Nearly time for STR12

Nearly time for STR12

December 9, 2016

The 2016 season is still fresh in our minds, but for our designers, engineers, productions staff, in fact pretty much everyone in Faenza and Bicester, 2017 is already well under way. Our Technical Director James Key found time to give us an update on where we are with next year’s car, the STR12, in these final few weeks of 2016.

James, apart from the usual work of designing and building a new car, for 2017 all the teams had to deal with some major rule changes.
Yes, it's a massive change. Honestly, from a bodywork and suspension and tyre point of view, this is the biggest one that I've personally experienced in almost 19 years in F1. From a chassis point of view, it's the biggest change of the past two decades, even bigger than 2009 and certainly bigger than 2014. These are exciting times! Basically, there are two processes going on. Firstly, you've got the enormous amount of research you have to do to try and understand what makes a car with these new regulations tick, without any experience of them in reality, because for a long time, we can only operate in the virtual world. That process comes to an end in January. Secondly you hit the track for winter testing, after which you go and do a season with all this work that for a long time existed in your virtual world. We tentatively started the 2017 project in September 2015, so it's been 14 months so far. Back then, the chassis regulations hadn't been finalised but we thought that with any change of this nature, the sooner you start, the better.

What did you have to go on at that point?
Basically, we had an outline set of regulations, which in the end underwent subtle changes before being finalised. It wasn't a massive change but in the end, the sport went with a slightly less aggressive set of regulations, which were agreed on around March-April time this year. That meant no one could steal a massive march on it because the regulations were still under review at that point. We knew the tyres would be wider and we had dimensions then of what we were going to work to. These also got refined, but not to a huge degree. We started work conceptually on this around September 2015, really just to see what it meant and then as the regs evolved, we changed our plans accordingly. By the time the car hits the track, it will have been a 17-month project.

For you and your engineers was it a case of wow this is fun? Just having something completely new to deal with - huge wide cars, fat tyres. Was it exciting?
Absolutely. It's not often discussed - I wish it was more - engineers, particularly in Formula 1, but in any industry where you're working on the cutting-edge of something, are incredibly competitive people. It's why they do this. To be given a new challenge with lots of unknowns but knowing that you're up against your peers in every other team to make what you can of it, is a great challenge. It's something that everyone relishes really, in every team. It's been really interesting because there are lots of creative minds out there and everyone's sitting down and thinking, "Well, what do we need to do with this? What combinations of this, that and the other are there that make these cars perform? Where are your targets?" You've got no reference points from anywhere than your own internal targets. You can get that horribly wrong or you can be on the money. We won't know really until qualifying in Melbourne ultimately. But you've got to go through that whole process of working out exactly what it is that you need to be doing with the '17 car to be competitive. I don't know whether we've done enough and I guess no other team does either, but it's an exciting time, just setting out what you think is right, let alone going into the detail, and then making all sorts of discoveries along the way.

It is perfectly within the regulations for there to be synergies between us and Red Bull Technology. How will that help our programme?
There are several areas nowadays where it's acceptable to run the same part or for one team to design a bit and allow the other team to use it and so on, predominantly on power unit-related topics, but it also stretches to gearbox and suspension as well. That's all good. It means we can pool our resources a bit more and have better synergies in those areas and certainly, both teams are looking to see what opportunities there are. The problem with new regulations of course is you've got nothing to discuss because you've got to go through the whole design process. In 2017 therefore, there will not be that many opportunities for synergies. In the second year of these regs, once you've got bits that work within that set of regulations, then it opens up many more, so 2018 will be a better opportunity. Having said that, having the same engine helps. It draws together a huge amount of commonality in certain areas on the power train side.

Final question – give us a snapshot of what's happening at Faenza and Bicester at the moment?
We are currently manufacturing the bigger parts of the 2017 car. The chassis are being made and they are on schedule. It's still early days. We're not up to quantities yet but the first one is well and truly underway. The second one is probably started at this stage. The gearbox is also underway as are other components, both those made in-house and those from outside suppliers. It's certainly going ahead full-on at the moment. We're doing R&D work on impact structures as well and that will be well in time for winter testing. From a development side, that's also flat-out, as normal. We've got a busy winter schedule ahead of us. With these new regs, we are paying particular attention to the loads on the car, which will be much higher because the cornering speeds will be that much faster. We therefore need to make sure that structurally, we've missed nothing. Of course, you always want to make sure that's the case, but we haven't got any experience of these cars yet so we need to double-check that we are as robust structurally as we believe we should be in theory. So there's a busy winter test programme. We are, in the meantime, sitting down and discussing many of the early season developments that we're planning. They've been underway for some time too and we're looking at all sorts of possibilities for early season development so it's all go.