Features - Technical

APRIL 8, 1996

Rory Byrne


Is it possible for someone, without the benefit of a formal mechanical engineering education, and without an extended, experience gathering pupilage under an established Formula 1 designer, to become the designer of World Championship winning Formula 1 cars?

Is it possible for someone, without the benefit of a formal mechanical engineering education, and without an extended, experience gathering pupilage under an established Formula 1 designer, to become the designer of World Championship winning Formula 1 cars? To discover that the answer is "Yes", and to understand what it takes to do so one need look no further than the career of Rory Byrne.

Rory possesses a natural competitiveness, combined with a level of commitment and enthusiasm, sustained in the face of what must often have seemed impossible difficulties, over nearly 30 years. These qualities are unusual in the present climate of fast tracks and desire for short cuts to stardom and riches. It has been an entirely self-taught route to the pinnacle of racecar design achievement, but would have been impossible without an inherent feel for mechanical things.

Backgrounder. Born and raised in South Africa, to parents who were both teachers (his 80-year old father still works an 8-hour day), Rory's early interests were directed at competitions with self-designed and constructed model gliders. His hobby stimulated an early interest in aerodynamics and lightweight structures, and awakened a keen competitive spirit. However, while studying for a degree in Industrial Chemistry at Witwatersrand University, he fell among motor racing people and began to take an interest in local saloon car racing. Initially it was the competitive aspects that attracted him, but that soon changed when he converted his road car, a Ford Anglia 105E, to racing use.

Working as Chief Chemist at a polymer manufacturing plant outside Johannesburg during the late 1960's, Rory found that more and more of his time and interest was being directed towards preparation and modifications to the racecar. Having discovered that driving was not his forte -"I can put one reasonably decent lap together, but I can't keep it up for lap after lap." - he handed this role over to a friend and concentrated on the technical side. Finishing second in their first race, and taking the lap record in the process, ensured that the bug really took hold.

In spite of no formal training or previous experience in mechanical or automotive engineering, the mathematics and experimental techniques he had learned at university stood him in good stead.

The involvement in racing grew, until in 1967 Rory set up his own business (in partnership with two friends) importing and selling motor spares and performance accessories such as Weber carburettors. This soon expanded into engine development and build, including selling their own brand Formula Ford engines. It was during this period that the first Rory Byrne racecar left his drawing board - a Formula Ford.

"It was overweight to start with and it took me some time to get to grips with that. Once we got the weight down we finished 2nd in the 1972 South African Formula Ford Championship.

"At the end of that year I was so involved in racing that there was only one place to go - the UK. So I sold my business, very fortuitously as the oil crisis hit in 1973 and the whole business took a big dive in South Africa, and came to England with my driver friend.

"We bought a Royale RP16 for him to drive and spent the first six months trying to understand the car. Formula Ford was much more competitive over here and conditions very different - it often rained! Then towards the end of 1973, Bob King, who owned Royale, decided to sell up due to ill health and Alan Cornock bought it. As Bob had also designed the cars, Alan needed a new designer and he offered me the job.

"I spent the next four years as Royale's designer and gained a whole lot of experience. In 1977 I met Alex Hawkridge and Ted Toleman, who were Royale customers, and they persuaded me to join Toleman Group Motorsport. In Ô78 we ran a March 782 Formula 2 car - a fantastic customer car. Next year it was Ralt RT2's and then in Ô80 we ("we" being John Gentry and myself) designed our own car: the TG280.

"The TG280 gave us first and second in the championship and led us to believe we were ready to move on into Formula 1. In fact we had been lucky - I exploited a loophole in the regulations in which the height of the edges of the bodywork was defined relative to the driver's backside. So I lowered him through the seat and well into the bottom of the monocoque, reducing the ground clearance at the sides of the car by around 15-20 mm in the process. By the time everyone else had caught on, the Pirelli tyres were developed to a stage where they were superior and it really was all too easy. It lulled us into a false sense of security. When we arrived in Formula 1 we were in for a massive shock.

"We took a ridiculously big step with a new engine (Hart 415T), new chassis (TG181) and new tyres (Pirelli) - the whole shooting match. It was a brave step and a tribute to Alex Hawkridge and Ted Toleman's commitment to stay with it. It took us several months to even begin to get to grips with it."

From Industrial Chemist to Formula 1 designer, without working for any other designer in any class of racing, is to do it the hard way. Credit is due to those that gave Rory the opportunities along the way, to reveal the in-built talents that the years at Benetton (nŽe Toleman) have amply demonstrated.

By 1983, after two years of struggling, Toleman were points scorers. In Ô84, spurred on by the fledgling Senna, they almost won the Monaco GP and the world took note of team and driver.

In 1985 Toleman were unable to gain a supply of tyres and sat on the sidelines for each Grand Prix until Benetton acquired the team in May, enabling the new TG185 car to race. Since that time Benetton has gone steadily from strength to strength, and apart the from the period in Ô90/'91 working on the aborted Formula 1 Reynard project, Rory has remained the corner stone of their R & D and design efforts.

During the Toleman years Rory produced the cars that were his best and his worst. The super light TG185 means the most to him, particularly the satisfaction of doing his first CFRP monocoque; he would much prefer to forget the TG181 and the pain that accompanied it. However it is probable that Rory will be best remembered for his relentless quest for an aerodynamic advantage, however small, and the common sight of him measuring the track temperature every session, way before most people realised its influence on tyre grip. The car he most admires is the Lotus T79, even though it was designed before he was in Formula 1, and he holds enormous respect for Patrick Head's Williams', for their consistent competitiveness and thorough engineering.

Rory has come a long way from the days when he learned how to design a racing car by developing his own ideas and trying them out. Nowadays his role has changed and he has become a guiding hand to young engineers as they learn the trade.

"I have a more supervisory role now, bringing on young engineers. I give them as much freedom as possible and pull them up when I think they are going over the edge. From a company point of view I think it is much better, a much sounder base from which to operate. With computer aided engineering such as CFD and FEA, it is hard to keep fully abreast of the very latest methods. I provide the practical experience and overview to guide the use of these super powerful tools and the specialists who operate them.

"Within Benetton I am basically responsible for all the R & D that goes into the design and for the conceptual side. One of the secrets of the company's success is how well I get on with Ross (Brawn). We see eye-to-eye on virtually every issue; we very seldom disagree to a point where we have to make a fundamental decision on which way we go - his or mine. It never happens like that as we do seem to see things the same way and it really helps.

"Ross is responsible for detail design; the Drawing Office reports to him via the DO Manager - Graham Herd. I am involved in discussions about detail design because it obviously affects aerodynamics, structures, and in fact everything else. As I am responsible for those I get involved but do not dictate the detail.

"Ross is a proper Technical Director, setting procedures, establishing systems, race engineering and overall engineering programmes. He takes the final decision on how big a technical risk we are going to take, and we seldom seem to disagree - he seems to accept most of what I propose we should do.

"I don't feel as much ownership of the cars now, but I don't really miss it as it has happened so gradually that I have adapted. There is so much to do as we have grown in size; as technology advances there is so much scope that I really have to spend all my time thinking about where the next step is coming from. What you can do is limited by the budget, time and the ability to manage people. It's quite difficult to expand and retain efficiency while motivating staff and keeping them focused.

"At the end of the day, I still get the same enjoyment out of this new role. The last time I actually engineered a car at the track was in 1993 and I seldom go to races now as there is so much support and research work to do here at the factory. These days, with data transfer down phone links and modern communications, it is not so necessary. It may not be quite so good as being at the track, but it allows me to keep abreast of things on a continual basis while still being able to carry on my function here. It is really much more efficient for the company. At a test the actual amount of useful testing, relevant to the research I am doing is minimal. It is mostly reliability running which has no direct relevance to performance but does determine success at races. I don't need to be there for all that as we have several engineers, led by Pat Symonds, who attend tests and races and they communicate back to base.

"I've worked with Pat since our time at Royale together - he took over as Chief Designer when I joined Toleman, and has followed me around ever since! We have worked together for a lot of years and have an excellent rapport. That is a big factor."

I was interested to hear Rory's views on Benetton's development policy for the Ô95 racecar, and whether they had set out to produce a car from which only Schumacher could wring out it's ultimate performance, much to the chagrin of Benetton's second drivers. The combination of good response and marginal stability either caught out the unwary or persuaded them to stay clear of the limit in fast corners. Only Schumacher came to terms with these characteristics and was able to exploit them to the full.

"It's not something which we have worked out directly, it's been more of a development programme that has happened since I rejoined Benetton at the end of Ô91. We have developed a car that gives the best performance and Schumacher adapted to drive it. It's been a continuous process. There has been no conscious decision as such, but it's an inevitable consequence of his driving ability and style and enabled us to develop the car to maximise performance.

"This year we have had to change the car. It is fundamentally different from last year's in a few key areas, and it has made quite a difference. The car is now much more progressive near the limit and it needed to be as Gerhard Berger found out in winter testing. Losing Schumacher, we dare not start from where we were, so we took a step back.

"I suspect we have lost ultimate performance in the car, but it's difficult to know for sure. There's enough modelling work done to understand what we have been doing, and in one or two areas there is no doubt. However much winter testing we do on the new car, we won't find out how competitive we are until we race against the others. Everything else is conjecture.

"Schumacher says that he found the Ô95 Ferrari much easier to drive than the Benetton. If he's there for a long time it is inevitable they will go down the same road because it's ultimately faster - provided it's consistent and he is able to drive it. I think it will be a gradual process, not a sudden decision. I bet that as a consequence of him testing over a period of time he will lead them that way. Maybe not as far as we went, but it is inevitable that with Schumacher they will lean towards that edge of the performance envelope.

"We will miss Schumacher. Though I didn't work that closely with him, I had a good rapport. Pat Symonds will miss him more, as he had worked with him since the start of Ô92."

After 15 years in Formula 1 Rory still feels the excitement of it, but for different reasons than in the early Benetton days. "It is now so competitive and the pressures have increased. The opportunity to innovate has reduced because of the growth of the company and because of the changes in the Technical Regulations. In the past my ideas have given us an advantage in some areas, but to be honest, they have hurt reliability. Now Ross has structured the company so well, with lots of systems and checks, that the fact that we are generally so reliable is no accident.

"The way Formula 1 is going will reduce the scope for lots of individuality. Take aerodynamics for instance. There are several engineers working on it, I'm not the only one any more who has new ideas. What I try to do is to make sure there is a balance, and try and prioritise things - that's what it is all about now. I try and work on things that are the most productive in terms of performance. My role has definitely changed, but it is still a challenge, just a different one.

"CAD and CAE have brought about change too. Personally I'm not really computer literate, though I use them. It has been a gradual change and I have grown to like it for how much more one can do. The scope is enormous and I wouldn't want to go back. I even find management a challenge!"

"I like winning but it is not quite as important as being competitive. You know, being uncompetitive is something I simply can't handle. Losing a race by a few tenths is not so bad; it's down to the details on the day. Coming second a lap down is terrible.

"Winning does give you that extra "buzz" and there's nothing quite like it. It also makes everything that bit easier. Everyone feels that bit more motivated and it's so much easier to get things done. The hardest is to have been winning and then stop. Getting back up there is very difficult."

Rory, having worked with Ayrton Senna in his early days in Formula 1 and Michael Schumacher almost throughout his time in the formula, rates highly the contribution of the driver to the overall process of honing the car. He does not believe that a driver can succeed in today's environment without a reasonable mechanical understanding of what the car is doing, and the ability to communicate that succinctly and accurately to the engineers. The only other driver with whom Rory has worked, who he includes in the same category as Senna and Schumacher in that respect, is Teo Fabi.

At the age of 52 Rory is beginning to think about those that will replace him at Benetton. "I don't want to do this for ever and I don't want to leave a hole behind me when I stop. I conduct a policy of trying to expose the engineers who work for me to as broad an experience as possible; to give them a complete overview of how what they are working on, fits into the whole picture.

"Take our Chief Aerodynamicist. In the wind tunnel there is a great danger of chasing the L/D number, and you have to be so careful not to make it the be all and end all. Recently he spent nearly 10 days at a test and actually saw everything first hand, discussed suspension characteristics, and spent a lot of time looking at all the track data, not just the aero. I am trying to broaden his outlook and knowledge so that he is aware of other things than aerodynamics. However much you look at tunnel data, heave and pitch sensitivity plots and so on, until one actually sees the track data, watches the car and listens to the driver one cannot realise what is actually happening. There is no substitute for that experience.

"If we don't generate our own, broad based designers and engineers, it is not clear where we are going to find them. We have a bit of a problem."

"As a profession it rates pretty highly, but it takes a particular attitude to get on. As far as I am concerned it's been fantastic. There's not been a day since I started when I've not got out of bed raring to go; raring to get into the office. We've gone through some bad patches and even then I can honestly say that I've always got into my car really keen to get into work. So from a job satisfaction and personal motivation point of view I think it's fabulous, but it's up to the individual and not everyone sees it the same way as I do.

"Like any professional sport nowadays, it's not without it's risks; there are downsides. The satisfaction comes from enthusiasm, and from that comes commitment. I generally do a 12 hour day and when we have setbacks I just get my head down and keep going. If I was ever going to give up I would have done so in 1981, with the TG181."

" I don't think I'm likely to get involved in any other from of motorsport, though I must say that Indycars are technically challenging because they have to work on such a wide variety of circuits. In the end they must make different cars for ovals and road circuits, budgets permitting. I am contracted to Benetton until the end of this year, and we will be discussing the future quite soon. I don't really see myself elsewhere in motorsport, though I do regret the Reynard Formula 1 project not going ahead. A lot of people put a lot of work and effort into it, but it just wasn't possible.

Rory's other great passion is scuba-diving. Every so often he is able to take a long weekend and head off to the Far East to join up with a boat belonging to an airline pilot friend. Three days diving off Thailand, India or Micronesia and Rory gets back to the office on Monday morning fully re-charged. Between trips, village cricket provides exercise and a reason for getting outside the office. "Scuba-diving and cricket in the summer keep me fit and sane!"

Rory is one of those rare individuals who are at peace with what they are doing. It is impossible to tell whether that has come from his upbringing - he credits his father for teaching him how to gain the right balance in life - or from following an enthusiasm and turning it, through hard work and commitment, into a successful career. He regrets taking so long to realise what he really wanted to do with his life, and blames the wasted years on not taking time off before going to university to find that out.

Self-taught, self-motivated, but in no way self-satisfied. I get the impression that Rory understands himself as well as he understands a Formula 1 car. He is reluctant to criticise others, though generous with praise for those he truly admires; and yet he is prepared to discuss his own faults and limitations as he sees them. He is also happy to give credit to those who have helped or been instrumental in some way in his career. A pure racer who has adapted to the relentless march of technology, Rory possesses of qualities that are unfortunately all too rare in the top ranks of motorsport today. I can honestly say that it was a delight to talk with him.