Interview: Pat Symonds on building Marussia F1 team from scratch and transferring tech from track to road

Posted on 14 Dec 2012

After starting as a Ford undergraduate apprentice in the early 70s, Pat Symonds embarked on a lively career in Formula One, playing a key role in the three Constructors Championship wins and overseeing four Drivers Championships at Benetton and Renault.

  • Plans to bring manufacturing in house at the only F1 team that outsources all of its components.
  • Taking technology from track to road.
  • Improving fuel consumption.
  • FIA rule changes to make F1 even more exciting in 2014.
  • How strict rules prohibit Marussia from moving up the grid.

Now overseeing the development of new kid on the grid Marussia, Mr Symonds tells Tom Moore about playing catch-up, his search for speed, transferring technology from track to road, increasing the size of its engineering team and bringing manufacturing to the Marussia’s new Banbury home this year.

Tom Moore: Marussia failed to score any points this season, how close do you feel you are to catching the middle of the grid?

Pat Symonds, Marussia F1Technical Consultant
Pat Symonds, Marussia F1Technical Consultant

Pat Symonds: We are very slowly catching up with the rate of development at the top teams. It’s a hell of an expensive process but we are developing our aerodynamics by physical (wind tunnel testing) and virtual modelling.

There is no doubt with the current F1 car the majority of the performance comes from aerodynamics, and it’s certainly the most cost-effective way of increasing performance. It’s a rule of thumb that if you can improve the aerodynamic performance of the car by 1%, you go a tenth of a second quicker on an average lap.

The wind tunnel itself is expensive. It cost £30m to build and it costs many thousands of pounds a day in running costs. We have an all-embracing relationship with McLaren whereby we use their wind tunnel and other facilities.

But even finding 1% is not simple. But with an aggressive development programme we looked to find a couple of percent a month at the stage we are at. We have actually exceeded that because we started from a low point. We are exceeding the targeted rate of development.

Marussia's trackside IT at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Marussia's trackside IT at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.

TM: What are the biggest advances Marussia F1 team have made over the course of last season?

PS: The only areas that didn’t change were the monocoque, front of the side pods and the lower rear wing. Everything else has changed; the shape of the nose to manage the air flow better, the shape of parts of the front wings, the body work, the top rear wing, the fuser, the underbody, everything changed.

We introduced a completely new rear body which repositioned the exhausts to move them lower and further outwards for Silverstone. This meant that we could use the flow of exhaust gases to enhance the aerodynamics. There is no area we don’t work on.

TM: What’s your next stage of progression?

PS: Marussia will be running KERS [kinetic energy recovery system that reuses energy from braking] next year so that will give us an improved performance.

We need to increase the size of our engineering team so that we can bring more components, development and performance to the car on a week by week basis.

Manufacturing will come. At the moment we sub contract all of our components and it’s not a big deal because we are in motor sport valley outside Oxford but there is a necessity from a quality point of view. Bringing some manufacturing in house will improve our speed of reaction.

We have only been around for three years and had a big reset one year ago when we came to Banbury. There’s no point parachuting 300 engineers in. We want good people that build us up as we go along.

TM: What will come first?

PS: Structural composites. Things like the monocoque and wishbones where there is a reasonable degree of craft involved. To machine a hub carrier or a gearbox case is a pretty automated process these days. It doesn’t matter if Fred, Charlie, Burt or Marussia does it but there is still a high degree of artisan work involved with composites.

It is easy to get variability in composites so we will start making it ourselves this year. There are new people starting with us to support this and we have modified an area for autoclaves.

Marussia F1 Team car
Marussia F1 Team car

TM: Manufacturers have a problem getting the engineering skills they need, does this also apply to Formula One?

PS: There used to be a time when F1 was highly paid but engineering is waking up and pays good money. On composites side aerospace companies are taking a lot of F1 people.

A degree is not what it used to be. A lot of people have them but don’t have that final bit we require.

TM: What’s the final bit?

