Mark Smith interview

On Sunday before the Singapore Grand Prix I sat down with Caterham’s Technical Director Mark Smith to discuss matters ranging from the team’s competitiveness to the future direction of driver safety.

Stephen English: Can you asses where the team is at present?

Mark Smith: At this type of circuit, and particularly at this circuit, it’s not a big surprise, particularly in the first practice session, to find ourselves where we were. We know what we are doing in terms of fuel load and our run programme.
Also for probably the last five or six races, certainly since Silverstone, we are trying to evaluate so much stuff in the first free practice session that inevitably what falls down the priority list is optimising the setup of the car. We’re still trying to do lots of evaluations on little pieces of the car and particularly anything to do with exhaust blowing which we cant model very well has to be on the car in that first free practice session. So it’s not a big surprise; we know that Marussia has closed the gap and have made lots of big progress.
I suppose what I am saying is that we are going to have to resist the urge to panic in the first practice session as there is that factor that we are not working too much on the car in that session. Also I think that with the car we have, in terms of downforce, I think that circuit evolution is a bigger factor for us. So as the circuit rubbers in we make better use of and the car works better in it relative to, potentially, some of the other cars.
I think that’s what we saw in FP2 and then FP3. I think as we gravitate towards qualifying, as long as we do our homework well, we end up where we should be as opposed to dropping the ball in some way. I think by and large it’s been a positive progression throughout the weekend so far.

Why does the car progress so much once the track rubbers in? Is it an inherit characteristic or is there something deeper?

I think that one of the factors is where you are in the downforce rankings influences how much sliding the tyres do versus how much traction they have. I think that certainly what we suffer from in the first two practice sessions compared towards FP3 and qualifying was that we were overheating the rear tyres and we were doing that primarily because of slip and sliding rather than gripping so I think that’s the key factor in it. If we had a bit more load at the beginning of the weekend, it would still be a factor, but the extent to which it would be a dominant factor [in performance] would change. I think for us at the moment it is a fairly dominant factor.

Is there much development planned for the last six races or is the plan to make a big jump in performance with next years evolution?

What we are trying to do, and we have been all season to be honest, is that when we have a performance advantage, and I guess our view is that would be about a tenth of a second, then we try and bring that to the race. Our aero gradient has been fairly constant at a certain number of points per week.
I think that you can either try and build it up in a big step or increment it on a steady basis. I think it’s just area under the curve that if you increment on a steady basis that you will ultimately get more from it. Obviously there are implications, logistical and cost, associated with that but I don’t think that we’ve done anything where we thought, “Well actually if we waited another race we could have rolled that up and been more cost effective.” With the budget that we have I think that we always try to do the most cost effective things anyway.

The reason for this interview was that earlier in the year when I was talking with Heikki about the differences from a driver’s perspective of working with Renault and McLaren compared to now with Caterham. Obviously you have similar experience having worked with Renault. What are the main differences between the teams?

I’ve been fortunate to work with a few teams at different stages of their lifecycles. Jordan GP was day one of the project and when I initially joined Benetton it was in the throes of being handed over to Renault. If we took that team when I joined it in 2001 there team was fighting at the back of the grid with Minardi in qualifying. In reality it’s not like from that point on there was a massive change that swept through the organisation that allowed us to deliver.
There was an addition of good people and a steady development of the resources available over a number of years and I think stability was the key thing. There was an injection of new people into the organisation but what I see with us now is something that I saw then. That is that the core group that we have is a good group that will deliver. It’s very easy to forget how young the team is, and the other new teams. I know that on occasion when I talk to Eddie [Jordan] about this that his expectations were that one of the teams would have made a bigger step forward but it’s different now.
Even compared to my stint with Renault developments tended to be two or three big developments throughout the year but it’s really three, four or five years ago that we’ve had this change to every race where every team is looking to take changes to the car. The development rate is very high.
As with every other team we do statistical analysis of our performance compared to our competitors and if you take the three teams ahead of us-Toro Rosso, Williams and Force India-we are developing, broadly speaking at the same rate as them from the beginning of the season to now. Given the resources that we have I don’t think that’s too bad but obviously just matching them we’ll never catch people so somehow we have to make the jump and probably the biggest factor will be how much of a gain we can make in the close season.
Going back to your previous question we do plan on developing right up until the last race because for us there are so many key parts to the overall architecture of the car that are the same [for next season]. We have the same engine, the same gearbox and other factors that will mean that there isn’t a big architecture change for next year. This means that we can get new bits and pieces we will put them on because the development should be fairly continuous for next year.

