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.”
“Your eyes hurt, it’s draining, it feels like playing a computer game all day…”
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.
Before a new season every change to the car is created as a computer simulation first, and then tested as a model in the McLaren wind tunnel before it hits the track. Formula 1 rules mean that track testing is limited to a few weeks in spring, which McLaren usually conducts in Barcelona. The last time Gary drove an Formula 1 car was at an extra four day test session in Italy.
“As the test driver I’m not really looking to do faster and faster lap times. The point is for the engineers to be able to test each change they need to make – if I’m doing different lap times they can’t judge how effective those changes are. The most important thing for a race driver is to maximize performance, the most important thing for a test driver is consistency.”
A track test is normally harder work for the team than the race itself. After months of preparation the test day usually lasts from 9am-5pm, and is mapped out lap by lap and minute by minute. When the driver finishes at 5pm the second engineering team take over to work the night shift, analyse the data, and get the car ready for the following day. Paffett outlines some of the areas he has to provide feedback on:
“We usually break the circuit into low speed corners, mid speed corners and high speed corners, because the car has different balance at different corners. Then the car has different balance when you’re off throttle, on brakes, on throttle,” he says.
“An F1 car is mostly about aerodynamics, it’s basically a big wing. The more down force you can get the faster you’re going to go. But its not just down force, the car itself is sensitive to lots of things. So when the front wheels turn it changes the flow, changes the aerodynamics and changes the down force. When I turn the steering I have to be able to tell whether the car loses front grip or rear grip, or when I ride the curves whether the ride height changes.”
Paffett is also working to find the perfect calibration for two very different drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
“The perception is that Lewis drives the car in a more positive and aggressive way, while Jenson is more smooth and gets lot of performance from that smoothness. Often there isn’t that much difference in their cars, maybe a couple of turns on the front wheel difference.”
Both Hamilton and Button come into the McLaren Technology Centre after each Grand Prix to re-run the race on the simulator themselves and give feedback, but it’s up to Paffett to conduct the ongoing simulator work, and make adjustments to both driver set-ups after Friday practice sessions.
He provides his conclusions to the team that includes strategists working individually for Hamilton and Button under the oversight of the strategy team leader who ensures that a decision taken in favour of one driver (like when to pit) doesn’t have knock-on consequences for the other driver.
“In the simulator we work on the next race, but we also work three of four races down the line – and into the next season and beyond. The good thing about simulator work is that you can try things in development without the expense of building them and fitting them to the car. As a driver you can also push things to the limit more because you don’t have the fear factor of being on an actual circuit”
Paffett became a full-time McLaren test driver in 2005 after winning the DTM championship, and since then he’s driven 22 Grand Prix circuits at the McLaren Technology Centre. “The circuits are laser mapped for the simulator, so they are exactly the same down to every corner and bump. For me it’s more exciting to drive the new circuits, like India, and get to know them. The scenery has improved a lot with the new graphics too.”
This year the team is working hard getting the tyres right, and testing tyre temperatures – just in time for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. As usual, Gary Paffett is well prepared.
Find out more about events like Gary’s race day at Vodafone VIP