The Formula One Race Engineer Unravelled - Part Two 16 Sep 2009
He may not be at the wheel, but without his input even the greatest of drivers would struggle to win a Grand Prix. The race engineer. His role is one of the most critical and demanding in Formula One racing.
In the second of our three-part feature, we speak to Brawn GP's Jock Clear - engineer to Monza winner Rubens Barrichello - about the qualifications and experience that help make him one of the best in the business:
To be good at this job, you need to be more than just a risk taker; you also need to be an expert engineer, with the appropriate qualifications and experience to boot. Without this technical knowhow, it would be impossible for someone to handle the varied demands of a race weekend. It's not a trade you can just learn on the job; training and experience is vital.
"You need to have a background in engineering and a full appreciation of reliability, aerodynamics and the engine. You must have a grasp of all those things because those sorts of demands are going to be made of you by all the other engineers," Clear explains. "There will invariably be conflicting demands between the aerodynamicists and the engine guys. One will want to keep the engine cover all closed up and aerodynamically efficient and the other will want to open it up and keep the engine all nice and cool. So again you have to make decisions and strike the best compromise. It's having the confidence to do that."
For Clear, experience is not a problem. He studied mechanical engineering at Edinburgh's famous Herriot-Watt university before joining Lola in 1988. Within a year he'd been poached by Benetton to head up the team's composite department. By 1991 had moved again, this time to a new position as Leyton House's senior designer, but was headhunted the following year by Lotus to be their senior designer. After two seasons behind the drawing board he became Johnny Herbert's race engineer in 1994. Fifteen years down the line, Clear doesn't want to return to the design office, although he does admit it was useful experience.
"I don't think I would go back to design now," he says. "Whilst it might be fun from my point of view, for Brawn it would be a waste of my expertise really. I think having a design background helps you understand the problems and the kind of information they need to improve the situation. You have to speak their language properly and to do this you have to have lived amongst them. However much you learn from your phrasebook, until you live among them you won't be able to talk their language. It's valuable to have that transfer of skills.
"We have various people in our drawing office who are ex-racing engineers. Andy le Fleming was a very good one and now he's chosen to go back into design. It works the other way. He doesn't come to me and question what I'm doing, because he recognises what's needed from a race engineer. And similarly when I need to give information to him, I understand what he needs from a design engineer's point of view.
"I could go back but I don't think that would be a particularly good use for my skills. I'm enjoying where I am at the moment and I would like to stay trackside and I would like to stay focused on drivers. I think that's where I've put a lot of effort in over the years and I've had a lot of experience with a lot of different drivers."
Indeed his CV is a real mixed bag. From engineering for Herbert at Lotus, he moved to Williams to be firstly David Coulthard's and then Jacques Villeneuve's race engineer. More recently he's worked with Takuma Sato and, of course, Rubens Barrichello. All in all Clear has handled a real assortment of personalities over his career. From the cheerfully optimistic to the fiery idealist, he's been the partner in crime to a multitude of characters. Despite this variety, Clear believes it's a must for an engineer to enjoy a good relationship with his driver.
"I think it's a prerequisite," he says. "I fail to see how any driver/engineer combination can work unless they're friends. They don't have to be best buddies, but I think it's inevitable that if you have respect for one another, and you work closely, then you'll probably become friends. I think it's an inevitable outcome of a working relationship that works well."
Of all his drivers, he was closest to Villeneuve, who won the title when Clear was his engineer in 1997. They remain friends to this day, with Villeneuve even godfather to Clear's daughters. Central to the success of their racing relationship was trust, and Clear believes he and Barrichello, the grid's most experienced runner, have established a similarly close rapport.
"I don't think trust has ever been an issue - it was there from the start," he says of his and Barrichello's working relationship. "When you've both got a successful track record, I think the trust is there fairly easily. I think we've had some tough times since he's been here, the team has been under pressure many times and he's been under pressure at times over the four years. But we just return to the basics and get on with the job. He's been really easy to work with and really fun to work with. He's hugely talented in so many aspects and brings an immense amount to the team.
"I know of drivers and engineers who have worked together and won championships, and gone their separate ways and not really kept in touch," he explains. "I think that's a bit strange. I think if you've been through that sort of high together I'd have thought that'd be an almost life-long bond. It certainly has been with myself and Jacques, and I can see exactly the same with Rubens as and when he hangs his boots up, or I hang my boots up. He's that sort of character. He's not going to forget people who've worked closely with him. And it was very similar with Jacques."
To read Part One of this feature, click here.
To read Part Three of this feature, click here.