If we ever do colonize Mars, Formula 1 engineers would be the first people I’d want there.
Formula 1 is a competition that needs no introduction around the world, but for all of its high-speed glamor and prestige, there’s not a huge amount known about its inner workings. The stuff we see on a race Sunday is merely the veneer atop a massive enterprise of globetrotting logistics, intricate planning, and multinational team organization. To learn more about the vast amount of work going on behind the scenes at an F1 race (and indulge some latent childhood fandom), I recently spent some time with the Renault Sport team as they prepared to compete in the French Grand Prix. It was evidence to the claim that Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, but it also showed me that the people working on this indulgent entertainment are pushing boundaries of science, engineering, and design in a way that’s more agile and responsive than almost anything else.
The curious thing about Renault and teams of its ilk is that they know they won’t win the championship even before it starts. Formula 1 is an unfair competition. “Right now,” Renault’s F1 team managing director Cyril Abiteboul told me, “you take the best driver in the world and you give him a lesser car, our car frankly, and he won’t win.” The prevailing factor in deciding the victor of a race is the performance of the car rather than the driver.
“The top six cars are almost fixed in place,” said Renault driver Nico Hülkenberg, who typically finishes just outside the elite group and is currently seventh in the driver standings. “We’re just trying to keep up with them.” That’s hardly the most sporting concept ever, and from a distance, I did wonder why anyone not working for Mercedes, Red Bull, or Ferrari even bothers. The answer is a mix of passion and professionalism. The people working on the also-ran cars in Formula 1 are regularly achieving small miracles of aerodynamic and materials science, things that are masked by the final race results, but which they can be rightly proud of.
Job satisfaction is high across the board at an F1 team, and the reason for it is responsibility. There are few, if any, bullshit jobs here, and every worker has genuine responsibility — and, in that way, agency — for how the eventual team performance goes. At Renault’s Enstone facility in the UK, I met a young woman who was modeling improvements to the cars’ front and rear wings. In an open plan office, she sat among similarly youthful vehicle dynamicists, stress analysts, driver safety engineers, and the people responsible for powertrain integration. Every one among them was empowered with the freedom to pull Enstone manager Bob Bell aside and have a direct conversation with him about any radical new idea they had.
It’s the sort of employment environment that, when you see it, you think that’s how it should always be done. Less hierarchy, less treating humans as mere production units.
I felt a similar way when visiting Hasselblad’s factory in western Sweden, Rolls-Royce’s factory in southern England, and Vertu’s former HQ and manufacturing home on the outskirts of London. When a company is engaged in small-scale bespoke manufacturing, it’s both able and compelled to rely on skilled labor, so its workers are highly trained and valued. The dignity in doing such a job is a million miles away from the well-documented exploitations that people endure to earn a paycheck at one of Amazon’s warehouses.
The thing that most surprised me about Renault Sport’s operations is the speed and expanse of its own manufacturing. Almost every car component, of which there are roughly 2,500, is custom-made by the company itself. The tires might be the only thing made elsewhere, but they’re also bespoke, built to Renault’s specifications. At Enstone, I toured two barn-sized milling machines with five degrees of freedom and a precision of 5 to 10 microns per each meter of position. Each machine costs €1 million, and the specially ventilated building housing them cost another €1 million to build (totaling roughly $3.5 million).
These machines help Renault craft the carbon fiber and composite parts of the car, which account for 80 percent of its size but only 25 percent of its weight. Interestingly, anywhere you see carbon fiber, it’s usually just a couple of layers of actual carbon fiber weave (called skins) wrapped around a rigid foam. I picked up various such parts from the Renault F1 car and was repeatedly surprised by their paper-like lightness. As to the parts that necessarily have to be metal, Formula 1 teams use all the same materials as consumer electronics designers: aluminum, titanium, and magnesium alloys, primarily. Those are first 3D-printed and then precision-cut into the required shape.
