taking a 75% shareholding in late 2009, Genii Capital, a Luxembourg-based private investment firm, represents the company’s third way. While Renault retains both sole ownership of its engine operations in France and the principal branding on the vehicles, “We only pay a fraction of the cost,” says Bell. “Things have worked out wonderfully for all concerned. As befitting our team’s history, it comes down to Renault’s playing clever and not seeing things simply in black and white terms.” “That said, I firmly believe that Formula 1 will survive as long as human nature maintains its interest in cars and racing. The Romans had chariot racing, and in a sense we’re a direct derivative of that. Things will change shape and colour with time, of course, but the sport will always be here in one form or another. Whether it’s as big or expensive as it is now is anyone’s guess; I suspect not. We’ll just have to keep watching, won’t we?”