Q&A with Renault's Bob Bell After a strong end to the 2008 season, Renault head into 2009 confident that they will be able to challenge with the new R29. Technical Director Bob Bell takes questions...
What can you tell us about the way you’ve worked over the winter and how did you tackle the 2009 challenges?
"It wasn’t fundamentally different from the way we do any car. In fact, we started working on the R29 earlier than we normally would have. We began the first wind tunnel tests back in February. It was a question of gradually building up the resources on that project without compromising what we wanted to do on the R28, which we developed quite late into the season."
How did you achieve this?
"The only way we were able to do that was to ask more of our people and our facilities, and just work a little bit harder because the R29 has been a very demanding program. We’ve had to push the design of the car and incorporate new technology that we haven’t had before: the KERS system, the adjustable front flaps, a completely new approach to the aero, completely new aerodynamics. Then there were the side effects, especially of KERS because it uses up so much weight and eats up all your moveable ballast. So we’ve really had to push taking weight out of the car. It’s been a much more difficult and more intensive development program and required a lot more effort than any car we’ve done recently."
In terms of performance is it easy to know where you stand, and also where your rivals are going to be?
"You do design these cars in isolation. With these new regulations, it’s a lot more difficult to know what the others are going to do because it’s such new territory for us. I’m sure people’s solutions to the new regulations will initially be quite different, and then they’ll start to converge quite rapidly as the season advances. But initially, people’s solutions and the relative performance between them will be more diverse than it normally is. It makes it very hard to judge where you stand. We believe we’ve set ourselves sensible targets. I think that all the top teams will be shooting for the same sort of ballpark performance, but where that shakes out in terms of rankings of the teams, I’m not certain."
Is there something you’re particularly proud of on this car? Is there a device that stands out immediately compared to what maybe the other teams will be doing?
"I think like everything in Formula 1 what’s important is good quality workmanship, being very methodical about improving every piece and making everything that little bit better than it’s been before. I think we’ve done a good job in being workmanlike and in improving everything: taking weight out, improving the performances of all the parts, but I also think we’ve got some interesting solutions to some of the aerodynamic regulations. I’m equally proud of the attention to detail on the mechanical design side. We’re really pushing performance from the suspension systems and improving mechanical grip. The elegance of some of the mechanical design is very satisfying."
Let’s come back to the 2009 aerodynamics. What’s been the starting point in the way you’ve tackled the work?
"First of all, we took the 2008 car and just did no more than to legalize it to the 2009 regs without any obvious development. That was the starting point. Then it becomes pretty obvious, when you start working on that program, that the key areas for development and performance are the front wing and its interaction with the nose and then the diffuser. That falls into a front and rear emphasis on the design of the car. We’ve driven the aero department towards looking at those two important parameters – almost separately – but constantly checking what the interaction between the two is. These are two very important areas for the 2009 car."
Also, a lot of the body add-ons have gone...
"Yes. Also, the 09 regulations very much hamper what you can do to provide the cooling level required at all ambient temperatures for the car. Thus, we’ve had to be quite clever and worked to make sure we can always find a cooling solution in any ambient condition. These are just examples of where we’ve put a lot of our effort, and they’re obvious things that I’m sure all the teams will be doing. The important thing with any new set of regulations, where it’s all new territory for you, is not to overlook anything. You do need to work on every part of the car and be sure that you understand what the sensitivity change is, as it may be quite different from what it used to be."
The KERS system has been a very difficult process for every team on the grid. What’s the situation at Renault and how much of a help can it be in terms of performance for the team?
"Well, if everybody has one and they all work, then we’re all going to be around two tenths of a second per lap quicker and maybe on some circuits not quicker at all. We’re all in the same boat so it doesn’t offer any performance advantage. Where it helps is in being able to overtake. Obviously it isn’t much of an advantage if two KERS cars are nose-to-tail on the straight because they’ll both push the button to overtake at the same time. The problem comes if you don’t have a KERS system, and somebody comes up behind you with one; then you’ve got a real problem as you can’t afford not to have it. At the same time, if everybody has it, it’s not going to make an awful lot of difference unless they break down, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of breakdowns in the early part of the season."
Has it been a difficult device to design, produce and set up? Are you still working on it?
"It’s been one of the most difficult projects we’ve had to implement and we’re far from being out of the woods with it yet. The effort that’s going to need to go in to making it reliable, race-worthy and safe; the effort that’s going on in the background, not just to design the parts, but to fit them on the car, to implement all the safety systems and all the safety procedures for people who use them and operate them. Then you have the logistics issues concerning flying batteries round the world, special facilities at our factory that are there to contain battery fires should that ever happen, modifications to dyno facilities to accept KERS systems for testing, lots of new software on the car and off it – it just goes on and on!"
"Every day that passes, something else related to KERS crops up that we need to do, which we haven’t thought about before. I think that when we all saw the regulations that were first published for the KERS solution, they were the tip of a very large iceberg, which I don’t think many people in the sport really appreciated."
Let’s talk about the tire situation. What did you have to do to the cars to adapt them to slick tires? Is it going to be a long learning process for all the teams?
"No, I don’t think it will be, actually. In fact, it’s probably the easiest thing we’ve had to adapt to! We’ve been running the tires on the 08 car and we’ve adapted to them pretty quickly. They haven’t required an awful lot of change in terms of car set-up to get the best out of them. As the season develops, there’ll be more subtleties involved as to how we use the tires to get a performance advantage over our rivals, but basically we’ll be there. It’s nothing like as difficult as the transition from Michelin to Bridgestone grooved tires."
Apart from adapting the car to the new regulations, are there some other things you’ve had to work on which could benefit the performance of the R29?
"We’ve got some interesting suspension developments coming through as well as some interesting developments in the braking system. Obviously, I can’t go into detail on that; they’re not appearing on the car yet. I’m quite proud of the fact that the team is still finding areas where we can get a sensible gain and advantage over other teams, particularly in the mechanical domain."
What can we say about your team at Enstone, the design office and all the employees who’ve actually built the car, about what they’ve achieved in 2008 and what they’re going through in order to prepare for 2009?
"They’ve achieved a huge amount. It’s been a very difficult year for the team in terms of the amount of effort everybody’s had to put in to get the results we needed in 2008, and then to deliver a competitive 2009 car. Really, it’s only been accomplished through the hard work and diligence of the people in the team at all levels, and it really is a tribute to everybody that we have bounced back in the way we have. I can’t speak highly enough of the effort put in by technicians, designers and the manufacturing people. Everybody has contributed massively to the performance enhancement of the 28 and the development of the 29, and it’s something we’re all very proud of."