Nicolas Perrin is a busy man. When he's not designing his LMP1-H car for the World Endurance Championship, he's explaining why he is doing it. He does it for your enjoyment anyway. Tech geeks, unite, it's a long one!
Following an insightful interview with the ex-Formula One aerodynamics and sportscar race engineer, I managed to talk to Nicolas Perrin once again, discussing
- prospects for this year's Le Mans 24 hours
- development drivers
- racing simulators
- the controversial fuel-flow sanctioning used in F1 and WEC alike, racing engines
- hybrid systems and designing details for the great endurance race
- manufacturers in sportscar racing and
- how you can be part of it all.
There was one thing I was really interested to find out to cut to the chase: why the Audi LMP1 car is right-hand drive, and why the Toyota is left-hand drive. Nicolas came back straight away with some of the designing issues they had with their own car.
Initially the car was right-hand drive, but we moved the driver's seat to the left. If you're sitting in a closed-cockpit car - and you have more right turns than left ones, like at Le Mans - the vision for the driver is better when sitting on the left. When you're sitting on the right, the A-frame is blocking your view. The problem of crashing left or right is not relevant these days, because you never know on which side you're going to have an impact on anyway. You can crash with either side in each corner, because you might be spinning.
Earlier there used to be only one problem with putting the driver on the left - the pedals. There was just not enough space for a clutch and was not in line with the driver, it was way far left. Then you had to put it on the panel of the chassis. But now with paddle-shifters and clutch, you can put the driver anywhere you want to.
The reason I brought this up was getting to know how such ideas get into the development mix, especially when creating a car from nothing as Nicolas does the Perrinn myTeam. With a good chance, such observations come from development drivers. Surely, there is a point where a test driver becomes invaluable for the team when developing the car.
The ideal situation is to have at least one driver from the very beginnings of the project. He has to get used to the car very early on, because once he does, he will able to tell you whether any further development is for the better or the worse. Ideally you want to have an experienced driver who will be there throughout the development and will be your race driver eventually. That's what we wish to do - rely on one driver from early on, keeping him for at least two, three or four years - which is exactly what manufacturers do. They are very consistent with their drivers, they don't change them a lot. Once they are happy with them, they keep them. And that's because these cars are so sensitive, you don't want to lose touch. If you have at least one you can keep, you might be able to change the others more frequently.
An experienced driver will put his own performance on the side, because he doesn't have to prove himself too much any more, so he is able to focus only on being consistent and think about the car.
So what can an experienced driver bring to the table? What sort of personality and experience teams are looking for when applying their 'tool' to the car?
Consistency is the most important aspect we are looking for when it comes to test drivers. A driver that is able to provide the same lap times on and on within - let's say - half a second, so when there is a change in lap times, you know something changed on the car. You can find it in some young drivers - who can be very consistent - so you need to know them. If you are trying to test their or the car's very limit, that's when they are not consistent, because there's more room for mistakes. They need to realize that for testing it's not about performing 100% all the time, but if they can do it at 99%, that's better. Somebody who can and would like to understand the technological aspects of the car, because then we can interact better. At the end of the day, you need consistency as an engineer to do proper testing. A driver may be able to drive the car on its limits, but might not be able to tell an engineer where to improve it. It's a combination, I think, of the engineer and the consistent driver.
When you're building a car from nothing as we do, you need the driver once the car is ready for testing, not before. And I know there's this question whether we want to invite a driver to sit with us and tell what he would like with the car. But the fact is we are interested in what the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the car are in the early phases of development. We just need to do one lap and start from there. On the marketing side, though - which is so important for the sport as well - a driver from the beginning is very important, because with myTeam I would like to build the team even before going testing, one with a good driver associated with it. It would help the marketing side of it, because people really get interested in the drivers. We will soon be looking for who's willing to associate his name with the team. We are not in talks with anybody yet, because we are taking matters further one step at a time.
Features of next-generation race car drivers include the ever increasing use of simulators in training. Commercial simulators, such as iRacing, Simraceway, rFactor, etc. and other popular, slightly more casual simulation games as the Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport series are now part of scheduled drills of driver development. But are simulators any good for engineering purposes when designing a car?
When I was at WilliamsF1, I used to drive their simulator a lot. Because I was a go kart racer when I was young, and the drivers at Williams weren't always available, which put me one of the very few people at the factory who could drive this simulator, and thus I was very close to the actual drivers. It was a lot of fun, but it was also a really good tool to learn to drive the car and to understand what the drivers had to do in the cockpit with the break pedal and the accelerator. But I was primarily using it to test electronic systems, like the traction control and the lot. It's really great for driver training, because as a driver you can compare yourself with your team mate or somebody else and improve your driving. But as a development tool for the car we weren't using it a lot.
For an engineer it has not much use - maybe helping a bit in designing a suspension, but it's still not close enough to reality. To design a car it takes to look at the very last details and a simulator won't tell you that. You don't need it to work on aerodynamics or engines. You have to go on the track with the real car with real tyres. The tyre model is the biggest difference between a real and a virtual car. Actually, at Williams, we were spending most of our time trying to find the best tyre-model, but the tyre was not even something we designed.
Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to see our car in a simulator, because it will help with the awareness of the project and people will be able to interact with the car.
Simulation is also a great way of marketing. Recently there has been a wave manufacturers first unveiling one of their new cars in a popular game. Thanks to a dedicated following - and the team sharing the actual blueprints to the car - simulator car designers have a unique opportunity to put the virtual car deriving from actual data on virtual race tracks.
I have some members who absolutely want to see the car in a simulator, because that's what they do anyway. It's such a new opportunity with the myTeam myP1 car. Because in other cases people have to model the cars themselves based on pictures, or large software developers doing laser scans. But we are giving all this data away for free. As long as you are a member, you can access them, otherwise you will get a copy from someone who is a member. But the idea is that ultimately you get the data from us. And if you need any extra information about e.g. the grip of the tyres or the power of the engine, just ask. If you are a member, we will reply straight away and give all this data to you. We make these people's job so easy that at the moment they don't even realize it. We are so many steps ahead of everybody else in terms of sharing. It is not our work, though, to put it in a simulator, because we are in charge of the real team, but it is our work to provide all the data. I know people in the US, Ireland and France already looking into it. There are so many platforms and it has to go everywhere as much as possible. People coming in to such project won't be stuck. I think we will see the myP1 car in some simulators in the upcoming months.
One of the questions arising at this point is whether there is any relevant data flowing back to the real car's development from today's advanced simulators.
We can actually harvest some data from the simulated cars by comparing real-life results with the virtual cars'. What would be interesting to do is to put all data on a graph, overlaying them on the real ones so people could see how close the data is - just to see how far simulators have come. But again, we are not relying on simulators in development and it would be too complicated to process all data from all around the world. But if we can compare the end results, we can learn from it and it will be fun.
Good job with virtual cars (among others) doesn't pass unrewarded.
I can tell you this: there's a tab on our website where all our champions
are listed who have done something special for the team. And if you put our car in a simulator, that's a big help for us. So whoever does it, we want to promote that person as our "champion", which means he or she will be forever on this list and we would be more than happy to send his or her name out as someone who helped us immensely and possibly promoting their work. The prize is to have a real impact on a real team, and to see the car in a simulator is definitely a way to do it. Even more than that, all these names will be listed in the cockpit of the real car.
Never better than the real thing - engines, hybrid systems and designing details for the 24-hour race [SPOILER: bad days for Diesel]
Regulations for 2014 in WEC - which Nicolas was part of creating - brought diesel and petrol power ever closer, which at one end makes engine choice an easy decision and a difficult one on the other. The one you can win at Le Mans with is getting shape, though.
I'm very happy to see that the new regulations brought all different engine technologies very close to each other. Except for the people without a hybrid system - who we knew were going to be slower a bit. If you have a hybrid system, you have to make it as big as possible. For this you have to save weight as much as you can. The current LMP1 regulations are all about weight-saving with all the batteries and systems. And if you look at the engines, a V4, a V6 diesel and a V8 - they are all very close together, because they are limited by the fuel-efficiency. So I think we need to go for a light as possible engine and a V6 turbo seems to be a good compromise, but the V8 is great as well, because you don't need the turbo, so you actually save weight. I wouldn't go for Diesels, because there's no more advantage with them any more and they don't seem to be that popular on the road. People understood that diesel is probably not the way to go. Manufacturers pushed it a lot fifteen years ago and it's going backwards now. The point is the weight of these engines. Diesels are too heavy. And also, it's the emissions. Personally I prefer the petrol engines for racing, because they are lighter and more simple. We can fit any V8 or V6 in the car, so I think it will be one of them. And as Toyota shows, you can be competitive with a V8. But the most important aspect is weight.
We saved a lot of weight on the chassis by making it very simple. And during Le Mans week I will share the philosophy behind the design of the car with my members. All that to make the car as light as possible for the hybrid system, because we need to be in the 8MJ category. And for that you need pretty significant electrical power. Initially, we started designing a car with a mechanical flywheel hybrid system in mind three years ago, but since then battery and super capacitor technology has become much better, so that's what we use now. And we will do the same as Toyota with a braking recovery system only. We won't use any exhaust recovery, because it's a very expensive technology and very difficult to put together and with the current regulations it doesn't give you much advantage. Also, there's no gain on damper-based energy recovery systems with sportscars. We are allowed to use two sources of recovery, but the two axles count as separate ones. So it's energy recovery on all wheels, it's really a no-brainer.
And the rest of the car when sending it to battle for a whole day?
People always see a compromise - fast or reliable. My philosophy is to keep things very simple. I want to understand all aspects of the car, so if it is too complicated, I can't even understand it. When you keep things simple, it's lighter - because you always have less components, it's more reliable - because less things can go wrong, and because you understand it better, you can develop it further, so the performance is still there. I never put a new feature on a car just because I saw it on another car. I was trying to use the features we already had, to modify them to achieve the same effect - keeping things very conventional and simple.
The car is much optimized, though, we don't try to reinvent what already exists, e.g. if you look at the front suspension, it's very high, the wishbones are very close together, so the loads are still very heavy, but the attachment on the chassis is on a flat surface, which makes the inserts very simple and rigid. We try to help ourselves by making the mechanical design to the book.
The body is also very simple in terms of how the parts are assembled, so there, too, we save a lot of weight.
In the last - let's say - ten years people applied more systems to the cars to help them repair them more quickly. If e.g. you have a small accident on the back of the Audi or the Porsche, you can come back in the garage and change the rear end very quickly. Everything behind the rear wheel can be detached by two quick releases and you can simply change the panel with a new one. The problem in doing this is you split the diffuser in two parts. When you cut the diffuser, you have leakage, you lose downforce, you lose performance. If you don't want leakage, you have to make the join very heavy and complicated. So it doesn't help performance, but also it's something that can go wrong as well.
That's why I would like to keep it very simple.
I don't bet on winning Le Mans by making a car easy to repair. I bet on winning Le Mans by being fast. Yes, probably it will make twenty instead of ten minutes fixing something, but again
- no one in the past ten years has won Le Mans by crashing the car and repairing it quickly.
Some people say I need the quick-repair option. It's true that e.g. an Audi crashed, got back to the pits, got repaired, went back and finished on the podium, but
the winning car never crashes.
So no, I don't need the quick repair option, because we will win Le Mans by having a very simple and light car with less areas that can go wrong. It's a sprint now with seven cars in the same category. The one's that's going to win will be the one not being involved in any accidents and not spending excessive times in the pits. So it doesn't matter how long it takes to repair the car.
If you want to win the race, you cannot afford to repair anything anyway. That's our philosophy. That's my philosophy.
One main criticism F1 is facing these days is the fuel-flow measurement system (used in WEC as well) and the sensor responsible for the data. It is a new type of racing, more efficient, but slower? Has racing become more complicated because of it?
I understand the argument of taking a certain amount of fuel and use it however you want it for the weekend. But if you do that, you will end up with cars eventually capable of incredible lap times - so much faster than they are now. Many teams would just go for it to the front to show off. And it would be dangerous, because some cars would be capable of 370kph on the straights instead of 330. There would also be big differences in the strategies for the race. So I understand perfectly why they need to limit engine power - the instant power, not just the average. They need to make sure the overall engine power is limited all the time. Earlier they used restrictors or a different capacity allowed on the engine.
Now it's only the instant fuel-flow measurement.
It brings engines closer. It's the only way I think. I don't think it's confusing. There's a lot of talk about it only because it's new, but it's just another limitation on the engine. And also there was a bit of controversy with the sensors, but there's
a new one coming in six months,
so it unlikely will still be a topic next year. It will always be here to control the engine. I think in the future we will control engines only this way, when the sensor becomes cheaper and standard. It also makes the engine more reliable, because you don't push it to the limit as much. But to be honest, I believe
engine development should stop at some point.
Manufacturers spend millions on engine development, but they are very close together and it is something the spectator can't see anyway. I understand developing aerodynamics, because you can see it, it makes cars look different, but at some point we will need to standardize parts more and more and control expenses.
The show is about racing, it's not just about developing features that are not seen by the spectators.
I would like to think that at some point we will have engines with more and more standard parts, because we really need to bring costs down. The costs for F1 engine are just too much and they don't have any relevance to road cars. They are efficient indeed, but you can achieve the same effect with a V8 with lot less money. For Le Mans it's better, but for F1 it's too much.
Endurance racing is a multi-layer challenge from teams and drivers alike. It is probably more popular than ever since the demise of the Group C era, fitted with an increased interest on behalf of manufacturers. Why is it attractive for everyone involved?
Endurance racing has become faster and faster over the years. People are excited about velocity, about cars that fight for the lead and are closely together. At Le Mans, you see that a lot now. There are ex-F1 drivers, young GP2 drivers. The battle's there, it's not about saving your car at all.