PS: The enquiring mind and the passion for engineering, not just a passion for motorsport. I have a passion for motor sport but I probably have a bigger passion for engineering. People must have the fundamentals first.

TM: I assume it will improve the link between design and manufacture as well if everything is under one roof?

PS: Absolutely and that’s what we need. It is very important to have concurrent engineers. Formula One teams, as with any manufacturer, needs its production guys working closely with the design guys.

Marussia doesn’t make any of its race car components here, which is very unusual.

If you sized your plant to have 100% capacity to build the entire car during January and February you would be vastly oversized for the rest of the year when you are just making spare parts and upgrades.

The best way is to sit somewhere around the level where you handle most of the upgrades and subcontract the surplus.

TM: How much of the Marussia would be made in house in an ideal world?

PS: About 30% in and 70% out. There are certain things just not worth doing. There is no justification for making a wiring harness inhouse as we only need six a year and the floor and top body of the car require a lot of space to make so it makes sense to subcontract them.

Marussia F1 Team at 2012 Chinese Grand Prix.
Marussia F1 Team at 2012 Chinese Grand Prix.

TM: How will the FIA’s rule changes rules affect racing in the next few seasons?

PS: The changes for 2014 are fundamental. There are an awful lot, not just to the power train which is enormous but also in relation to the chassis and aerodynamics. The problem is that the rules governing engine supply are not clear.

Rule changes for 2013 are minimal as we have to start our 2014 cars early. The cars on the grid line at the start of 2013 won’t look very different to the current cars.

TM: How will the new rules coming into force in 2014 change races?

PS: The changes are very much about energy management and how you deploy the energy you have. It will produce a difference performance profile so you won’t be able to run flat out throughout a race.

That is the case at the moment because of tyres. Whenever you the profiles of the cars are different that is when you get good racing as you could get a guy go fast at the beginning and slow at the end and vice versa. It results in more takeovers.

Racing will be even better in 2014 than at the moment.

TM: Will it level the playing field at all?

PS: No. There was a time when fundamental changes to the rules allowed the smaller teams to innovatw but those days have gone. The rules are much tighter and it’s harder to put innovation in.

Innovation tends to come from attention to detail and that favours the big teams rather than the little teams. There won’t be a big change in status quo. We will have to spend a lot of money on the car in 2014.

TM: You have one of the smallest budgets on the grid, what are you doing to keep costs down in an expensive sport?

PS: Keeping costs low is difficult. If we are going to take a block of aluminium and machine it for 20 hours it’s going to cost us the same it costs Red Bull.

We need to think about our manufacturing, and production engineering. There are certain things we develop that we reject that other teams like Red Bull and McLaren would use. The return on investment wasn’t good enough for us as we can spend that money elsewhere and get a better result. They can afford it.

Pit stop camera
Pit stop camera

TM: What does F1 do for the road car?

PS: Carbon fibre is slowly coming into road cars with resin transfer moulding as it is reducing the price. The McLaren MP4-12C supercar has a carbon monocoque that is a 100 hour process to make. If you go back to McLaren F1 road car, that was a 1,000 hour process. BMW are taking it into real production and are talking about it being a matter of hours.

We are looking for efficiency and that efficiency trades off onto the road car, whether it’s better aerodynamics or lighter weight.

The underbodies on road cars are getting a lot cleaner as it improves fuel consumption. In racing every ten kilos of fuel slows the car down by four tenths of a second each lap so we do everything we can not to carry that fuel. Car makers want to minimise their CO2 per kilometre so it’s exactly the same problem.

TM: Is anything coming into F1 from the road?

PS: Direct fuel injection is becoming common place on road cars and only coming into F1 in 2014. One of the problems is running it at high speed. F1 teams are developing injectors that can make that better by improving combustion efficiency.

TM: Who is best driver you’ve ever worked with?

PS: Michael Schumacher.

TM: Any chance of attracting him to Marussia this summer?

PS: He’s too old now isn’t he! This is meant to be a young team!

TM: Will this be your last F1 team?

PS: I like this team and I enjoy building teams.

TM: But you never know?

PS: You never know (smiles).