Q&A with Force Indias Mark Smith & James Key 01 Mar 2009
As Force Indias 2009 car, the VJM02, is put through its first official testing paces in Spain, two of the key men behind the machines design talk about its development and how the teams new partnership with McLaren has shaped the process
Mark Smith, design director
Design director Mark re-joined Force India in November 2007 to lead design and production of the team's current challenger, the VJM02. Smith takes responsibility for the day to day running of the Design Office and Research and Development.
Q: Aside from the aero regulations, what are the principal differences from the 2008 season for Force India?
Mark Smith: From Force India's perspective the main change we have had from 2008 is the new engine from Mercedes-Benz and the gearbox from McLaren. When we confirmed the partnership on 10 November 2008 we had to adapt our plans fairly significantly. It's not just a case of getting the new parts and installing them; when we changed the gearbox, it had slightly different suspension mountings and when we changed the rear suspension there was a necessary change on the front. Other areas subject to change were the fuel cell, and the cooling system. All have been challenges in their own right, but not day and night differences as you've seen on the aero side.
Q: As you say, the deal was announced on 10 November. Has the timeframe been the biggest challenge?
MS: Adapting to a new engine and gearbox is not actually fundamentally difficult, the biggest factor has been the timeframe we have worked with. We had got a fair way down the line with our 2009 plans at that point and then had to adapt them to the new suppliers. Normally you would have started in August, so we have had to compress everything into five months. Everyone has really worked hard to make it work and we've got a potentially better package, so the change has been a positive rather than a negative.
Q: What exactly does the McLaren-Mercedes partnership comprise?
MS: The package announced comprises the supply of engines, gearboxes, hydraulics systems and KERS to Force India.
Q: Will Force India run KERS this season?
MS: Our car is fully KERS compliant but whether we run the system will be decided jointly by Force India, McLaren and Mercedes.
Q: And this year sees the return of slick tyres. Has this had a major impact on design?
MS: Running a new tyre compound does have some impact, especially as we have had limited running on slicks. There are a number of solutions you can apply on camber and suspension, or factor some items into the geometry. At this stage however we are dependent on the previous running or data we have received from Bridgestone, but the impacts at this time are quite subtle.
Q: Have the new partnerships had a real impact on the workforce? Have you restructured the team in anyway?
MS: We haven't seen the whole benefit just yet as we have been working flat out on the car but so far everything has been positive. The relationship has been very good and we have gelled very well given the limited amount of time we have worked together. The big talking point has been how we approach development, how we track test items, how we introduce significant updates. The process works well.
Q: Obviously with the car launching so late, testing is going to be even more crucial than ever. What will the plan be?
MS: We will have eight days of testing, plus two shakedowns. The first shakedown, which took place at Silverstone on 25 February, allowed us to determine and fix any major issues, check the systems and so on, and then the Jerez test will be to identify the aero load on the car and get some feedback on handling. Following this test, we'll see where we are, assess any outstanding problems and then try to fix a set up for Melbourne. The next test will be in Barcelona from 9 - 12 March.
Q: Will the late debut be a problem?
MS: Ideally you would have more testing, but it isn't a major issue. One of the biggest disadvantages will be knowing what the life of the new parts is. Normally in pre-season testing we would put more life on each part than it would be subject to under race conditions, but with only eight days we won't be able to do this. It will just put a greater onus on rig testing and Grands Prix Fridays.
Q: Now that testing is banned in-season, is this going to hamper development for teams such as Force India that have debuted late?
MS: With no mid-season testing it does make life more difficult, but you should never be in a situation where you put a part onto a car and have a doubt about it. Really you would use a test to check the reliability and the life, rather than whether it works. It does mean we will have to be smarter with regards to reliability and also that Fridays at a Grand Prix will be more valuable than ever. I think we will see real work conducted, so car set up, development and mileage rather than simple tyre comparisons. It will certainly make the weekends more exciting.
James Key, technical director
James Key is a long-standing member of the Force India team, first joining Jordan Grand Prix in 1998. Over his 10 year period with the Silverstone outfit Key has worked his way through the ranks, becoming technical director in 2005. He now oversees aerodynamics, vehicle science and R&D for the team.
Q: The shape of the VJM02 is radically different from that of its predecessor. Can you talk us through the new aero rules and Force India's interpretation of them?
James Key: The aerodynamic regulations are completely different this year, to the point where we are almost starting from a blank sheet of paper.
If we talk through the car from the nose, the front wing looks very different. The wing must be 1800mm wide by regulation so it stretches to the widest point on the front tyres, making it look very flat and, obviously, extremely wide in comparison to the 2008 wing. With an FIA-prescribed central section, and two working sections that are towards the outside of the wing, it also works in a very different way from last year. In 2008 this wing was narrower and the whole section was working very hard and pushing the air flow inside the tyres and under the car. Now, the air hits the front wing and its up-wash is directly affected by the tyre so it must flow in several different directions , which creates a much more complicated problem, particularly as the rest of the bodywork is also subject to very strict regulations.
The bodywork is now much more like a 'jelly mould', that is there are no elements hanging off the bodywork, so no bargeboards, chimneys, louvre panels or any 'add on' devices that manipulate the flow of air over the car. All the bodywork must comply to a set of 75mm radii so the VJM02 has a much more curved, clean profile compared to 2008. Of course the lack of these outlet devices and the changes on the rear has had a fundamental impact on the cooling of the car. Now there are only two cooling exits, and the air has to exit via the rear of the bodywork just ahead of the rear wheel centreline.
Moving to the rear of the car, the diffuser is lower, wider and further back on the car. The second more obvious difference from 2008 is that the rear wing is a lot higher and narrower. The maximum width of the wing is 25% smaller with only two wing elements. It's now a lot more aligned with the rear diffuser so more difficult to get them to interact compared to 2008.
Q: In another new regulation, the front wing is also moveable
JK: Yes, the front wing is the only legal driver-adjustable aero device on the car. It is activated by a button on the steering wheel. It can be moved up or down by three degrees and is there primarily to help with overtaking. In previous seasons we have had situations where cars could follow one another but couldn't overtake as the front end lost downforce and grip when the cars got too close. Now, the driver can adjust the wing twice per lap so if he is following a car he can get close enough to pass on the exit of the corner.
Another benefit is that if the car develops a handling issue, such as tyre degradation for instance, the driver can hit the button and try to address the problem.
Q: Has any of the 2008 testing helped?
JK: In the last part of 2008 we set the car to 2009 drag and downforce levels to get an idea of how the car would behave with the new regulations, but very often we had a cold track and it hasn't been very representative! We know we have compromised on testing with the late debut of the car, but we have a very defined winter testing programme from now on and in general the positives on the McLaren/Mercedes deal have far outweighed the negatives.
Q: Has the relationship with McLaren and Mercedes had an impact on the aero design of the car?
JK: To a certain extent, yes, as we have had to adapt the bodywork to fit a new, slightly different shaped engine, gearbox and KERS. We haven't had to start from scratch but we have had to repackage and redefine certain areas, such as the side pods, cooling and the rear of the car. We spent a long time trying to get the bodywork right and the guys in the wind tunnel design office have done an excellent job in interpreting the regulations. It is still very early days and I think we will still find new directions as development progresses.