While much of the automotive world is slowly weaning away from fossil fuels, and a burgeoning electric racing series, Formula E is gaining ground, Formula One continues to live up to its title as The Pinnacle of Motorsport. Much of this is due to the “glamor at 200 mph,” ridiculous research budgets, and larger than life drivers, team owners, and team principals.
But behind all the glitz and glam of this high-speed spectacle, there's a lot going on outside of the race track. See, in a Formula One team, the work doesn't stop when the checkered flag drops. In fact, the work doesn't stop at all. So what happens behind the scenes of a Formula One team?
Well, wonder no more. Thanks to our friends from Aston Martin Manila, we got an exclusive tour of the headquarters of Formula One’s most enigmatic teams, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing. Red Bull is housed in an estate in a little town called Milton Keynes, in an area insiders affectionately call Motorsport Valley. This small area just outside of London is home to some of the world’s leading F1 teams like Mercedes, Williams, Racing Point, and McLaren.
The Red Bull HQ is composed of a number of buildings occupying the industrial estate that make up the R&D department, workshops, machine shop, composites facility, storage facility and freight yard. The buildings would look like any other IT park were it not for a decal of a bull and sun on the glass façade of the main building.
Any tour of Red Bull HQ begins at Building One. This and MK7 are the only areas where photography is allowed. And rightly so. Standing some three stories high in the lobby is Red Bull’s impressive trophy case, containing the various driver and constructors’ trophies from their race victories.
The tour begins on the second floor in what Red Bull calls the Drawing Office. In here, engineers design car components like composites, suspension, hydraulics, transmission and systems design are created in computers. These are were the incremental improvements in aero performance, vehicle dynamics, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and stress analysis are first conceived.
It may not look like it, but the F1 car is constantly updated with new components developed day-by-day, often hour-by-hour. Some are even flown in just a day before the race by the interns unfortunately tasked with delivering them.
Easily one of the most overlooked but nonetheless most essential parts of the facility is manufacturing. This is where the new components drawn up in the computer are first prototyped and eventually manufacturing. Red Bull makes extensive use of 3D printing but with more specialized machines and rarer materials than are typically available. Its 3D printers run 24/7, printing new parts made of lighter but more durable resin than those commercially available. These printed parts are just for test fitting and measurement tests and hardly ever make it to the actual car.
For more pieces that pass scrutiny and approved for the car itself, they’re manufactured on milling machines and autoclaves. This area is home to five autoclaves of various sizes. These massive ovens are used to bake layers of carbon fiber together to form parts as massive as front wing assemblies to objects as tiny as winglets. You may think that all the sponsor logos are simply decals, but even these can cause aerodynamic turbulence. As such, each logo is painted on and sealed over to create a smooth surface.
For internal components, there’s the machine shop which mills each and every gear of the transmission or wheel bolt from solid pieces of aluminum. Some of their most impressive products are three-piece aluminum wheel nuts as large as a coffee cup but weigh less than a standard car lugnut.
Once body components like wing assemblies and barge boards are completed, their supposed advantages have to be tested and determined via wind tunnel. Facilities like these are among the most controversial in F1 due to their extravagant cost and advantages. For now, the FIA allows the use of wind tunnels but with 'wind-on' hours heavily restricted. Red Bull’s wind tunnel — a half hour drive from the HQ —can’t fit a full-size car, but can accommodate a 60% scale model of one (complete with 60% scale tires from Pirelli and wheels from OZ).
Mechanical parts have to be tested too. While Red Bull receives engines from Honda, which are tested at Honda’s facility, but its gearbox is made and tested entirely in-house. These gearboxes are examined on a chassis dynamometer designed to constantly push gearboxes through a variety of load cycles. They can simulate different grand prix circuits, race scenarios and brutal conditions way beyond anything the gearbox would ever be expected to see in action. This is essential as the FIA requires gearboxes to have long lifecycles in addition to coping with the extra surge provided by hybrid power units.
The Race Bay
Track time can be pretty expensive and is often reserved for testing. So how does a team perfect its pit stop? With an indoor race bay. This is where the pit crew practice a variety of maneuvers from the typical pit stop, to nose cone replacement or quick repairs.
The team practices on a copy of the race car that goes to races, sometimes with the most up-to-date aero. Being indoors, it can be dangerous and loud for the crew to practice with a car powered by an actual engine. This race car is powered by an electric engine with similar torque figures to zoom into the stop box, but dramatically less range.
The bay itself can be configured to simulate the pit lane in a variety of circuits. Items like the overhead gantry and air compressors are completely movable to simulate a clockwise or anti-clockwise circuit. It’s here that the pit crew can hone their skills with hours of repetitive practice over various scenarios.
The Ops Room
One of the facilities most fans don’t know about is the Operations room. This massive theatre is built like the Space Shuttle Mission Control Room in Houston. A massive LED wall sits on one side with tiered rows of desks and computers on the other. All these computers are hooked up to a massive data center on-site to do a variety of calculations.
There are engineers dedicated to monitoring the weather, track conditions, and even the live feed. Interns are dedicated to monitoring team radio messages of other teams and relaying their interpretations.
It may look like most of the team is at the track, but the bulk of them are actually here during races, monitoring everything that goes on and working on calculations. That data is then sent to the skeletal staff on the pit wall at the track.
Given the regulatory restrictions on the number of team personnel at the race track, the logistical challenge of a hectic season that travels to new and far-flung locations, the value of the Ops Center cannot be stressed enough. Whatever the conditions at a circuit, the team back at base will be able to support the race team from a position of comfort (save for the odd hours) rather than if they crammed into a truck or the back of a garage.
Perhaps one of the more recognizable parts of an F1 HQ are the simulation rooms. Of course, this is nothing like the video arcade or any rig you can buy at the store. Here, drivers sit in rigs of F1 cars, mounted on hydraulics and surrounded by a curved screen. Here, changes to the car can be programmed into the simulator to give drivers a chance to familiarize themselves to tracks and car improvements before actually driving one.
The simulator can recreate some of the G-forces of driving an F1 car and produce resistance via force feedback. Several scenarios can also be programmed to test a driver’s wet weather skill or how he handles a vehicle malfunction.
To end the tour, there could be no better place than MK-7. This facility, named after Milton Keynes’ zip code, houses all of the race cars, from RB1 through RB14, and some of the drivers’ helmets, suits, and even shoes (Ricciardo’s). Arranged in a circle, fans can walk through the entire timeline of Red Bull cars to see how they’ve progressed or adapted to new regulations from one car to the next.
F1 can be quite an intimidating sport, but a tour of the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing HQ certainly provides a closer glimpse of the hard work, innovation, and painstaking attention to detail that goes into every vehicle. It’s a rare opportunity that’s worth experiencing if you have the chance and will help provide a healthy new respect for the Pinnacle of Motorsport.