Features - Technical

MAY 21, 1996

Nigel Bennett


There are two approaches to winning the Indycar series: either design a chassis and sell it to as many teams as possible to maximise the chances of being part of the right combination of team, driver, engine and tyres for that year; or control every aspect of the combination by producing the chassis in house, developing a long term involvement with the engine and tyre suppliers, and picking your own drivers.

There are two approaches to winning the Indycar series: either design a chassis and sell it to as many teams as possible to maximise the chances of being part of the right combination of team, driver, engine and tyres for that year; or control every aspect of the combination by producing the chassis in house, developing a long term involvement with the engine and tyre suppliers, and picking your own drivers. The first is the route taken by Lola and Reynard (and for many years by March); the second is the unique approach of Penske Racing. The man appointed by Roger Penske to master mind the technical operation is Nigel Bennett. He has carried out this task since 1987, with such consistent success that Penske have become the benchmark by which others are compared.

The use of a rifle instead of a shot gun has lead to some devastating bull's eyes (1994 Indy 500), and some equally devastating complete misses (1995 Indy 500). Through it all Nigel has remained calm and level-headed, steadily guiding the team back onto target.

But now, after 30 years in the business, Nigel has decided to retire from a full time involvement, once he has completed the design of his last racecar, the Penske PC26.

Although Nigel created the first Bennett racing car in his late teens, he didn't design another one until 1980, and then it was a Formula 1 car (the Ensign N180); only seven years later becoming the designer of the Penske. This route to the top is unusual in motor racing, but it may well be that the experience gained on the way up has made him supreme in a class of racing where wisdom is such an important attribute.

Racing around the Devon lanes in a friend's bodiless Austin 7 Special (these were the days before road cars were regulated), Nigel quickly realised that car design was something he wanted to do. A couple of his own Austin 7 Specials followed, the second of which he used to drive to circuits and then race. Already committed to a degree in Architecture at Nottingham University, he resorted to the 750 Motor Club's magazine as a guide to design and development technique. However after two years he gave in to the inevitable, left Nottingham and joined the College of Aeronautical Engineering in Chelsea, one of the only two places in the country where this class of engineering could be studied.

While at college he had met the Competition Manager of Firestone, and upon qualifying in 1967, joined the tyre company as a race engineer in Formula 1 and World Sports Car Championship racing. During the ten years he spent with Firestone, until they finally closed their European Racing Division, he gained first hand experience of all the problems of setting up a racecar from the perspective of the tyre - the single most important component.

"Although the tyres are quite different now, radial instead of cross-ply, the same sort of things apply. It is surprising what a gap there has been in tyre development since Goodyear has had no competition in Formula 1 and Indycar. Suddenly, at Surfers Paradise this year, the gap between Goodyear and Bridgestone - I mean Firestone - was nearly 2 seconds a lap. Goodyear had been too cautious, testing carefully, doing step-by-step development. They knew what to do, but just hadn't done it. In Australia it was so bad that they said ÔEnough of that', and took three development steps instead of one for the next race Long Beach. I was surprised, and gratified, that I was able to make a reasonable contribution, using my old knowledge and experience."

After Firestone, Nigel joined Hesketh Racing as a race engineer, until Lord Hesketh closed the Formula 1 team at the end of 1975. It was around that time that Peter Warr, Team Manager of Team Lotus, had a serious road accident in his Elan +2, breaking both legs. Nigel was recruited as his assistant to take over his duties while he recovered and subsequently became a development engineer under Tony Southgate. When Tony left, Nigel took charge of the Lotus T77, and subsequently, working closely with Mario Andretti, he led the development and race engineering of the T78 and ultimately the World Championship winning T79.

Having formed a good working relationship with Ralph Bellamy, the designer of the T78, Nigel joined him at Ensign at the end of 1979 to co-design the Ensign N180. "I became one of 14 personnel - that's not 14 designers/engineers, just 14 total people including the secretary in the team! After Team Lotus I must have been looking for a challenge!" For 1982, Nigel was solely responsible for new Ensigns, the N181, N182 and N183. "Ensign started our last 1983 season with $600,000, but Mo Nunn said that was OK as he would get some more. Unfortunately that didn't happen, as the car was potentially quite good. I got a lot of satisfaction fighting against the odds with Ensign."

Mo Nunn and Nigel went on to do an Indy car in 1983 (the first Indycar with a CFRP chassis), and that led, thanks to a recommendation to Eric Broadley from Mario Andretti, via Carl Haas, to a stint at Lola. Four years as Indycar Chief Designer at the "British College of Racecar Design" and Nigel was ready to take over the same position at Penske. Roger Penske had set up at Poole in Dorset, an Indycar design and build facility to take advantage of the British racecar infrastructure. Nigel has headed it ever since, assuming full technical responsibility for Penske's Indy efforts.

"Of all the Penske cars I think this year's, the PC25, is the best. Although the PC23 won 11 races and the Championship in 1994, the competition from Lola and Reynard is a lot tougher now. The PC25 is certainly the fastest Goodyear shod car without a Honda engine! After last year's disaster at Indy we had to really find out what went wrong. I am pretty sure we now fully understand it and this year's car has benefited from that understanding. Basically we build a light car and move ballast around quite a lot. In 1994 we had a good car compared to the opposition, but we were to the rearward limit of our ballast capability, so it seemed obvious to move the engine back for the following year. At the same time Firestone were coming in and Goodyear developed a tyre with better forward traction, but it went up in diameter and out in tread width and it became laterally slightly unstable. With a rearward weight distribution and a laterally unstable tyre there was a limit to cornering capability. It would actually race quite well - we won five races - but couldn't qualify as well. That was the fundamental problem.

"We had a test at Indy early in the year, where we were testing in 40 knot winds and the drivers didn't like it at all; they were really spooked. When we went back for the month of May, we went with a mechanical set-up mistake that we didn't realise until about half way through the first week. By that time the drivers were so locked up in where they were, that is was very difficult to get them to change. We were asking them to take seven steps back to try and uncross the classic aero./mechanical miss-match - too much front aero. and too much front roll stiffness - loose into the corners and understeer out. The whole month was a disaster; I totally failed to convince Roger where the problem lay. Panic measures ensued and the net result was that we failed to qualify. We returned to Indy in October with Paul Tracy, having sorted that out, and went 2 seconds a lap quicker. He thought the car was great."

Comparisons with Ferrari are inevitable. Both have UK based design operations, while the racing team operates out of another country. Ferrari however has a major manufacturing and engineering resource in Italy, while all Penske's manufacturing is carried out at Poole; only testing and racing takes place in the USA.

"On paper I have total technical direction over what the racing team does. But at the end of the day one can only advise and ask, one can't force it to be done. They may have their own reasons for doing things a different way, with a different emphasis. Politics!

"One of the biggest frustrations that I suffer is communications. We have Fax., e-mail, telephone, but it is interesting that, when it comes down to it, only face-to-face discussions or the telephone work. Fax and e-mail don't get properly understood, or may not get read or answered, and you're sometimes left not knowing whether the message has even been received, and so you get on the phone. Very frustrating. In working with the race team, although an extremely professional and highly talented group of people, it can be a problem getting one's knowledge, one's point-of-view across. Partly it is a different racing culture; partly they have their own agenda at a test: reliability issues or tyres and we have a stack of performance things waiting for test that don't get to the top of the list.

"It's not ideal, but it is the best compromise available to this group of people. The ideal arrangement would be to have everything in one place, but it's not possible, in Indycar, to then take advantage of the English infrastructure. Haas is going to try it next year, but even then the two parts (Swift and Haas) will be a continent apart.

"On the whole I think the race team does justice to our designs, indeed they often do a superb job with less than the best car, but sometimes I would like to be more in control of the development process. It's just not possible unless I want to live on an aeroplane, and then the design side would suffer.

"I like managing if I have total control, but not if my decisions are ignored or overruled. Then I tend to take a backward step - perhaps I should sometimes push harder for what I believe is right. However on the design side I am left totally to get on with it.

"Indycar is not Formula 1. We are only just starting to take on FEA in house, although we have contracted it out before now, and CFD is a luxury. We don't have our own wind tunnel, and I wish we did even though we have extensive use of the 11ft x 8ft tunnel at Southampton University. Nor do we have a bounce rig. Also we could do with duplicating much of the test equipment the race team has as their agenda and racing commitments do restrict their R&D activities.

"We can't take very big design risks. I admire people like John Barnard, who stick their necks out; most of the rest of us are too overawed by the financial responsibilities to take any risk at all. We did start to develop a purely hydro-mechanical Active Suspension, but Roger got it banned!. He saw the potential disasters of hydraulic hoses bursting etc. and stopped it. Mark you he was quite right - it was the wrong direction for Indy racing. From that we derived the three spring suspension arrangement, and were I believe, the first to do it. Also we were into the design of a CVT gearbox, but that became illegal before we spent too much money on it!"

With race wins being scarce for non Honda-Firestone runners in the current season, did this build up the pressure from sponsors and engine supplier, Mercedes-Benz?

"Winning is terribly important. With our resources, coming second is no good. Mercedes (Illmor) working flat out to close the power gap and have made some good gains in the last 12 months, but are inevitably extremely frustrated both with Formula 1 as well as Indycar. However they seem to be taking it well - they haven't rung me up yet! It is reputed that Honda are now spending more on their Indycar programme than they ever did in Formula 1."

