When someone asks me what I do exactly for living, I reply: "I'm a Race Engineer." Which is like saying nothing for a lot of people. In this second episode of The Racing Journal, I will explain what a GT race week in Europe is like for a Race Engineer, day by day, task by task.
Tuesday - Preparation Day
Tuesday is the preparation day. Yes, the race week starts on Tuesday and ends on Sunday for most races, especially when two events are in two consecutive weeks. Tuesday is an important day because we are going to define all those things that will allow the race weekend to start in the most organized and peaceful way possible. First of all, the car start setup is prepared and sent to the workshop to be prepared by the mechanics in the workshop. Then, all the track sheets are organised. Track sheets will be used to take note of everything that happens during each session during the event, from each circuit sectors timing, to the changes in the setup to optimise the performance of the car, passing through any issue that can occur in a racing car during a race weekend.
Tyre plan for the weekend is another typical activity of the preparation day. In fact, it is the only way to decide the used tyres to bring to the circuit in order to follow the regulations and also to know if and how many new tyres will be bought at the racetrack (dry and wet, depending on the forecast for the event). In addition, data from previous events on the same track are taking into account and every information from previous years regarding the car and the circuit are analysed, in order to have a clear picture of what the issues has been and what changes were made to try to solve those problems, improving the performance under certain environmental conditions. Reviewing the previous experience made in that same track is very important to define the car start setup to be sent to the workshop. On the day of preparation, the forecast for the weekend is checked, especially for the time slots coinciding with the individual sessions of the category in which the car competes. Finally, the simulator is used to test the car start setup in the expected weather conditions. This last activity is very useful to get as close as possible to the driver's point of view: taking into account the limits of a simulation environment compared to what happens in the real world, it is possible to better understand the feedback of the drivers on the setup when they get out of the car at the end of the various sessions during the race weekend. After the data analysis of the events of the previous years have been covered, the start setup has been validated and sent to the workshop, the track documents are ready and the car has been tested on the simulator, we are ready to prepare our suitcase for the next day's flight. The preparation day can be Tuesday or Wednesday depending on the weekend sessions schedule.
Wednesday - Travel Day / Setup Day
Wednesday is normally the travel day if there are sessions at the track already on Thursday. If there is nothing scheduled until Friday, Wednesday becomes a preparation day, as described in the previous paragraph, and Thursday is travel day. In any case, the travel day is where you arrive in the country where the race weekend will be held. As soon as you land, you usually reach the circuit where the pitbox or tent is assembled and the car is prepared for the first session of the following day. A good use of the first few hours on the track is to prepare the run plan for the next day, so that the day's activities take place in the fastest and most organized way possible. A run plan includes the “strategy” of the next day's sessions: how many laps to do per session, when to stop the car for any changes, what changes you are expected to try, etc.
Thursday - Pay Tests Day
Thursday is the day of the Pay Tests, if any session is scheduled. These are unofficial paid tests that teams can choose whether to do or not. Obviously, it is in the team's interest to take advantage of all possible opportunities to test the car in order to have more time to improve the overall performance for qualifying and races. Pay Tests are not always scheduled in a race week. When they are not, Thursday becomes Travel Day / Setup Day as described in the previous paragraph.
After the car and the run plans have been prepared the day before, we arrive at the circuit two or three hours before the start of the first test session. The weather conditions are rechecked to confirm the tyres that will be used during the session, the strategy is reviewed with the mechanics and the drivers, the onboards and the data of the previous events on the same track with the drivers are reviewed, the cold tire pressures are decided and the car engine is on twenty minutes before the start. Radio check. The session begins. Driver in the car as per run plan, installation lap to see that everything works properly and start testing. If more than one driver drives the same car, both drivers normally get to test the same setup changes to the car to get double feedback and work in a direction in which both the professional and amateur driver can extract the best performance from the car and feel comfortable while driving. After the session, data is downloaded and the drivers' driving style and how the car behaved during the laps is analysed. How the car response to any changes in the setup has been is an important parameter to check because allow you to start thinking about what you can do to improve any eventual issue recorded. While the mechanics perform the set down of the car, taking all the measurements of how the car "moved" during the session, the engineer and the drivers have a debriefing of about half an hour where they talk about how the car has behaved and what needs to be improved to optimise its vehicle dynamics and overall performance. Normally, during the debriefing there is the possibility to do some driving coaching together with the professional driver, to improve the driving performance of the amateur driver or the professional driver himself, if comparing with his own driving the previous year or with other team drivers who recorded a better performance during the session. At this point, if another test session is scheduled during the day, the appropriate decisions are made on the car and the setup for the next session is prepared. When you have two tests of this type it is also possible to use the time of the two sessions to test different setups, such as qualifying and race, trying short and long runs respectively in the two tests. If, on the other hand, there is only one test, the preparation of the car will be oriented towards free practices the following day. The same goes for the run plans for the next day's sessions.
