Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, September 11, 1999

Prix Racer's Best Friend Is His Engineer

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Where there are race car drivers there are also beautiful women, but during a Formula One weekend a driver is married to his engineer.

At the Italian Grand Prix in Monza on Sunday, behind the 22 drivers, there will also be, as usual, the 22 engineers who work throughout the season with the same driver and share much of the responsibility for their success or failure.

When the engineer of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the German driver who is in fourth place in the championship, was away on paternity leave during the Hungarian Grand Prix last month, Frentzen said that having a replacement was like having ''a new girlfriend who doesn't know how much sugar you want in your coffee.''

The senior race car engineer is constantly by the driver's side in the garage or as a voice in his ear through the radio during a race. There he decides on pit-stop strategy, tells the driver to push hard to catch another car, or to hold off to preserve the tires, car or fuel.

When not racing, the engineer and driver try to develop the car or find the ideal setup for a specific track. To do this, the engineer collects and interprets both the computer data from the car and the human data of the driver's impressions, which he must translate into solid technical changes.

''The driver will say 'I have understeer, or I have oversteer, or I'm bottoming too much,''' Frenzten said. ''All this information from the driver is also accessible to the engineer through the computer sensors. The sensors read the height, the movement of the suspension, the aerodynamic influence. I have access to the data as well, from my engineer. So I say to him, for example, 'I don't want my car to understeer so much in this or that corner.' We talk about what we can do. We can lower the right tire, we can do softer springs, we can do a softer tire on the front, or softer damping, etc."

The engineer calculates it all from the data and comes up with a solution, or has to tell the driver there isn't one.

''You need a lot of trust and a lot of respect between the two of you for it to work,'' said Steve Clark, race engineer for Pedro Diniz at the Sauber team, and last year for Alex Zanardi in the Indy series in the United States, which they won. ''It is necessary for Pedro and me to be 100 percent honest with one another.''

A white lie by the driver about the reason for a spinout may be balm to relations between a driver and his team owner or the press, but the race engineer must know the truth, or it could be dangerous.

''Often you find that half of the race engineer's job is as a psychologist,'' Clark said. ''To try to cocoon, to make a little team within the team to protect the driver, because his performance is an emotional one. Confidence is a large part of it. If he loses confidence he might as well not get in the car.''

Race engineers often follow drivers to other teams, as Ross Brawn followed Michael Schumacher from Benetton to Ferrari.

In order to maintain equilibrium at Ferrari after Schumacher broke his leg at the British Grand Prix in July, Eddie Irvine kept his own race engineer, rather than switching to Brawn. But Brawn, who is also the team's technical director and the mastermind of its race strategy, has worked closely with Irvine and his engineer while the Ulsterman has taken on the role of number one driver.

Jock Clear followed Jacques Villeneuve, the former IndyCar and Formula One champion, from Williams to British American Racing this year because, he said, ''Ultimately my job is very much dependent on the driver I deal with. He makes me look good or bad. I have had a very good relationship with Jacques from the start, and we get the best out of each other.''

Clear, trained as a mechanical engineer, believes it was partly the strength of their relationship that enabled them to win the 1997 drivers' title, when they saw off a challenge by Schumacher down to the last race.

Nevertheless, Clark, trained as an electronic engineer, said a driver's talent is the last word in the race. ''There isn't a whole lot the team can do once you've sent him off the grid,'' he said. ''He's driving flat out, basically. If I tell him to go faster and he does, then we should sack him. Or at least put a sticker on the steering wheel saying 'Drive Faster.'''

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