Yes because I know that the team have announced that next year’s car will be an evolution of this year’s car as you look towards the major regulation shift in 2014.

That’s absolutely right. When John Illey joined us from McLaren [as chief designer] we looked at if there were any big conceptual things that we wanted to do. The technical group, before John’s arrival concluded that it would be more advantageous to develop the current car and evolve it, and when John joined he agreed. So we are reasonably confident that evolving the car is probably going to give us the best development curve.

We’re probably at the point of the law of diminishing returns now given that we’ve had stability for three years.

It is. I think that we’d all probably conclude that the reason that the whole grid, by and large, is closing up is because of regulation stability and it is diminishing returns and that’s another factor that should come into us closing the gap more because we are further back and have more potential gains to make so that’s our development plan for next year. Normally you make a big architectural change in the winter and you spend a couple of weeks in the winter flat lining [with no development progressing] and we are planning on avoiding that.

Obviously the team recently made the move to the old TWR facility in Leafield. How big a change is that going to make in allowing the team to move forward?

I think that it’s a very positive factor in a number of respects. First of all what we have now is a facility that isn’t restraining us in any respect. The design office will have all of its staff in the same area now as opposed to being spread throughout the building. It’s not something that can put your hand on and say, “That will give direct performance” but communication is benefits from that so it eases the whole operational aspects of the technical group and whenever I think of the facility the word potential springs to mind.
We have so much potential there that we never had before in the way that we operate. Right now it’s not as if it will turn a switch to give us performance but over the next six, twelve or eighteen months it will. It’s a very positive move and I think it’s well publicised that one of the reasons we wanted to move was because it was difficult to recruit and retain staff [in Norfolk]. I know that it’s a double edge sword and we’re now close to other teams who might want to target our guys but the net effect will be a gain.

From my perspective I’ve always been impressed by how Caterham have made aggressive steps to try and move up the grid. Compared to Marussia and HRT it always seems that you are looking to make that big jump and fight with the established teams. Even with Marussia making their big change at the start of the year by splitting with Nick Wirth Caterham have moved factories, spent money on Renault engines and KERS and a Red Bull gearbox it always seems that the aim is to make the big step forward.

Yes that’s absolutely right. We all know that we have to. It’s a source of massive frustration to everyone, we want more and we’re hungry for more. I can honestly say that we are working flat out and doing as much as we can with what we have. One of the solutions is to have a little more of whatever it is that we have. So as long as it’s done in a balanced and manageable way we will yield performance within a relative short time-frame and having made it will help.
One of the areas that we will move forward significantly this year is with the mechanical design of the car if you sat the two cars next to one another. I’m sure many people have been to the museum in DoningtonPark and it’s amazing how quickly a Formula 1 car dates and I think that contrast between our cars from this year and last is quite obvious. But that is enhanced by having a state of the art composite gearbox and KERS unit.
We’re fortunate to have those on the car that at the stage of the team’s life we just couldn’t have them on the car if we looked to do it ourselves. So it all does help and I think Tony’s approach to things is quite different. He’s definitely a go-getter and he’s inspirational to a lot of the guys on the project and it’s demonstrated, as you say, by the things that we do have on the car for a relatively young team that perhaps we wouldn’t have ordinarily.

How big of a hands on role does Tony have in the team? This weekend we saw a new CEO hired, is it a sign that he is taking a step back?

Not particularly, to be honest it’s probably the contrary. He has so much going on in his professional life anyway that trying to keep all the plates spinning must be a pretty incredible task! I do know that many months ago I walked around the Leafield facility, way before we made any commitments, and it had a certain image. It was a tired building that hadn’t been maintained and so forth but I know when Tony recently came to have a look around he was really excited by the whole thing. I think that it will be part of his vision for the whole Caterham Automotive Group and he sees the potential of that side. So I think that we’re probably more likely to see more of Tony than we have in the past.

What’s the headcount in the factory right now?

We’re only a little over 200 on the Formula 1 side and I think by the time that more of the manufacturing, there is still some in Norfolk, moves to Leafield it will bring us to the 250 mark.

The main reason that I was asking was that from talking to Heikki he has told me that working at the track Caterham is as good as anyone that he’s worked with but with a smaller group at the factory it’s impossible to keep pace with the McLaren’s or the Red Bull’s of the sport.

