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An In Depth Exclusive Interview With the Caterham F1 Team

February 19, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 207

An interview with Tom Webb, Caterhams F1's Herad of Communications.

To start with I would like to ask a few questions about the testing in Jerez and in particular I would like to start with KERS.

How important do you believe it is that Caterham have KERS?

I think it is important for several reasons. One obvious one being that it gives us more speed.

Last year, particularly in the last couple of races, and I think especially in Brazil, where we introduced a new rear-wing package that improved the efficiency of the DRS system, it was very clear that had we had KERS, the pace that Heikki was running at would have probably given him a chance to fight to the flag for higher positions. As it was, we were gaining positions at the start of the race, sometimes up to 5 or 6 places. Getting through turn one and then usually on the first long straight, Heikki was being passed by guys who were able to give themselves up to 80 break horse power when they hit the KERS button. So, I think in, you know very, very simple terms, having KERS would give us that extra burst of speed.

I think there is the second side to it as well, which is the kind of philosophical benefit. That is, to be able to move up the grid and to be considered a fully-fledged professional Formula One team in 2012? You have got to, you've got to have all of the bits of kit that the big guys have.

At a very big level, that means wind tunnels. It means the right number of staff. It means the right computers. On track it means having a DRS system that works efficiently and it means having KERS. There were three of us who joined the sport in 2010. I think we managed to move away from the other 2 guys last year and I think it is a statement of intent that we have made the investment in KERS, as it says, "We want to do this seriously." So, I think both in pace and in terms of what it means to us as a team, KERS is absolutely critical.

I absolutely agree with you there.

I did an article recently about KERS and a little about Heikki and how he was the most overtaken driver last year, but it was not a negative thing. Well that is what I put in my article anyway, as he made up so many places at the start that when KERS and DRS became an issue, which is why I believe, he was overtaken so much.

I mean that is actually a statistic that we looked at last year and I think there's another point to that as well, which is, the fact is, blue flags hurt the guys at the back. I can understand why they are there, but when a driver of Heikki's calibre, and Jarno's calibre, are racing as hard as they possibly can and then they are being overtaken and being almost kind of deliberately handicapped. Having to drive looking forward and in the mirrors and having to slow down, it kind of artificially increases the gap between the new guys, in us, and that is probably the last time I will ever use that term, because we are not new. We have been here for a long time, but yes. He was making up all of those places and one of the key things is, how tightly packed the midfield is. And when Heikki was coming up from a qualification position of 17th, 18th, getting himself up to 13th, 12th and, even I think he was running at one point in 11th position at one of the races, so is not surprising then that as KERS kicks in and as the better aero efficiency of the cars ahead was starting to give them boost, it is not surprising he was the most overtaken, because he was making up all of those places. So, yes, we are in total agreement with that.

Heikki states that the car is quicker than last season. That is what I have read. Now I do not know how true these things are when you read them, Heikke states the car is quicker than last seasons. Now that is a huge improvement in real terms, isn't it, because this year's cars have been slowed by the ban on off-the-throttle diffusers. So, that's a huge increase as far as you are concerned. Whereas the other teams, perhaps the increase is not quite as much. Now, from those sorts of comments and from what you have seen in the testing, how confident are you, or how confident does that make the team feel when Heikki makes comments like that?

Well, I think it is probably worth going back a year as well and looking at where we finished in 2010 and where we started in 2011. Again, comparatively, we progressed more than any other team in 2011, in increasing our pace and that is because we were starting from a much lower point.

I think the truth is, this year, we have again, a bridge to cross, in terms of getting closer to the midfield and I don't know, as I haven't actually looked at the comparative times with the laps that we were running last year in Jerez. But I think you're right. I think it's quite likely that of off throttle blow diffusers, with the different nose layouts and therefore, different aerodynamic packages. I think Schumacher ran a time here in a 2011 Mercedes that frankly was way ahead of the competition and then Alonso today I think dropped in a time that looked to all intents and purposes like a low-fuel time.

So, it may well be true that this year's cars are slower. I think Heikki's comments about this year's car have to be taken in context though, because when he talks about it being quicker, he's also talking about it relative to the competition ahead. On Wednesday, Heikki ran 139 laps and he's obviously lapping with cars that he's going to be racing this season. You know the Williams, the Force India's and the Sauber's of this world.

They can see comparatively, how close he is to those guys. Now, we don't know what fuel they're running. What tyres, but we also don't know what strategies they're running to.

So, I think that Heikki is talking about the package as a whole. I think he's probably not just saying, "In outright pace, this thing is quicker and the others are gonna be slower," because it's a different aerodynamic package. But there's another important point here and Jarno was talking about it this evening actually. After he'd got out of the car, as the detail of this car is streets ahead of where we were last year. Our 2010 car was designed and built in six months and it was put together for a very specific purpose, which was, can we achieve 10th place, and it got us there. The 2011 car was probably a second and a half quicker than the 2010 car. Built to very similar engine regulations, albeit with DRS. And I think that this car is unlikely to make that big a step forward, because a second and a half would put us right towards the front of the midfield. Now, that's a huge ask and that requires an awful lot of spend on aerodynamics and all of the other elements. But, both drivers have talked about the fact that the geometry, for example, the suspension geometry, the detailing of that is so much more refined than anything we were working with last year. It means they can make setup changes that they then feel positively about. And last year, it's kind of like the difference between walking around in a pair of very, very comfortable, well-fitted shoes and walking all around in a pair of wellingtons. You can do the job in both pairs of footwear, but one of them you can feel it and the other one you're kind of sloshing around in them a bit.

So, I think when he made comments like that, he's talking probably in kind of contextual terms about its relative pace compared to the others, as well as the feeling he gets from the car. As Jarno actually said this evening, this one feels like a proper Formula 1 racing car. And if we've been able to achieve that in just over 2 seasons, in our 3rd year, I think that's pretty impressive.

Now, on this 1st test, what sort of things have you been concentrating on? I mean you've got the car; you've got it out on track. After the first few runs, you are going to find bits that you need to look at more. Have you been concentrating on aero or setup or managing tyres or...? What sort of things have you been doing, or all of them in fact?

I'm glad you asked that actually, because we've been getting a few comments actually, particularly on our Facebook page, from people who are out-rightly expressing concerns about the pace that we've been running. Tests are exactly what they say. They are tests.

This is an opportunity for us to test out the car, particularly on the first tests. So, we have a brand new car as everybody else does, but we've got a couple of important things here. One is, we've got KERS and KERS isn't just a button that you press and it makes the car go quicker.

It has an enormous effect dynamically on the car. It is effectively like introducing more engine breaking. So, it has an effect, not just in terms of giving you umph, it also helps you slow down more and it has such a big part to play that the engineers have to work very, very carefully on it. To take all the data that is generated throughout all of the runs and understands how we can maximise the benefit of KERS. I think there is a kind of misunderstanding by people, who are used to playing it on an Xbox or on PlayStation, where you hit a button and suddenly you can gain a little bit of speed. KERS isn't that simple. It is an incredibly complex and very clever piece of technology, that we've managed to fit to the car for the first time and run without one single problem over 4 days of testing here. Well one of the key bits for us is starting to learn how we can maximise the benefits of KERS and how we can really start making it work for us across the whole package of the car.

The second one is the tyres. The 2012 tyres that Pirelli have introduced are a completely new compound we have to understand how we can get the best out of those. One of the things that we were struggling with last year was generating heat into the tyres, which actually was paying dividends for us towards the end of the season when we were able to use the tyres more easily than some of the teams ahead. This time, on a track that this morning was at about 7°degree C, we were able to get heat into the tyres almost immediately. So, what that says is we've got more down- force.

First of all, what we have to do is work more intelligently, as you say, understanding the aero. But really, one of the key bits about this test for us is pushing the cars as hard as we possibly can, so that we can make sure that all the bits that can go wrong will go wrong here, when we're not under the glare of the race weekend spotlight. So, it's about system checks. It's about understanding the whole dynamics of the car. It's about understanding some of the new bits and pieces that we've put on it, and it's about accumulating mileage, because mileage gives us data and it's the data that the engineers can then use to be able to make the car go more quickly.

We have an aero package on this car that is not what will be seen at the first race. We will bring the full race update to the third test in Barcelona. So, again, when people aero comparing times between us... for example, today, Jarno finished about two seconds off Senna's time in the Williams. And we've had a few comments from people saying, "You know this is a big problem. They look further away than they ended up last season." But on Wednesday Heikki finished point two seconds away from the Williams. So, what does that tell you? It tells you that nobody knows what fuel levels people are running. Nobody knows what strategies or plans anybody's running too. But one of the key things for us is that we're not here to try and put on a show so that we can pretend that we look good. We could do that. We could take all the fuel out. We could bolt new tyres on it and we could make... put in a number that everybody would go, "Wow! Aren't they amazing?" But would that carry through to Australia? Probably not. Is it a representation of what the car can do? Absolutely not, because there's new bits coming on the car. So, this, for us, is about tests. It's about testing everything on the car and about learning as much as we can.

Well people forget, don't you, that you can't do this year. You can't do that and you haven't been able to do that for a while, test during the season. It's these tests now and that's it, full stop, hard luck.

That's exactly the point.

From the minimal footage that I've seen so far of the new Caterham car, the increase in down-force to what I've seen in the last two years seems absolutely incredible. I was watching Heikki take some corners on... via the Internet and the car just seems to stick to the road so much better than in the past. Over the winter, is that something you've really worked hard on to try and increase that down-force?

Yeah. I mean, Formula One is about aerodynamics as much as almost anything. We have the same package as the Red Bull does now. In that we have the Renault engine. We have Red Bull KERS mated to the Renault engine that last year powered Sebastian to a world championship and did the same the year before.

So, you know for us, we... until September of last year, we were running a wind tunnel down in Italy. We were using less than forty percent of the resource restriction agreement time that can be spent in a wind tunnel, and therefore, we are going to be slower than the teams ahead. From September we started using the Williams wind tunnel, the second Williams wind tunnel at Grove and it's that time that is being spent on this year's car that we think is one of the reasons why we have taken a step forward.

Now compare that to the other teams who started designing their cars and putting their first models in of the 2012 cars into their hundred percent use of the wind tunnels, back in probably April or May, and we're still four or five months behind where they are. So, honestly, we don't think that the first real fruits of the investment and the foundations that we've laid, will probably be seen until 2013. Because by 2013, there can't be any excuses. We will have had all of the time available to us in a wind tunnel. We'll have had the right people in the right places, designing and working on this car. And, as I said earlier, the detailing on this car, is down to the fact that we've got some extremely talented, clever people who've been attracted to the team.

One bit of kit that they haven't really had access to is enough time in the wind tunnel. Our aerodynamicists, are again, brilliantly talented, very clever people, who've been working with some, you know small budgets and working with some pretty extreme conditions to get us to the point where we did. And I think you only have to measure us against the other two new teams to see how much further we think we've progressed than them. And the fact that by the end of last season, we had closed the gap to teams that have a combined experience amongst them of two hundred plus years and we're able to race people like Renault and people like Williams and Force India and... Sorry, not Force India, they were probably a little bit ahead of us, but Sauber towards the end of the year.

And if we can maintain that sort of progress in all aspects of the car design, build and run programme, then we should be able to keep progressing.

Yeah, and you could see that at the end of the year. In fact, it was exciting to watch, seeing you finish ahead of a few of those teams. Whether they had a few troubles or what have you, it doesn't matter at the end of the day, you've worked hard all through the season. But also there's the confidence aspect, isn't there? It builds confidence in the team. It just cheers everybody up to have those kind of results. You may not be in the podium or in the points, but just to get those kind of results and to finish ahead of the Renault's and the Williams, it just feels that much better, doesn't it? Confidence wise. Now, going onto the... well, the duck-billed platypus nose, that everybody but McLaren seemed to have this year. I looked... I've looked at them all and I'm not expert in aerodynamics, but common sense tells me, when I look forward at all of those, that actually you have the best design. And, I don't know whether there's been any feedback from other teams or other people about that, but I just look at it and I think, now that... common sense tells me that that is the best way to design the nose under the new regulations. Am I completely off the ball here? Am I wrong or have people made comments on this?

No. I wouldn't say you're wrong. I mean I think your comments are very kind, but I think there's... again, there are two answers to your comment. One is, aesthetically, I think the rules have made all of the teams, so far, bar McLaren, and obviously we're still yet seeing Mercedes, the Marussia or the HRT this year, but the rules have dictated a look that when we were first... we first launched and we launched about a week and a half before everybody else did.

So, we're the first ones that any F1 fan worldwide had seen and everybody kind of took it in and took a breath and said, "What is that?" But the truth is, we've all been here for a week now and the cars look like Formula One cars. They sound like Formula One cars and they go like Formula One cars.

And, okay, there is this step in the nose and at certain angles, it may not be aesthetically the most pleasing design out there, but that step is there for a deliberate reason. It's to increase safety for the drivers, because the noses were getting too high. And McLaren have come up with a different solution to that, and aesthetically yes, theirs looks more pleasing, because it's more what people are used to. But, the truth is that, I think probably by the end of, or halfway through qualifying in Australia, there will not be anybody saying, "I'm not gonna watch this, because the cars are ugly," cause all they'll be glued to is who's quickest and who's fighting who?

I think that this is the way that Formula One goes. When wings were first introduced, I'm sure there was outrage amongst people who said, "All I want to see is a Maserati 250F and go back twenty years to that." I think when, you know wings started sprouting from more bits of the car, engineers and aerodynamicists loved them, but I think there were kind of purists out there, who said, "These things are not what they should be."

But, the simple truth is that to the naked eye, there's no way of knowing whether one car is a better aerodynamic solution than another. Though that will only be proved by on-track performance. So, while I think it's very kind of you to say ours looks the best, you know then... that maybe because we also... we think have the best delivery out there, but I think also, it's... the only proof that will be seen when we actually get onto racing other people. Because, it may well be that McLaren have come up with a solution around the same rules, that gives them a chance to fight with Red Bull. And I think for the sake of the sport everybody would quite like that as well.

Yes, one hundred percent. Although, Vettel's lovely and the guys from Red Bull seem really nice, you've gotta... you know you've gotta hope that there's some kind of fight this season. Otherwise that may lose viewers, never mind... the noses won't. Another season of dominance by Red Bull might just... But then Ferrari did it, didn't they for years and viewing figures didn't really change that much and you know... So, it's just one of those things, but... Now, you've got... this question you might not know the answer to yet, because the data's relatively fresh. But you've got experience now in the wind tunnel. So you've had your car in the wind tunnel. How close is the data from on-track to what you had in the wind tunnel?

Well, it's too early to say to be honest, because we need to go back to the factory as... some of the team are going back tonight. The rest of us are heading back either tomorrow or Sunday. And we need to run through with the simulation data that we were running before to be able to make that sort of judgement. But... and I'm not in a position, because I'm not party to that sort of data, to be able to say intelligently...

... Whether or not we're close to it, but I think the ad hoc feedback that I get from a number of the senior design team who are here watching the birth of this year's car, is that they are cautiously pleased with how it is going. And I think there aren't any engineers here who would be jumping up and down and being quite as... kind of vociferous in their thoughts as maybe those of us who work on the kind of brand and marketing communication side. But, there is a cautious optimism, which suggests that the numbers are kind of what they thought they would be. Again, I mean the truth is all of this...

Till we get to Q1 in Australia, we really don't know anything.

No. Toro Rosso believe that you're going be a rival this season. Who do you expect to be fighting against?

I think that's extremely... it's a very flattering comment that Franz Tost made about the team. It's a sign of how far we've come in a very short space of time that a team of that ilk, and they are one of the teams that we would like to be picking off at some point in the future, but it's a sign of how far we've come that we're considered in the same breath as Williams, Force India, Sauber, those sort of midfield teams. I think there are kind of... there are several levels in Formula One. The top three, for the last few years, have been Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. You know Red Bull have been some margin ahead of the others. McLaren by the end of the season, I think... or midway through the seasons have been able to kind of catch up with them. And then you kind of had Mercedes slightly ahead of the rest of the midfield and then you had this midfield pack. Now, the truth is again, we don't know who we may be able to race with when we get to Australia, if we can race with any of them, you know in outright pace. I think we were asked in China last year whether Williams was the team that we would be most likely to pick off, and Williams is a Grand E Team. They have multiple world championships.

They're one of the great teams that sport has ever seen. And we would be honoured to be considered to be able to race with them and be thought of in the same breath as them.

But the truth is, as a team progressing up the pack, all that we've got to do is pick off one team a year, beat them and then we can keep climbing.

So, if that team is Williams, if it is Sauber, if it is any of the guys ahead, then we've achieved a massive target and I think whoever it is. When we get to the point, and it will... it will be many years down the line, maybe three, four, five, however long it takes. When we get to the point where we're talked about in the same breath as Mercedes and then one day when we're talked about in the same breath as Ferrari, McLaren and from where Red Bull are sitting now, many years down the line I think to get into that position, then we really are mixing it amongst the big boys. But at the moment, I don't think we're gonna be making any predictions. I think we just want to get out there, see how we can fight with and then go and have a go at them.

The season's just over a month away and teams talk about having updates for the first race. Have... are you the same being in the midfield to the back either? Same as those front teams that say, "Right, we're gonna have so many updates for the first race." I mean, to me it seems like, as a fan, it seems kind of nuts that they're testing with kit that isn't gonna be on the car anyway.

I know what you mean and it may seem a little strange, but the truth is that the car build programmes are worked out many, many months in advance.

So, we signed off the car designs and parts that would be running actually back... kind of midway through 2011. We used some of the parts we used towards the end of last season on last year's car, because we kind of had nothing to lose. So we thought we'd see what they could do. And so some of the parts that we're running here, are parts that may have been used in 2011. So, in order for us to push as much possible time as we can in the wind tunnel and be able to refine the tiny little details that are the difference between finishing thirteenth or eighteenth, we need to work back from the first race. If you take, for example, the time that it takes to build, paint, test and then fix bits to the car, that bit is the tip of the iceberg, because everything else before that is the testing time for it. In the wind tunnel and using computational fluid dynamics. So, we want to push that process as far as we possibly can, but we also want to make sure that we can run all of this and don't just rely on aero. So all of those bits underneath the car. So, yes, we will have a new package here for the first race and then we will continue to upgrade the car. And the aim is to be able to upgrade the car at every single race between race one and race twenty if that's achievable. So, while it may seem strange, what you have to consider is that we have to maximise the time that we have in the wind tunnel.

And that if we can sign off a part and say, "Okay, we're happy with that," and we know that the build time and the programme that we have to go through to get those bits on the car get's us as close as possible to that race, then it means that we can spend as much as possible on the wind tunnel, and that makes us quicker.

Currently I have an F1 website at and a Twitter account @F1News2012

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Tom Webb


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Heikki Kovalainen

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