It's like a Grand Prix race, but it lasts several more hours, so you have even more of that.
The show is great, because you have more battles than in a Grand Prix. There's great TV-coverage but we need more than that. And the fact that manufacturers are coming in makes sense, because it's cheaper than F1. I'm very happy each time whenever there's an announcement of a new manufacturer team, because it will bring more people, more interest and myTeam racing against these teams one day is just a fascinating idea. That's where the enthusiasm comes from, because it's a proper challenge.
F1 is criticized by being too expensive for anyone but the largest manufacturers or teams that already have the infrastructure. Is that the case in WEC, too - too tough for privateers?
The problem for me is that I don't really understand the difference between a privateer and a manufacturer team. It all depends on your budget. If you have the budget of e.g. Audi, you are a works team and you need an advanced car to beat them. So you need to be realistic and accept big budget going there. After that it doesn't matter what your name is. Which is why we are going there, making sure we get the right support with the right budget and the right car. At the moment the problem we have with "privateer" people is that they don't have the budget and don't have the car. I think it's a mistake to go there without a hybrid system in the first place- we saw and knew it from the regulations. We want to go there with a car that will be tested against the manufacturers. Until we reach this point, we won't go racing, we won't go backwards. I think people want to see a bunch of cars together and not necessarily care about whether there's manufacturer among them or not. We try to attract a big sponsor eventually and if you have a big name sponsor - may it be a car manufacturer or not - people will get excited about it. But they will also get excited because myTeam is their team. The best way to do it, though, is to race at the front - then excitement multiplies when you have a "no name" team fighting against big names. For me it's not who you are but what car do you have and how fast can you go. It's not right to have one car slower in the LMP1 category. I don't think you should go then.
For 2017 there are some early ideas about the powertrains, but there's nothing written. For me it's standardization that should be a key point. We love LMP1, because it's the top class, but with hybrids the cars are just too complicated and expensive.
I believe we don't have to race on every single aspect of the car.
It's a race of teams with different values, drivers, but we shouldn't spend millions just to have a slightly different engine than the other garage - for the same power. I think the cars should look different, because that's the show. If it was up to me, I would like to see maybe a standard transmission, or even a standard chassis as well as in the monocoque. We have to help manufacturers to bring costs down, it's just too expensive. And when there are too many cars, they can be filtered by their speed. On one hand you have development we all like, on the other hand it is so hard to participate because of the costs. I think we should stick with development, but that being done by a separate entity - e.g. an engine manufacturer - that will be used in multiple cars. So there's relevant development, but the costs are divided between the people using it.
I don't think we should have a race of engines, but rather teams with different colours, values and people.
But it is what it is, this is the regulation. At the end of the day we are here to participate, not to write the regulations.
As the name shows, Perrinn myTeam is for the masses. Anybody can contribute and everybody will get access to data they wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. For the first time in any World Championship project, the data for the car is free to share. But the team needs your help to get things going. First things first, a full-scale model is in the pipeline for pitching the idea to more, potential members and sponsors.
We haven't started building the model yet. We are looking for a manufacturer building it in the best possible quality, but we are talking to some people who can do it. At the same time we need more members to make it happen, because it comes together. Because the people who make it happen want to see more members, they want to see the team growing. It's a process we are in, we have more members coming in, but we always need more to keep it growing. That's why I try to invite people and explain everything where they can ask questions as well. They really feel like being part of a team. And I can tell you, the day the car will roll out on the track, it will be a very special moment everyone involved.
Starting on Monday, Le Mans week, we will be launching our daily message campaign where I am going to tell the history of designing myP1 - how I started, who were involved, how the regulations were interpreted, my involvement in the regulations, because I was dealing with the FIA quite a lot, and also our future developments - but mostly I want to answer to members' questions. A new message each day for the members - who receive messages throughout the rest of the year anyway -, but Le Mans week is special for us. I'm going to give away information people don't usually get access to and every aspect of the regulations in simple English, but with numbers. There might be questions related to our car and the ones racing next week. I will answer these questions up until the end of the race, because I'm expecting a lot of questions coming in during the race.
You need to be a member for that. It starts on Monday, so I would really like people to take the opportunity and sign up for membership - and then it all comes to you in your mailbox.
I'm glad I cannot tell who's going to win Le Mans, because the cars are so much together. I love that there are three manufacturers so close, that's what people like to see. Toyota looks a little bit stronger, but it's only a fraction. The one that will win is the one not getting into an accident or spending too much time in the garage.
I point at the picture behind Nicolas. 'Nice one.'
Yeah. It's the Mona Lisa, painted by a child on the picture... That's what we are doing.
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