hristine Lear’s secret is out.As a prac-tical girl,she chose a practical careerpath,one that suited well her univer-sity training in mathematics:she went intocomputers.Yet something didn’t feel right.From an early age Lear has been fascinated by cars.And not just any old cars.Lear’s once-secret obsession is with Formula 1,the pin-nacle ofhigh-octane motor racing.“Working in Formula 1 has always beenmy dream,”she now admits.But even whenshe got a chance to fulfil that dream — aresearch position in a university aerodynam-ics group with close ties to the racing-carindustry — she kept her secret to herself.Convinced that it was just wishful thinking,she did not dare confess her hopes,and pur-sued a PhD investigating ways to reduce thehazardous airflow patterns that form in anaircraft’s wake.Or,as she puts it,“how to landmore planes at Heathrow”.But she never lost the excitement she feltduring Formula 1 races whenever the com-mentator referred to ‘new aero packages’andother tantalizing revolutions in car perfor-mance.She had always wanted to know whatlay behind the jargon,and rather than regretnever having tried,she finally decided topursue her childhood ambition.Lear now has the job ofher dreams.In May she joined the Switzerland-basedSauber-Petronas team,with prime responsi-bility for developing key aerodynamic com-ponents on its Formula 1 car.“There was arunning joke in the office about my very first job with the team,”she recalls.“‘Take awoman and give her the mirrors’.”But havingproved her worth,she now has a new secret tokeep — in this highly competitive industry she is not allowed to divulge the details of projects she is working on.Academic research has its highs and lows,but there is always some comfort in knowingthat the laws ofnature underlying your workare likely to be fixed,just waiting to berevealed.Ifit can be considered a race at all,then it is simply a race to be the first touncover these inner workings.The pressures ofresearch in Formula 1are very different.The laws ofnature may be unchangeable,but not so the laws ofthesport.The rules under which the teams oper-ate alter from season to season,motivatedby a desire to keep car speeds within safe lim-its while making the cars unpredictableenough to keep drivers — and spectators —on their toes.The performance ofa car that ishard to handle at speed ultimately dependson the skills ofthe person behind the wheel,which is why Formula 1 has champions,notmere drivers.
The car designers,ofcourse,have a very dif-ferent goal.For them,their machine needsto go as fast as is physically possible.It needsto handle like a dream,glued to the road inthe tightest ofcorners.And it needs to win.Whereas an academic may view the idea of abandoning a cherished line ofenquiry withconsiderable dismay,the same is not true forrace engineers.“Rule changes are never a set-back,”says Peter Bearman,director ofaero-nautics at Imperial College London andmentor to Lear and numerous other Formula1 recruits.“They relish the challenge.”Willem Toet,senior aerodynamicist withthe BAR-Honda Formula 1 team,agrees.Back in the spring of1994,car performancehad reached an all-time high and,over onerace weekend,tragically culminated in thedeaths oftwo Formula 1 drivers — Austriannewcomer Roland Ratzenberger and Brazil-ian champion Ayrton Senna.In their bid toimprove car safety,the rule-makers imposeddrastic changes to the design specifications,giving the teams only two weeks to comply.By restricting the dimensions ofcritical aerody-namic components,their aim was to reducethe ‘downforce’(and hence speed) that thecars could sustain under race conditions.Toet remembers the ensuing flurry of activity well.He and his colleagues resortedto cutting away chunks ofthe finely honedbodywork oftheir car to crudely bring it intoline with the new specifications.The down-force ofthe butchered machine immediately dropped by 30%.But within a matter ofdays,redesign and tweaking ofthe downsizedcomponents helped them to recover halfof the lost performance,maintaining the car’scompetitive edge.“Extreme physical andmental work was required — a true intelli-gence test,”says Toet.This high-pressure environment may
With the rules of the game changing before everyseason, Formula 1 engineers often have a matterof weeks to redesign their car before it is testedon the track. Karl Ziemelis and Charles Wenz join the race to the start line.
Science in the
Crash course:engineering teams have significantly improved safety in Formula 1 — even during accidents — and with data from cars on the racetrack (right),they have also boosted performance.