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Features - Interview

MAY 1, 1992

Peter Wright


Peter Wright is a self-confessed boffin. Generally regarded as the man behind the introduction of ground effect in F1 in 1978, Wright was later involved in the development of active suspension for Lotus Engineering. Today he has given up being managing director of Lotus Engineering and gone back to his spiritual home Team Lotus. In Barcelona he unveiled the Lotus 107 which he hopes will take the famous team back to the front of the F1 grids. As technical director, he has instigated a programme where technology once again leads the way.

"That's Lotus, isn't it," he smiles. "That is the Lotus philosophy. Peter Collins (his fellow director at Team Lotus) and I both agreed that this would be our philosophy. We would try to win through technical superiority. I think that Colin Chapman would have approved and that is what we are trying to do.

"Last year we couldn't do that much technically. We didn't have much time. We had two months to get the car together, which didn't leave very many choices. The result of this was the 102B.

"Right from the start, however, we put in the research and development programmes which would put together a database to allow us to look to the future and do some of the things that we want to do. That is why we spent a significant part of our R&D budget measuring what the car was doing at all times. These were basically chassis measurements, everything that we could easily measure. We carried a small weight penalty all last year in order to be able to do that but it has given us a vast amount of information. We also invested in the ex-Williams, ex-Specialised Mouldings 1/4 scale wind tunnel, which was a necessary requirement. We also invested in a large autoclave which was what was needed to bring the composite department reasonably up to date.

"The other main task was assembling the technical department. The people. The R&D department is mainly made up of ex Lotus Engineering people under Dr John Davis, with particular expertise in control systems, measurement and analysis and aerodynamics. The design and engineering department is under Chris Murphy. It took a little while to recruit Chris but he brought a large and extremely competent design office together under Jean-Paul Gousset. I am now very happy that we have the technical engineering side that we need for the future.

"I wouldn't begin to say that we have the equipment we need. We are not infinitely rich, but I think we have spent our money very wisely on the things we believe matter. We have invested it fairly equally between design and engineering and R&D.

"The other great strength we have is our close association with Lotus Engineering which brings us the involvement of John Miles. He brings a lot of expertise to the ride and handling department.

''What we are trying to do is form a team of very strong individuals. On the face of it that is a contradiction of terms but it is, in fact, a strength. We want very strong individuals who are not necessarily going to agree with one another. One of my tasks is to bind the technical part of that into a team. I think we are achieving that. Chris is a strong individual and has a lot of diverse experience from racing. John Davis is a very good technical brain - he comes from aerodynamics and suspension systems - and John Miles has tremendous driving experience which forms a link through to the drivers. He, Johnny and Mika are the nearest we can get to a Jack Brabham or a Bruce McLaren where you jump out of the car and adjust the damping and then jump back in. John does that with road cars and we may even get him out in the 107. We made the cockpit big enough. That way we can short-circuit the information loop. He understands Mika and Johnny and they have faith in him interpreting what they say. It works well."

The 107 is certainly an exciting car. It features active suspension and there are plans for a variety of other technology.

"The new car is a state-of-the-art conventional car,' says Wright. 'We planned that, because of the time scales involved, it would be a passive car and we would introduce systems to it later. The data system of the 102 was basically an active suspension computer. We tried quite a range of approaches to active over the winter, successfully enough to give us the confidence to do something on the 107 right from the start. What we decided was that we would do something which would not hold up the car. We needed the other attributes - the reduced weight, the better aerodynamics and the modern design - right from the start and we were not prepared to delay it in order to get the advantages of active. We brought an active programme up alongside the car and a system which is relatively straight-forward. It is what I would call a "semi-active" or even a "reactive" system, rather than a fully active system. It controls the attitude of the car among other things and is relatively simple. We can bring it on slowly and develop it alongside the car - without holding up the development. That will allow us to get a lot of the potential performance increases which controlled suspensions give and to go fully active when we have the car fully calibrated and understood it. We have taken an ambitious, but relatively calculated risk."

If you listen the paddock, they will tell you that developing active suspension is vastly expensive - and yet here is Lotus - not a rich team - bringin out it's system. How is that possible? Surely the electronic work is to expensive?

"Since the late 1970s - when we first started measuring things on F1 cars - I have always worked with the Cranfield Flight Instrumentation Group. Out of that grew the active supension. They have built all the active suspension computers used by road cars made by Lotus Engineering and the computers used on the active Lotuses in 1983, 1987 and this year. We get aircraft quality electronics and state or the art computers from them. We are doing more and more ourselves in day-to-day stuff in terms of putting together a department which is capable of building the sort of computer we are currently using, but it isn't really our priority because we have such a good resource we can use with the Cranfield group.

"The electronics are quite expensive because you have to do them very carefully, but we had such a computer on the 102B. It is really not earth-shattering stuff. You don't need a fantastic computer to do the job. Basically a personal computer will do it quite nicely. The mechanical side is quite straight forward. It is Fifties technology in concept with Nineties implementation. What's important is how you make it work with the car. Our approach is derived from the fully active system which is very similar to what was developed for road cars. It is a fairly pure system."

And what about other electronic systems?

"With the 107 we have a hydraulic system and a fairly powerful computer. Active suspension sets the specification of these so it's fairly easy - without trivialising the task - of adding additional systems like a gear change mechanicism or whatever."

And what about fly-by-wire?

"That sounds tremendous,' says Wright, 'but we put our money where we think we will get the most performance per dollar. Sophistocated gearbox control requires very strong interaction with the engine. Fly-by-wire requires very definite interaction and traction control the same. What will probably pace what we do is our relationship with Cosworth. It is excellent, but we are not the works team at the moment. Therefore we cannot dictate what the engine shall be. One nice thing about being a Ford HB V8 customer is that it allows you more freedom. It is less constraining in terms of weight and size, packaging and so on. It is probably the least constraining engine in F1. I look at the works engines and there's an awful lot of stuff on the car because they are being developed. The Ford is absolute ideal for us right now because it allows us to do all the other things we want to do. When we have done all those then we will need more power. Right now we need enough power, good reliability and the minimum of constraints. F1 is entering a period with a lot of technical development. When all the other technologies stabilise, engine power will win. When all the technologies and engine power stabilise then driver skill wins. I think more and more you are looking at a package.

"Perhaps there is even an advantage now in being an engine customer. We get engines with proven reliability - and we don't do an awful lot of engine development mileage. The thing that really costs money is running these racing cars. You only have to look at the cost per mile of an engine - which is of the order of $150 a mile. Building cars is expensive but running them is what really costs serious money. Developing systems and grinding around the track to prove they are reliable is expensive. What we are trying to do is to think our way through the problems. We do a lot of rig testing which is much cheaper than car testing. We go testing when we have a specific question which needs an answer."

F1 is as simple - and as cheap - as that. If you happen to be a high-quality boffin.