London, Great Britain. Since A1GP World Cup of Motorsport announced the landmark partnership with Ferrari back in 2007, a momentous project began to design, build and test a full field of cars and bring them to the grid for the 2008/09 season. With the first season in a 5-year deal now complete, the man who has overseen this impressive feat, John Travis, A1GP Technical Director, talks about the challenge that helped produce A1GP’s most exciting season of racing to date.
Q: What are you’re thoughts on the car and how it has performed this season?
A: I have been very pleased. It was a large target and a very tight brief for what we had to achieve with the car; we had to keep good racing, competitiveness and make the cars run together so we didn’t lose any of the A1GPP philosophy of close racing. The other interesting thing is the lap times, from the fastest car to the slowest car is probably within two seconds a lap better than the old car. Everybody was also concerned that this was a more hi-tech car with more power and, therefore, the top drivers would run away with it and the less experienced drivers would fall to the back, but that hasn’t happened and I think that’s a great result.
I think this is down to two things: one, the car is easy to set-up, it has a very progressive aerodynamic envelope and we supplied the teams with a lot of information so that the top teams don’t run away with technological advantage, and the second thing is that the teams stepped up to the mark and their drivers have driven the cars very well.
Q: Do you think the rule that the fastest lap information is available to all teams has been important in reducing some team’s technological advantage?
A: It shows anything is possible to the other drivers, ‘’he is doing this, he is doing that – why cant I?’’. I think it has been a very good idea.
Q: What have the drivers’ reaction to the car been, especially those who have raced in Formula 1 or Formula 3?
A: I think they have been quite surprised by the level of down force, the carbon brakes and just the general quality of the car. It’s probably like being in a Formula 1 car four or five years ago and that’s how they perceive it. The tires are also very good and very consistent. I know in some places we haven’t had the right compound, like in Sepang, but that’s going to be addressed next season. Generally they guys have really loved the car.
Q: Neel Jani said when he looked at the Algarve track, he didn’t think the cars could follow each other closely enough to make a pass, but was quickly proved wrong. Was that something that surprised you or was that part of the design?
A: It was very much part of the design. I looked at Formula 1 and what they have done and thought that’s the wrong way to do it; I don’t think that’s right what Formula 1 have done but I think what we have done is correct. Our front wing design, balance, aerodynamics and mechanical grip is the right philosophy and you look at the amount of over taking moves we do in a race and the proximity of our cars running together, it far exceeds anything Formula 1 have done so I think we have the recipe right.
Q: Do the front wing and the rear wing match up aerodynamically?
A: Rear wings are what they are and they create turbulent wake. We did a lot of work in Champ Car and when I was at Penske we did a lot of research on the track to understand turbulent wake and the affect of it. The front wing philosophy has been carried over from that, so that we don’t actually wash the front wing out when we come into turbulent wake, its a lot more benign to turbulent wake and we produce about 50% of our down force from the under wing. I think that’s why we have a very good aerodynamic package. We’ve stayed with a two-meter wide track, which gives us more mechanical grip and I think that now we have a good balance, aerodynamics and mechanical grip.
Q: The PowerBoost has aided overtaking and has changed qualifying completely, what do you like about it?
A: That’s been the key to good racing. The thing I like about it in qualifying is that a guy you wouldn’t expect can use the PowerBoost button in qualifying and can be right up there at the top. Then there is the strategy; are you going to use it in the Sprint qualifying or in the Feature? It really does break the qualifying grid up. It is very interesting to watch as a spectator and it has made a big difference to our racing.
Q: What has it been like for you personally and for A1GP working with Ferrari and having access to things that probably a normal series or single seater manufacturer wouldn’t usually have access to?
A: It has been a great opportunity to work with Ferrari. It has such a great history and there has been so much information but it has been unique working with Rory (Byrne). Rory has been the lynchpin between Bognor Regis, where the manufacturing people are, and Maranello, where the engine people are. Trying to work together to put a sports car engine into a single seater has been a big challenge. It has always been good to pick their brains and if we have ever wanted anything from Ferrari they have always given it to us, they have been a great help.
The engine was developed for the future 8-cyllinder cars; we are pioneering the technology prior to them running it in their cars. It’s great for Ferrari because here we are racing using something their customer is going to be driving around in.
Q: What have you thought about the reliability of the car?
A: We did an awful lot of testing and we haven’t really had any major problems. We turned it around and the test car has done over 7,000-kilometres and has been pretty robust. I think some of us thought we would have some major problems, especially when you have 25 cars, it’s not like you are running a two car team, you are dealing with a full grid and that is a huge expense and huge logistics but touch-wood we haven’t had too many problems.
Jeroen Bleekemolen had a problem with the steering wheel in Zandvoort but that was because of the heavy rain. If that had been a dry race we wouldn’t have had any problems, but it was torrential and we had water getting in to the cock pits, which isn’t a reliability problem, it’s an act of God.
Q: What about the other issues you have found over the season, have you been able to overcome them to your satisfaction?
A: We have a good group of guys and every single issue we have dealt with immediately and made sure the problem doesn’t occur in any of the other cars. The interesting thing is that you attend to one car with one problem, but when you have 25 cars with different drivers you get a multitude of different problems.
Q: Do the cars need work over the summer months?
A: We have a summer re-build program where we make sure that all the cars are up to the latest specification, because when you travel around the world it is very difficult and teams are limited on their mileage. To make sure every car is brought up to the same specification the summer rebuild consists of a general rebuild, checking all components and bringing the specification up so all cars are the same, so that’s what we will be doing over the summer ready for the first test at Silverstone.
Q: What are the plans for short term and long term upgrades and keeping the car cutting edge? Will you design things to improve on it?
A: Probably not for this next season, but what we will be looking at is upgrading it, looking at where we are and where we think we need to be performance wise. We are going to be doing some tire development and then we will readdress that, do we want to make the car visually look different? Do we need to increase terminal velocity or speed? Do we want to reduce the level of drag? Maybe we can reduce the level of down force and get a better terminal velocity. These are all things we will be testing and draw some conclusions to.
Q: Another thing that has been tested well is the safety of the car, it has been thrown in to some barriers but the drivers have all got out ok.
A: This is a tribute to the FIA and the specifications they lay out for the homologation test that has been a huge challenge. It’s okay when you have an unlimited budget and you can throw lots of exotic materials at it, but you have a difficult situation when you have to balance costs against safety and I think we have done a good job. The cars have performed exactly as the crash test predicted.
Q: How long can this car go on for?
A: It’s really up to A1GP how long they want to keep it. Personally, three to four years is the longest you want to keep a car because safety rules move on, technology moves on and the public’s perception of how a car should look moves on.
Q: Have you found this project satisfying seeing it from the initial brief to the cars racing?
A: It’s always satisfying to see that happens. There are very few industries where you can design, manufacture and see the product in six-months. Motor racing is probably the last industry where that happens and that’s why we all get a big kick out of it; it’s not like the aircraft industry where it has ten to 12 years gestation period for an aircraft, we are talking six-months. We all get that buzz, I have done many cars and been in the industry for 30-years, but this one was done in rapid time and it was a great achievement by a small group of people.
Q: How much more speed is there in this car with the current specification?
A: There is a little more in it but when we look at tire development and change compounds and construction, that is when we will see the lap times change. The teams can tweak the car and just progressively develop the car to get it to go quicker. That is always going to be the case that drivers and teams will understand the car a little bit more and the performance level will increase, its natural evolution.
We have to give credit to those guys as they have worked some serious hours this season. To sum it up it’s like being in an orchestra: I am like the conductor and I have my orchestra in front of me and without those chaps you wouldn’t have a good sound.