With an absence of middle managers or inexpert input, Renault Sport can take a good idea from the CATIA V5 3D modeling suite and test it out in the real world on a remarkably short timeline. A change that might take a mass-market car manufacturer like Renault years to consider and implement can be on a test Renault Sport F1 car within weeks, if not days. Designers at Renault’s motorsport team often have to design not only the new part but also the manufacturing process for the new part. That’s how rapid the development iteration is. And because prototyping is done with the same equipment as final manufacture, the tests are basically as precise as humans can make them.
Before departing Enstone, I also got a look inside the race support room on the site. This is the bit that looks like a NASA mission control center, with banks of monitors lined up in front of a wall of giant screens showing telemetry from the race and calculated projections for various scenarios (such as what race position a car would drop to if it performed a pit stop). Renault’s facility in France, tasked with designing, building, and supporting the power unit (which is the term for the new breed of hybrid F1 engines), has a similar setup. With these two race support teams comprising 20 people each, together with the 60 people in the paddocks on race day, there are roughly 100 people actively working through the course of an F1 weekend’s racing to keep two cars running at an optimal level.
If everything that I saw before the race informed me how the cars get made, my time spent around the Paul Ricard Circuit at Le Castellet taught me how an F1 driver is made. Drivers are engineered (by their parents and trainers) almost as much as the cars are. No one can become a Formula 1 racer merely of their own volition, as they might with more accessible sports like soccer or basketball.
Mia Sharizman, director of the Renault Sport Academy, which identifies and recruits promising young drivers from age 15 onward, told me that kids have to start their karting careers as young as seven, and each season can cost between €50,000 and €75,000. This huge cost burden means that parents, overwhelmingly dads, serve as the seed investors for Formula 1’s next generation of drivers. It’s also probably the biggest stumbling block standing between us and a more inclusive Formula 1.
A close second might be the force of history, which is inspiring primarily to white boys from wealthy families — who could walk through the hallways of the Paul Ricard VIP area and (literally) look up to portraits of world champion drivers that looked like them: Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Jacques Villeneuve, and Fernando Alonso were all there. Last, but certainly not least among them, was Lewis Hamilton, the mixed-race driver aiming for a fifth world championship who would eventually go on the win the Sunday race.
Renault did have one girl in its Academy program last year, but she had to drop out. Everyone at the company expresses the wish to identify and promote a great female racer, but the recruitment pool is thin without the enthusiasm of parents or young girls. Sharizman, Abiteboul, and French racing legend Alain Prost, now an adviser to Renault, are in unison on this point. “When you put the helmet on,” said Sharizman, “it doesn’t matter what you are.” Prost was the only one to suggest women may not quite match men’s endurance under the most extreme circumstances, but he was effusive in his support even so: “Not bullshit: everybody would like to see a woman driver, if it’s not a marketing stunt.”
As to the drivers that do make it through the incremental stages of karting, Formula 4, Formula 3, and Formula 2, by the time they arrive at Formula 1 they’re basically model professionals. I asked Abiteboul how much micromanaging he has to do with them and his answer was a categorical “none.” Back at Enstone, the person responsible for designing the so-called survival cell of the Renault Sport F1 car gave me a great summation, saying, “If it means more speed, [the drivers] are super comfortable with being uncomfortable.” After so many years of self-discipline, structured physical, mental, and driver training, they’re basically self-sufficient and self-motivated. And if they’re not, there’s the legitimate threat of the team dropping them for someone with less baggage and more desire.
I met Renault’s drivers, the 30-year-old Hülkenberg and 23-year-old Carlos Sainz, and both were eloquent in their responses, trained in handling media questions and gawking fans with the same poise as the racing part of their job. Formula 1’s organizers are clearly aware of how they make their money, and the inclusion of press and fan interactions is basically part of the job expectation, both for drivers and the teams around them. What the teams try to do is make that as frictionless as possible, facilitating autograph signing sessions between practice and qualifying laps as well as before the race, and keeping a tightly regimented schedule.
Renault did a couple of cool things to promote the engagement of a wider group of fans: Abiteboul told me he was proudest the team was able to bring “hundreds” of kids for a tour through the team’s garage, reinforcing Renault’s status as the spiritual home team at the French race. The company also acknowledged the lifting of the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia by having Aseel Al-Hamad, the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation, drive a lap around the track in a 2012 Lotus Renault E20.