Considering the importance of the US market to Honda, this is perhaps not surprising. I remember Ayrton Senna once saying that the main reason that Honda went racing was to beat Mercedes - this was the only way they could start to give the name the mystique that Mercedes has earned through racing.

With the prime product of world class motor racing being TV, and the marketing opportunities it provides to the major sponsors and technical backers, it is inevitable that Formula 1 and Indycar will converge rather than diverge.

"For a start the Technical Regulations are converging, but in some ways I think the Indycar's are not as good - the visual technical interest for instance. Mark you, this year all the Formula 1 cars, apart from Ferrari, look virtually the same. However the competition is much closer - overtaking is the norm rather than the exception. I think we are getting better; we have four constructors, and may have five or even six next year; and as it happens the engines are pretty well equal, so that regulation is not bad.

"I am not really frustrated by some of the things we can't do, such as Active Suspension, because I'm really aware of what we are trying to achieve: we are trying to achieve good racing at a reasonable cost. I'm more in favour of that as an objective than going all out for some wonderful widget. As you know we did get into a programme of that sort (Active Suspension) because if you know it's there you have to explore it. It's a bit different from Formula 1 in that respect: take Williams or Ferrari, they have such huge resources, both financial and human.

"I work with CART on the Technical Committee and whenever new regulations are required we have meetings and changes have to be approved by the Board of Directors. It's a good process and we have a really good working relationship with CART. There are hardly any regulations I have a strong objection to."

Nigel feels that motorsport is becoming quite top heavy, with Formula 1 and Indycar providing the majority of the career opportunities in design and R&D; Formula 3000 and Formula 3 have effectively become one make formulae. These environments are highly computerised and analytical, with specialists to handle the ever more sophisticated technologies employed.

"Being someone who now has a lot of experience and who has gained a good feel for things, I look at the way it's going and sense that I may be getting out of my depth. I can never quite keep up with all the new software tools that are available. And yet I see up-and-coming designers reacting to what is on the screen and having a lack of ability to analyse things from a gut feel, from experience. When people had to make a lot of guesses they gained from the experience, more so than those doing in-depth analysis, who don't have to make choices. Sometimes I look at car data and I see something that doesn't make sense to me. I know it's wrong and I say to them ÔLook guys, this is wrong'. All I get is blank looks and yet I know it's rubbish.

"We try and give our designers the broadest possible experience. Two of our race engineers are based in this office and go over for the races and tests. It's a big expense, but absolutely necessary, as this way they gain track experience and bring it back to the next design. It is useful for a race engineer or indeed anyone involved in the engineering of racecars to have driven a racing car, however long ago or however slow.. To be able to understand what the driver is saying is invaluable. I still recall, when a driver is describing something, what I felt driving that crude little racing car all that time ago. The do-it-yourself bit is missing now; the "specials" environment just isn't there like it used to be. It's far easier to get somebody else to make it and sort it out.

In spite of the regular rumours that Roger Penske is about to enter Formula 1, he has not done so yet and does not seem to be about to. I wondered whether Indycar had provided a sufficient engineering challenge for Nigel, and whether some other motor racing project could have enticed him to leave Penske.

"Some career strategists counsel a change of company every 4-6 years, but that has not been for me. Every year has become a bit the same, and I sometimes come into the office, look around my desk and wonder what I can do that is different, new. Everything is very well organised here in Poole - in a few weeks we will decide exactly which day next year's car will be produced, and it will be, to the day. It always is; it's never late.

"However there are still quite a few things I really enjoy and I hope, in some smaller way to stay involved with these. For instance, working with Goodyear this year. They needed help and I've been able to provide some background and knowledge about how the car reacts to tyre changes. Similarly, working with a company like Pi Research, who provide all our electronics and data systems, I can contribute directly. The Technical Regulations are challenging as the future of the series depends on getting them right. I would welcome the opportunity to restructure the regulations one day. I will continue to work on the aerodynamics of Penske's Indycars - it's creative and one sees instant rewards for improvements.

"Ultimately I am looking forward to having more time to do other things , outside of motor racing. This is the motivation to step back from the front line. I would like to be involved in the design of a sailing boat that had some originality - I have some ideas that might be commercially attractive. I spend quite a lot of my spare time sailing, including racing, and I would like to do a boat that combined some of the qualities of a racing yacht into a cruising boat."

As motor racing loses some of the close involvement of one of the generation of designers that has dominated the last two decades, we shall have to read the yachting monthlies, as well as Racecar Engineering, to find out to what projects Nigel is applying his manifest talents.