Yeah it does. One of the hurdles that we had in Norfolk was that, rightly or wrongly, it was difficult to attract people but now that has significantly changed and we have had people approach us looking to join.

At the Italian Grand Prix Luca di Montezemolo talked about trying to bring back budget caps to the discussion tables for F1. Do you think that it is something feasible for the sport?

I think anything is feasible it’s just whether or not there is a will to do it. I always find it interesting to listen to commentaries from time to time from perhaps teams who are wealthier about how they support cost reduction and maintaining a certain level of cost control. I don’t see how it’s not possible but I know and appreciate that it’s not easy. There’s not a rigid boundary that we could police across every transaction. Obviously for Caterham we would welcome a levelling of the playing field in that respect and I would think that if the will was there it could be done but I’m not sure that the will is universal.

Yes that’s how I feel about it as well. It’s fine for Ferrari to talk in those terms right now but obviously when they get into a title fight with those restrictions we would probably just see a repeat of the Resource Restrictions Agreement with teams searching for loopholes to find more performance.

It’s perfectly understandable. Every team, and there are categories of teams, has its own pressures from different directions. Whether it’s from a board of directors from a manufacturer or a small team fighting for survival every team has its own angles and pressures to succeed. Whether it’s us at the back of the field, where the pressure is significant, or a team further up the grid it’s all relative.
We all want to have as much resources as possible to get the job done. Personally I can’t recall too many occasions where the whole of Formula 1 world has stepped outside and looked at the global show and decided that this was the best thing for the sport. We all try to do what’s right for us and it’s natural.

Exactly when each team has its own shareholders and stakeholders in each team they would look to do what’s best for them. Looking towards next season again has there been any progress in resigning Heikki?

That’s not something that I’m involved with.

OK. We saw at Spa that the issue of cockpit protection came back to the centre of attention with Fernando’s near miss. Have you heard much about that being implemented in the next couple of years or is the FIA still evaluating the best way to implement it?

There is a very serious intent to do something to improve the scope of protection for the driver because ultimately it is just a probability thing that we will end up with a serious injury that none of us want. It won’t be next year because the timescale for completing evaluations and integrating them into the chassis design is running away but I firmly believe that for 2014 we’ll see something.

That soon?

Yes, there will be a significant step forward in driver head protection. That’s me, not an FIA response obviously, but I think that from the work that we are doing and the added impetuous of the Spa incident that I’d be amazed if in 2014 that we didn’t have something to improve the situation.

What do you think that it will be?

Genuinely I don’t know. We all want to maintain as much of the single seat Formula 1 tradition that we can. What’s acceptable in terms of risks however changes with time. I think that a side protection rather than a canopy [would be best]. But again that’s only my expectations. Towards the end of the year I would thing that the situation will become clearer.

Obviously we’ve seen the mock-ups of the roll hoops in front of the driver to deflect a wheel but the driver will lose visibility with that so it’s not an ideal solution to the issue and just removes one issue by adding another.

I think that whatever we do it has to be fully integrated into the chassis. We’re all a little bit wary of add-ons and anything really that inadvertently will create an issue with trapping a driver inside the car. This is why I suspect that something that gives more side protection would be best. It obviously wouldn’t solve the issue of an object striking from the front but I think that it would be a significant step forward from where we are. I also don’t think that we would significantly lose the feel of a single seater.

I’ve been impressed that it’s three years since Felipe’s crash in Hungary and Henry Surtees death in F2 [after being struck on the head by a loose wheel at Brands Hatch] and the FIA are evaluating options rather than having brought in a knee jerk solution to the problem.

The encouraging thing is that when you look at a typical Technical Working Group meeting obviously each team has it’s own angle or agenda point on whether something is beneficial for them or not but when it comes to safety that is where you really do see teams buying into far more things even if they don’t particularly like something it isn’t a factor. The question is how much it will help.
The teams do work together on that along with the FIA research for evaluations by giving donor parts and making test pieces. It could be teams testing things for visibility in the simulator. Teams do buy into that and I think that the time scale doesn’t draw out because of a lack of impetus it is, as you said, the will to do it properly and not to knee jerk and do something that could create other issues. This is why it’s my expectation that in 2014 we’ll have something in place.

That’s great. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Mark and best of luck this weekend.

No problem.

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