The final steps of preparation for the race were seemingly most geared toward pleasing the crowd. The sideshows included a dude on a Zapata flying board, another person descending from an army helicopter, and a deafening, dazzling flyover from la Patrouille de France, the French Air Force’s elite aerobatics crew.
Down on the ground, the teams were practicing tire changes, which I got to witness up close as part of a pit lane walk. Those routines were impressively fast up close, but they really didn’t prepare me for the “what just happened!?” lightning quickness of an actual pit stop. Later, during the course of the race, I was in the Renault garage when Sainz came in to change tires. By the time I’d heard the wheel guns firing off their one-two combo (once to take the old tires off, again to put the new ones on), Sainz had departed. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch the 1.9-second perfection that is the current fastest-timed pit stop. It takes almost two dozen crew members to execute the harmonized, fanatically optimized dance of a Formula 1 pit stop, and each of them remains helmeted and fully suited for the duration of the race.
A huge element of the entire experience is the sound, or rather noise, of it all. If you’re just relying on your eyes (or worse, a camera) to remember a Formula 1 race, you’ll be left with a lot of blurry memories. Speed can be seen, but that’s not what makes it satisfying. Short of actually being in the car or right by the pit crew as they work their magic, your most tangible connection is the noise. The wheel guns shriek violently as they’re engaged, the engines still give off a menacing roar — even though it’s quieter now that they’ve been downsized and made much more efficient and, dare I say, civilized. Every team’s hospitality suite is positioned immediately above its garage, giving well-off fans (and stray journalists like me) the best aural and olfactory experience of the race, if not the best viewing angle. Earplugs are provided at reception, in case it ever becomes too much.
If one car going around the track is fun and exciting, having a full group of them thundering past you is an even bigger thrill. This is where teams like Renault play their important role. For there to be an admirable winner, there must also be creditable losers. Without a challenge to struggle against, why should even the best teams bother to compete? And why would fans buy tickets to watch an obviously superior team win comfortably? No, we want that signature engine roar to be associated only with the best in competitive racing, so a huge inequality between the teams is undesirable. As Carlos Sainz put it to me, the current balanced between driver and technology is “too biased in favor of the machine, but there’s a compromise [that needs] to be found.”
The FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), Formula 1’s governing body, has stepped in with a series of regulations that tighten the gap between the best and worst teams. I’ve been told there’s a popular joke among the F1 teams that you know you’ve really innovated well in a given season if the next year the FIA bans your innovation.
Looking around the team areas behind the garages, it became obvious to me that Ferrari would win every year without these regulations in place. Renault’s hardly a small team, and it spends a full $15 million annually on logistics, but it’s dwarfed by Ferrari’s grandiose, shining structures. By imposing budget, design, and workforce constraints upon teams, the FIA is keeping things interesting. Maybe it’s the latent socialist in me, but I can’t say I heard of a single regulation I didn’t like. The gearboxes, for instance, have to last for at least six races, or the team will get a five-position starting penalty. The bodywork used in qualifying has to be the exact same that’s used on race day. And each driver only gets three engines per 21-race season. Only 60 pit crew members are allowed per race.
My attitude toward Formula 1 has been on a real roller coaster over the course of my lifetime. First, I loved it as a kid during the ‘90s, then I lost interest, then I found it grotesquely expensive (environmentally and in simple money terms), and now I’m finding a happy middle after seeing the extraordinary work that goes into it. Formula 1 has been addressing exactly the pain points I would have been complaining about a few years ago: creating exotic, wildly expensive parts that are used just once and then discarded, prioritizing spectacle over safety, extravagance over efficiency.
Today’s Formula 1 is fundamentally different from the one I remember from my childhood, and, in my opinion, the change has been for the better. The race series is still far from perfect, but it’s moving in the right direction. And as it does so, it’s providing fuel for excitement and inspiration to millions of young fans, while also giving hundreds of talented and passionate racing enthusiasts a job that feels like a calling rather than a chore.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge