Hi-ho, hi-ho. It's off to work we go

Now there are people out there who think that I have a rather bizarre thought process, but I have to say that as I wandered back into the Formula 1 paddock after a winter away I found myself humming that merry tune from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was time to go back to work. Hi-Ho-o-o-o. I didn't expect to find anyone claiming to be Snow White in the Melbourne paddock but I was rather surprised to find quite so many people who were Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey and Sneezy. I had trouble finding anyone who was Happy and you can never find Bashful.

The striking thing was that most people seemed to be half-asleep.

"Jet lag?" said an exhausted mechanic. "No, that's not a problem. I didn't know what day of the week it was when I got on the aeroplane, so flying round the world didn't make any difference at all."

Others said that the flight had been the most enjoyable thing they had done for weeks.

"I got to sleep for more than two hours," someone grumbled.

When you wandered up and down the garages in Australia you began to realize just how hard the Formula 1 teams work these days to get the Grand Prix cars up and running. We lazy journalists turn up at the first race, complaining about a bit about jet-lag and how hard they are working. The team bosses look tanned and lazy after a holiday or two. The drivers looked lean and mean, but they were still smiling. No-one had started to criticize them yet.

Everyone else looked wrecked. Formula 1 teams these days are like icebergs. In the paddock we see the sparkling tip of an organization, perhaps 50 people in each race team. Back at the team factories there are perhaps another 150-200 workers with each team who are responsible for designing, researching and building the cars. These are people who are overlooked and do not deserve to be. Occasionally F1 team bosses and drivers talk about the men and women behind the scenes. Everyone yawns. It is a bit like the Oscar presentations.

"I'd like to thank my wife Darleen, my dog Spiffy, my agent Gervaise and my cousins Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton Tail and Peter..."

When team bosses mention the great working classes they tend to go waltzing off into a land of jargon in which things are measured in a unit known as "man/hours". Not very politically-correct but a lot better sounding than "person-hours".

At the launch of the new McLaren team boss Ron Dennis made a big point of explaining that the MP4/13 had been shaped by 12,000 man-hours of work in the windtunnel. Journalists do not often stop to think about statistics and so the figure appeared in a variety of places without any real questions being asked. When you think about it, it really is a most extraordinary statistic, particularly as my spies at McLaren tell me that the team has only one windtunnel program on the go. If there was one aerodynamicist working 24 a day it would take him 500 days of working around the clock to complete 12,000 man-hours. With two boffins that figure comes down to 250 days (24 hours a day of course) and if you slip in a third aerodynamicist you can reduce it to 166 days. When you start getting up to four people in a control room things are beginning to get a little crowded and as you cannot run windtunnels non-stop for weeks on end one has to work on the principle that 18 hours a day is quite enough. But 12,000 man-hours is four aerodynamicists working 18 hours a day for five and a half months. Remarkable.

Building the chassis is another labour-intensive business with each monocoque needing around 1000 man-hours to complete. In case you think the cars are built by machines you are wrong. They are like bit quilts, put together from carbon-composite clothes, impregnated with resins, and laid up on moulds by men wearing hairnets, armed with blow dryers. No, I am not kidding. If you think there are machines to do this sort of thing you are wrong. It is a cottage industry and a game of much skill. As only three or four laminators can work on a chassis at the same time there it takes around 20 days to complete each chassis.

All the teams in Melbourne had three cars (although not all the third cars were actually able to run) which meant that each operation had spent 3000 man-hours actually building the cars and that was before any work was done with spares or development.

If you can find enough skilled laminators you can work them in shifts around the clock but this is an expensive business.

Teams are never very keen to reveal staff figures but Jordan recently gave details of how its crew of 148 is broken down between the various departments. It was very revealing. The race and test team made up only 20% of the operation with organization being around 18%, technical departments being 30% and production departments being 32%.

In the autumn the technical departments are working flat out, in the winter it is the production team which is at top speed, during the racing season the pressure falls on the racing team and the organization bounces as best it can all year long.

One never sees the laminators in action but it was very obvious in Melbourne that all the mechanics and engineers looked as though they had spent for weeks.

Ever since the cars were finished the crews have been running them, rebuilding them and trying to iron out the glitches. By all accounts the pressure has been pretty silly.

"We did a whole week of 22 hour days," said a Ferrari man.

"I did a 26 hour day," said a rather confused man from Stewart. He added that it was one of series of virtually non-stop work.

At Arrows they were talking about having worked 80 hours at a single stretch and were happy to discuss the best way to work under such pressure.

"I find it is best to stop after 36 hours and have three or four hours of sleep and then start again. The brain can cope with that," said one engineer, who I must admit was looking a bit pale.

If you try to think of these folk in normal real world terms, you cannot really take it in. It is madness, but such is the dedication these days that everyone is doing it.

"It really is amazing," said someone I know who used to be in F1 and visited the paddock in Melbourne. "Everyone I have seen says they are tired out and the season is only just beginning... It never used to be that bad."

I have to admit that I feel much the same. The other evening I fell asleep while typing, sitting upright in front of the computer with my hands resting on the keyboard. In the middle of a sentence... (I guess it was not a very interesting article!)

Part of the reason for this was that I have spent the last few weeks finishing a book about the French Resistance. We don't really need to go into the details of the story here except to say that it was revealing in terms of sleep deprivation. In the last war the German interrogators in Paris found that rather than beating people to a pulp and other nasty things like that the easiest way to get information out of a prisoner was to keep him or her awake for about 60 hours.

After that they were easily caught out if they were telling lies and became incapable of telling the same story without making mistakes. Lack of sleep was a very refined form of torture.

Scientists love to take things to extremes - look at the work of the F1 designers - and in the fullness of post-war time some nutty wild-haired types set about analyzing the effects of sleeplessness on the human being and other assorted unfortunates in research establishments. They found a 17-year-old maniac (who probably needed the money) who agreed to go for 11 full days without sleeping. Two hundred and sixty-four hours.

They discovered that the subject suffered from bouts of irritability, blurred vision, slurring of speech, memory lapses, and confusion concerning his own identity.

When you think about it, that sounds a bit like a list of characteristics for the average man in the Formula 1 pitlane...

Studies on animals - apparently the mad scientists spent several days prodding rats to keep them awake - revealed that staying awake for long periods of time increased the sexual urge which I suppose explains why it is that mechanics always seem to manage to have some energy left on Sunday night to go out on the town when you would have thought that all they really want to do is curl up in bed with teddy and sleep off the madness of the weekend.

The depressing thing for all those in Formula 1 who have tortured themselves throughout the winter months is that ,much of the work was occasioned by the fact that the FIA decided to change the rules to slow the cars down by three or four seconds a lap and we arrived in Melbourne and discovered that Mika Hakkinen's pole position was only 0.641s slower than Jacques Villeneuve managed last season.

The FIA tried not to splutter too much when dreaming up a reason for this and came up with the novel argument that one had to imagine just how fast the cars would have been this year if they had not taken the steps to slow them down. That is true but the aim was to slow the cars a great deal more.

If the truth be told it is probably a little bit too early to judge whether or not Melbourne is an exception or whether the FIA's great attempt to slow down the cars had failed horribly.

The governing body will not be losing any sleep over this, however, as the buck can easily be passed to others. The F1 Technical Working Group, which comes up with ideas of how to slow down the cars, is made up of the designers from all the top F1 teams.

It seems it was the engineers who got it wrong...

Print Feature