• Mark Smith Q&A

'We're all impatient and we all want performance'

Laurence Edmondson August 23, 2012

ESPNF1 talks to Caterham technical director Mark Smith about his team's recent move to a new factory, why the latest CT01 updates haven't delivered and the plans for the 2013 and 2014 cars

Mark Smith is Caterham's technical director © Sutton Images
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Caterham completed its move to its new factory at Leafield earlier this week; obviously the switch was made with long-term progress in mind but might we see some advantages coming through this year as well?
I don't think we will see the benefits of the move immediately. To my mind the facility is something that we needed to move to in order to develop the team over the medium- and long-term. The areas that I think we will see a benefit from is that we use the Williams wind tunnel and obviously we are much closer to that. We will have our own in-house model shop, because we had very limited space for that at Williams, so we're going to have a pretty good model shop here. In addition to the increase in wind tunnel hours we're also going to be able to support that with designing parts and making parts for the wind tunnel model, so this facility will allow us to do a better job of all of that. To be honest, I think next year's car will benefit more than this year's car in all of that. We also now have all of our engineers in one area so that our race engineering, research and development, design and aero departments are all there together and I've even picked up comments already that because people are sat so close to each other there are probably fewer emails and more conversations and that's a positive. None of these things are going to transform anything over night, but there are lots of reasons why, going forward, we will get some fairly tangible benefits from it.

You worked at Force India during its breakthrough years in 2009 and 2010, is Caterham now in a similar position in terms of resources and ability?
I look at what we have now as a group, both technically and operationally, as actually a reasonably strong outfit and it frustrates me massively that these things take time. We're all very impatient and it doesn't matter if you're the technical director, a shareholder or a mechanic, we're all impatient and we all want performance. That frustration sometimes can, I suppose, bring a little bit of doubt, but I have no doubt that with what we have here now we can definitely move forward.

I look at what we've got and to be honest it's no different to Force India. The resources that we have in various areas ... we will have a driver-in-the-loop simulator this week, and although it'll take a little while to commission it, projects like that allow you to move forward in certain ways. Having that on site and having total unlimited access to it will definitely help. Force India was a fairly big turnaround, but the frustration a few of us had there was that we had the partnership with McLaren, which was excellent for the gearbox and hydraulics and so on, but the performance came from the aerodynamics and it is a fact that there was no support in any way aero-wise back then. Over a period of time the aero department had been built up, stabilised, and was directed to move positively and it just takes time. It wasn't the case that the previous year everything was wrong and then in 2009 and 2010 everything was right and it was somehow a magical switch with the McLaren relationship, it just wasn't like that.

That's why that I'm quite confident here that it will come and it is on the way [at Caterham], the frustrating thing is that it just takes time. Sometimes it sounds like you're trying to find excuses, but the reality is that the next youngest team to Caterham, Marussia and HRT is probably Mercedes, and when you think of it in those terms it's very tough to make the progress you want to make. Clearly our target is Toro Rosso and I think that on occasion we've had some good races, but we don't have their pace and we've not had their pace. From Silverstone onwards we'd hoped to be closer than we had been, but all we can do is keep doing what we are doing and not panicking because our development gradient has been positive. The frustration probably comes from the fact that everybody else is probably doing the same thing, but I think there's good reason to believe that as we go towards the end of the season we will be very disappointed if we haven't made up a bit of ground. But it is difficult because everybody is doing it.

You mentioned the Silverstone upgrades, was it just a case that the improvements got masked by the upgrades on rival cars or were you a little bit disappointed with the results of the updates?
I think that it's a little bit of both. Clearly nobody stood still at Silverstone and the guys around us were putting new parts on their cars as well. We have said that the weather worked against us at Silverstone and that was a genuine fact because it made it very difficult to try to extract anywhere near the best performance from quite a complex update. But equally along the way we've probably learned about that update and understood why we haven't got what we hoped to get from it. Obviously the exhaust system is a key feature in this, and not that it was news to us but you have to be aware of any performance losses you might be factoring into the package as well as any performance gains. I think that we're focusing on that to release more performance from the overall package.

Caterham has been running a substantial update since the British Grand Prix © Sutton Images

The exhausts are clearly still a big development area despite the rule changes over the winter, how big an impact can they still have on the car's performance?
It's significant enough to want to do it. For a smaller team with limited resource it is a question that you have to ask yourself very carefully; whether you want to divert resource in that direction or stay working on more conventional aero development. We believe that it is significant enough to put some effort in that direction. It's not our only direction, we are working around the car with the front, middle and rear groups to try to move the whole aero package forwards, but equally we know that we have found some performance from the package we introduced at Silverstone, we just need to release a bit more of that and I think we can. It's fairly clearly circuit dependent as well because you're working with an exhaust system where it's quite easy to induce losses from a power perspective by tweaking the exhaust and at some circuits engine power is obviously at more of a premium than others. We need to be mindful of the fact that it's not just a given for every circuit and we need to be very careful that we come up with the best solution at each circuit. It wasn't much of a hit using that system in Hungary, but Spa and Monza are entirely different so we are working on developments to reduce any of the losses that the system might have going forward, particularly focusing on those races. The gains [from the exhaust] are there and in terms of numbers it will depend on the teams and resources and so on, but it's probably around 30% to 40% [of the gain] you had last year so it's worth having. As I say we need to make sure that we keep it balanced.

