Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, February 7, 1996

Long, Empty Road of the Test Driver

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
- THE FORCES of gravity make the driver's head feel about four times its usual weight. His heart is beating 180 times a minute. And at 300 kmh (186 mph), if he commits a small error of judgment, his career as a race car driver could be finished before it has even begun.

Just days after the 1995 Formula One season ended last November another race started on Europe's circuits. This race ends just before the next season starts on March 10. It is every bit as dangerous and demanding as the regular season. It is the race to develop cars. It is the time of the test driver.

''In some teams the test driver has as much value as the driver who races the car,'' said Jean-Christophe Boullion, the test driver for the Williams team.

Bryan Lambert, the Williams test team manager says a good test driver is no different from a regular driver.

''His abilities are just the same as a race drivers','' he said. ''And he does exactly what the race driver does. A really good race driver can drive the car really quickly, and he can also set the car up. Ideally what we want is as much feedback as we can possibly get.''

The feedback touches on every possible detail. The test driver starts and stops. He simulates grand prixs. He tests gearboxes, suspensions, engines, and handling. He does it all in anonymity.

At Estoril, Portugal, where testing has been going on this month, there are no television cameras, few journalists or photographers. There are a handful of curious fans in the grandstand. A few more are outside the fence at the end of the straight.

Estoril is often used for testing because, says Lambert, ''It's a very physical circuit for the driver. It's got some very fast corners. It's very hard on the brakes. It's got a reasonably long straight so we can do a lot of work with dampers. It's one of the most southerly parts of Europe. The weather is not like this in France or the UK at the moment.''

Many teams can no longer afford much testing. Williams is an exception. Lambert heads a crew of 18 which travels around Europe to test. His team does not even go to the Grand Prix races, though his department is a first step for the mechanics before graduating to the race crew.

Test drivers also move up.

''It's an excellent school for learning your métier in a good team and to have top performances seen by others,'' said Boullion, 26. ''And we have seen that people like Damon Hill or David Coulthard went that way and then afterwards succeeded as drivers.''

Boullion, the 1994 Formula 3000 World Champion, has driven more than 7,000 kilometers for Williams, and occasionally clocks faster times than the regular drivers.

On a typical day, a test driver rises at 6:30 A.M., leaves the hotel at 7:00, breakfasts and starts running the car at 9:00. Lunch lasts about an hour and a half. They finish driving at 5:30 or 6:00 P.M. The driver then has a debriefing that may last more than two hours. He usually leaves after this, but the mechanics and technicians stay to take the car apart and put it back together for the next day. They leave at between 12:30 and 1:00 A.M.

ONE PROBLEM facing test drivers, is that when the poorer teams do get to test, it is rarely with the test driver.

''It's no longer like in the days of Mansell and Senna when they went off on three months vacation between seasons and left the test driver to do all the work for them,'' said Emmanuel Collard, 24, who has tested for Ligier, Benetton, and Jordan. ''The regular drivers want to drive a maximum number of kilometers since it's becoming more and more difficult to regulate one of these cars.''

Furthermore, the cars are so electronically advanced that some of the test driver's job is done by telemetry. But the human feel remains indispensable.

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