Friday - Free Practice Day
Friday is normally the free practice day. Depending on the championship, you can have one or two free practice sessions, called FP1 and FP2 respectively. It may happen, in some circumstances, that there are also qualifications on the same day, but keep in mind that the work does not change: simply after the last free practice session there will be the preparation for qualifying described in the next paragraph.
Starting from the results, data and feedbacks of the Pay Tests, we continue with the run plan for free practices. They are very important because they represent the last chance to define what will make the car fast or not during qualifying and races. Also in this case, with two free practice sessions you can try different setups to better prepare both the qualifying car and the race car. The pre and post session procedures do not change from what is described in the Pay Tests of the previous paragraph. Normally, several pit stop and driver change simulations are done during free practice sessions to make sure that the minimum pit stop time calculations are optimised so as not to waste too much extra time during the pit stop during the race, but at the same time stay within the rules and avoid heavy penalties for being too quick in pit stop procedures. At the end of the day, after analyzing every detail of the performance during free practice, we prepare the setup for Saturday's qualifying.
Saturday - Qualifying / Race Day
Saturday is typically qualifying day. In some cases, it's like having Race 1 in the evening shortly after qualifying. The qualifying car was already prepared the previous day and the bulk of the work is now up to the drivers. After the qualifications have taken place (normally two qualifying sessions, one for the professional driver who will start Race 1 and one for the amateur driver who will start Race 2), the sectors are analyzed and compared with those of the direct competitors, data, set down to the car and debriefing/driving coaching with the drivers. If you have Race 1 on Saturday, you prepare the setup for the race and go to the line up between twenty and ten minutes before the start of the race, depending on the championship regulations. On the grid, the pressures are checked after the out lap and, if necessary, a pressure bleeding is carried out to bring the tire pressures back to a level that allows to reach and maintain the desired hot pressure target tested in the previous days. in the correct time and manner during the first race stint. During the race, as in any other session, the Race Engineer's task is to stay at the pitwall, ready on the radio for any type of communication or decision to be taken instantly when the race variables cause the strategy to deviate from the one planned. Pit Window Open. Time to decide when to call the professional driver who started the race in the pits for the driver change. In the ideal of things, being the fastest professional driver, you want him on the track for as long as possible, but there may be variables so this is not always what is done. At the time of the pit stop, you change driver and (respecting the minimum pit stop time imposed by the regulations) you return to the track with tyre pressures at target and amateur driver in the car that will go until the end of the race. At the end of the race, the technical procedures are the same as described for the other sessions after the Parc Fermè, because there is still Race 2 to run and it is not certain that the car is exactly the same as in Race 1. In the best case, yes, you celebrate a victory or a podium and there is little to do but make sure that the car of Race 2 is the same that brought the good result of Race 1. But, unfortunately, this does not always happen and, if something did not work in Race 1, we try to have a more competitive car-driver package for Race 2.
Sunday - Race Day
Sunday is Race Day. Whether Race 1 has already been run or both races are still to be run, the procedures remain the same as described in the previous paragraph. After Race 2, there is a quicker analysis of what happened both from the data and with the drivers and, after the set down, the pit box is dismantled and prepared to go home. In some cases, Sunday is also Travel Day. In others, especially if Race 2 is at the end of the day, Travel Day is Monday.
Monday - Travel Day / Report Day
Monday can be a Travel Day, where you go home if you have not done so on the Sunday evening after Race 2. Normally, when there are no races immediately the following weekend, as soon as you return home you take the day off and prepares the report of the weekend just finished on Tuesday. In many other cases, you have to leave early for another race, so as soon as you return you prepare the report and the race week starts again on Tuesday with Preparation Day, as described at the beginning of this article. The Race Report contains the "story" of the weekend: changes to the setup, sector analysis and lap times, analysis between the two drivers, car behaviour discovered during setup changes, mileage and tyres selection for the next event, issues and incidents, list of components to buy and work to be done before the next race, etc. In short, everything that happened during the weekend and everything that needs to be done for the following weekend to avoid problems and try to optimize performance for the next race right away.
What is described is obviously a typical week, many things can be different depending on the category and championship in which the team you work for participates in, but in general this is a real Race Week. The Race Engineer job is the one where you never stop learning and gaining experience. You learn from your mistakes to optimise performance in similar situations in the future and, especially, you never stop looking for the limit because winning is always one of the best feeling
in motorsport, even if you are in a situation where it happens often.
Davide De Russis