For someone looking in from the outside it seems as though the FIA could have completely stopped exhaust blowing by positioning the exhausts out of the back of the car, but instead we still have a bit of a grey area that the teams have been able to engineer performance from. Do you think that's the case?
I accept that when the regulations were derived that the FIA, through Charlie [Whiting], felt that probably 90% plus of any opportunity to exploit the exhaust for aerodynamic benefit was gone. It clearly is something beneficial to be injecting high-speed gas into an environment that is aerodynamic on a car, so you can never say you've taken away 100% of the opportunity. But I think there was a genuine belief that it was somewhere in excess of 90% and it was probably a belief held by the majority of the teams at the time. When we started designing the car we had a kind of A and B approach because we were running KERS for the first time and we didn't want an exhaust system that compromised the cooling of that, so we remained conventional to start off with. But to be honest we'd already had a look in the tunnel and seen that there was potential there, and other people who had less constraints would have been looking at two routes in parallel and probably fairly quickly realised there was some benefit still from the systems that we now see and they would have gone down that route from day one. But it's interesting to see that there are three cars that are performing reasonably well that haven't yet gone down that route, and I guess we're all looking to see whether Mercedes, Lotus and Williams ultimately go that way. I know we've seen Williams playing about with a system in FP1 sessions earlier this season, so clearly there is something there, but equally clearly it's far more difficult to extract performance from it than it was last year.

Another factor we've heard a lot about when bringing updates to the car is making the new parts work with the tyres. Where are you with understanding the tyres and has that been a big issue?
It took about four or five races before we had a reasonable feel for the tyres. I think that now we have what we think is a reasonable understanding of the tyres - I mean we have one tyre engineer and I guess other teams may have more resource to work on these things - but fundamentally it's a temperature thing. It's about trying to get the tyres to work in a temperature range that is perhaps a bit narrower than the ones we have worked with in the past, so there's more focus and more effort on the things you might want to do to try and achieve that. But there doesn't appear to be a generalisation on what people have to do with the tyres. Maybe a lot of people have worked to put temperature into the front tyres, certainly that's been our approach, but it's fairly evident that when we went to Bahrain and Valencia our performance relatively was better, and that's about us being in a better temperature range than at wetter or colder circuits.

Caterham is hoping for better results in the second half of the season © Sutton Images

So are you looking to the flyaway races at the end of the season when you can perhaps bank on hotter and more consistent temperatures over the weekend?
I think so. I think that those kinds of environments in terms of track temperature definitely seem to suit us, and I know that's definitely not a universal thing because it depends where you are with lots of things. Ultimately teams towards the rear of the grid are looking to put more aero load into the car so it's more difficult to generate the tyre temperatures, particularly at the front, and I'm sure at the other end of the grid the challenges are different. But I think for us they should give a more positive playing field.

A few teams are starting to talk about shifting the focus entirely to the 2013 car now, is that the stage that you're at?
We are making the 2013 car very much a development of the current car, so there's not a fundamental shift in what we're doing and therefore we are going to develop this car a little bit further into this season than we would have done.

And with the 2014 regulation changes it must be quite a juggling act you're facing next year, is that another reason for the continuity?
It is a factor. We actually have had a guy working on general layouts for the 2014 car for some time now and some aero and CFD studies to support that as well. It's an interesting point and there has actually probably been some more specific work done on 2014.

When you look at those 2014 changes do you see it as an opportunity or is it a bit of a pain because you have to go back to the drawing board?
My own personal perspective is that it is neither a big opportunity or a potential issue. As a customer of a transmission and a gearbox, one of the things is that we have to almost wait and see how that package turns out because that will dictate a lot of the packaging at the rear of our car. Obviously we have a reasonable relationship with Red Bull so, although we haven't seen any designs yet, we understand the kinds of things they are looking at and we've had some discussions with Renault. So we have some knowledge and expectation of the packaging at the rear of the car that we will have with the engine, exhausts, turbo, gearbox and so on, but in the normal course of things we would be driving and designing all of that in-house. So it will make things a little bit different in that respect because it's a fairly mammoth undertaking and one that we will pick up at a certain stage. In terms of the overall thing, I personally don't think that big regulation changes open up great opportunities for smaller teams and I think generally the pecking order will stay fairly similar. The more resources you have the more solutions you can look at and you hopefully come up with the best one. I understand what happened in 2009 [the last major regulation change] with the double diffusers, but I don't think it will significantly change things for us and I don't see in the 2014 regulation changes something that will particularly open up the door for teams at the back of the grid.