Home - The Official Formula 1 Website Skip to content

Life on the Wire - the Formula One Race Engineer Unravelled 09 Sep 2009

(L to R): Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix with Jock Clear (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix Senior Race Engineer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, British Grand Prix, Practice Day, Silverstone, England, Friday, 19 June 2009 Race winner Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix celebrates with the team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, European Grand Prix, Race, Valencia Spain, Sunday, 23 August 2009 (L to R): Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix with Jock Clear (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix Senior Race Engineer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Turkish Grand Prix, Practice Day, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Friday, 5 June 2009 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix BGP 001 makes a pitstop.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 30 August 2009 Jock Clear (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix Senior Race Engineer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, German Grand Prix, Practice Day, Nurburgring, Germany, Friday, 10 July 2009

Their voices stop television commentators in their tracks as they take over the air waves and issue instructions to a driver, but a race engineer’s job entails much more than being a pit-to-car messenger. From strategist to diplomat, from decision maker to motivational guru, it’s a complex and demanding role.

One of the most experienced in the business is Brawn GP’s Jock Clear, race engineer to Rubens Barrichello. From guiding Jacques Villeneuve to the world title in 1997, to his recent triumph as the man behind Barrichello’s Valencia victory, Clear remains at the very top of his game. In the first of a three-part feature, Formula1.com caught up with him to find out more about one of the most important positions in the paddock.

For casual Formula One fans, the race engineer’s most obvious presence during a Grand Prix weekend is his conversations with his driver over the radio. Whether it’s a blurted-out order to ‘pit’ as rain begins to fall, a warning to take it easy for the sake of the tyres, advice to pick up the pace ahead of an in-lap, or just relaying how the race is panning out, it’s a pivotal part of their job.

As the team’s go-between linking cockpit and pit wall, a race engineer provides the driver with all the information (strategy, lap times, tyres temperatures etc) that he needs to get the job done. He will also pass on any data that could help the driver improve his pace, let him know if he needs to adjust engine settings to conserve fuel, or tell him what his rivals are up to. It goes both ways, so as well as relaying information, the engineer must listen to the driver’s responses and interpret these messages quickly, before passing them on accurately to the rest of the team’s support engineers. With these facts at their fingertips, the whole team can then work on measures to improve the car’s set-up, handling, and performance to better suit the driver’s demands.

“The dialogue between the two that you see on the television is the thing that people most relate to,” explains Clear, when asked to describe his job to the layman. “You’re the direct conduit between the driver and the 400 people in the team. Interpreting the feedback is important too. Obviously the driver isn’t an engineer, so you need to then translate (what he says) into ‘engineer speak’. You really are the eyes and ears of the rest of the factory, as far as the driver is concerned and vice versa.”

As well as being chief envoy between driver and team, Clear will also help make the key decisions that will shape his driver’s strategy over a Grand Prix weekend. Of course, the days of tactics being the domain of two or three team members are long gone; there’s now a whole gaggle of engineers working to find the best practice, qualifying and race plan. However, Clear (and his fellow race engineers up and down the pit lane) remains an intrinsic part of this process, assisting the team in deciding on fuel loads, tyre choice and the timing of qualifying runs.

“Strategy is a group thing now,” confirms Clear. “I would say that James Vowles, Brawn GP’s strategy engineer, is pretty much in charge of what goes on a race day. But again, on the basis of all that’s gone before, myself, Rubens, Jenson (Button), and (Button’s race engineer) Andrew Shovlin are all involved throughout the weekend.

“So come race time, James is effectively choreographing the show, having been through rehearsals with all the rest of us. It’s testament to how well you work as an engineering group and how well you’ve done your homework. We shouldn’t have debates on the pit wall. If it’s a set of circumstances that you didn’t foresee then you just didn’t do your homework.”

But Formula One racing is anything but predictable, and however painstakingly organised the team is, there will always be moments of uncertainty, where things just don’t go to plan and disorder reigns. Be it a safety car, a sudden shower, or a puncture, anything can happen and not every eventuality can be planned for. And it’s at this point, when time is limited, that Clear has to take control, helping his driver settle on a course of action in little more than a heartbeat. It’s not something just anyone can be good at.

“You need to make decisions - simple as that really," says Clear. "And you’ve never got the luxury of having all the information available to you. So you always have to make decisions with whatever information you do have available at that time. And as much as you’d like to wait a couple of minutes to see if it is going to rain, for example, those extra couple of minutes might be too late and you’ve missed the window.

“So you invariably have to make decisions on the thinnest of information. And that’s something some people don’t like doing. If you’re a pure scientist your gut feeling is that you can’t make a decision yet, you’ll have to wait for some more information. But obviously sport doesn’t allow you to do that. So there’s a huge emphasis on simply being able to make a decision. The whole team has got to know what to do in any given circumstance, and no decision is the worst thing you can do.”

One of the most surprising things is that an engineer can make these decisions on the spot and then communicate these speedy demands to the driver in the same calm and collected manner that he was chatting about front-wing adjustments during Friday practice. For Clear, this unflappability is an essential part of the job.

“It’s only the pressure of time that makes you excitable. You’d be surprised at how quickly you need to make decision at key times. You are talking matters of seconds. You can take in the region of three to five seconds to get the most basic of information across, but in some circumstances three to five seconds is too long. So you simply have to try and get information across stupidly quickly.

“One circumstance that comes to mind is in Singapore last year when the safety car came out when Piquet crashed. I’m sure the radios were flying between Red Bull and us, because we were the four cars who could pit before the safety car got out. Three out of the four did it. Jenson failed to get in, but Webber, Coulthard and Rubens all got in and got the jump so to speak. It’s that circumstance where it will sound very panicky but it’s in that case that you don’t have three seconds to say a phrase to get the information to the driver. You’ve got to get it out faster than that - and the only way of doing that is to say it fast and loud.”

As in all aspects of the sport, speed is evidently imperative. And Clear believes that this ability to be flexible enough to take a punt on a spur-of-the-moment strategy change is vital for a race engineer to be good at his job. He does, however, admit that it’s an inexact science - and one that can have mixed results.

“The fact is when you have to make decision with a lack of information, inevitably, you will get it wrong sometimes,” he says. “The skill of a race engineer is to demonstrate that over the course of a season or whatever, he’ll be right more often than he’s wrong. But it’s making those judgement calls and being better at it than average that makes a successful race engineer.”

To read Part Two of this feature, click here.
To read Part Three of this feature, click here.