What a backroom!

The McLarens in full cry in the Turkish Grand Prix.-AP

There's definitely some truth when they say, ‘In Formula One, most often a race is either won or lost in the garage.' G. Raghunath visits the Ferrari and the McLaren garages.

What is quite remarkable about the Formula One team garages is their cleanliness and orderliness. Entering the garages of two of the most successful teams in the sport, Ferrari and McLaren Racing, is like stepping into the clean rooms of a scientific research facility. The whiff of gasoline and lacquer spray is overpowering, but you just can't ignore the painstakingly buffed and glossed garage walls, the floor that has been swept and mopped clean as a slate and the well-lit cubicles where everything, from the computers and drivers' balaclavas and helmets to the appliances and tools used by the mechanics, is exactly where it should be.

Stuart Humm, the sponsorship manager of Shell, the technical partner of Ferrari since 1930s, who guides a team of select journalists through the Scuderia Ferrari garage, pulls open a drawer and says, “Look, this is how well organised things are here.”

The drawer contains spanners and screw drivers, all spotlessly clean and showing no indication that they have been used, and arranged neatly as per their sizes. “We work in a sterile environment here,” adds Humm.

But before this, Humm leads us to what he calls the first step in the team's working process — Shell's on track laboratory that tests the fuel and lubricants used by Ferrari. “Behind every millilitre of the fuel and the oil that powers Ferrari is a team of over 50 scientists working in Shell laboratories and facilities around the world,” he says as he ushers us into a cubby hole wherein three people go about their work studiously.

In Formula One the use of fuel is governed by stringent controls. The FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) regulations pertaining to the race fuel proscribe the use of specific power-boosting additives. This is aimed at helping in the development of road car fuels. The fuel formulation is, thus, strictly monitored by the world body.

“We perform more than 40 tests per weekend on fuel and engine lubricants to ensure that we stay within the parameters set by the FIA, while continually working alongside Ferrari to deliver the best Formula One fuel for the team,” says Cara Tredget, the Shell Technology Manager for Ferrari.

Quite interestingly, over 200,000 litres of fuel are blended each season for use by the Ferrari race and test teams which is enough to last a road car for 50 years!

“One other thing we take good care is to eliminate contamination. Deposits that form on inlet valves and injection systems could retard engine speeds, so developing a good cleanser is a big challenge,” says Cara.

The lubricants, Cara says, are crucial to an engine's performance. They not only help cool engines but also prevent loss of power through friction. Lubricants also help minimise engine wear and double up as a cleaning agent, she adds.

We then move on to the main area of the garage where the two Ferraris (Alonso's and Massa's), shorn off their tyres and their engine covers, rest. Like stock brokers monitoring the indices at a stock exchange, a couple of crew members are peering at the computer screens, intermittently taking down data released by the various sensors from the cars. A couple more are peripatetic, moving up and down the room with a pen and sheets of paper clipped to a pad in hand.

The mechanics rev up Massa's car that whines plaintively each time gas is pumped into the engine. Simultaneously a few other mechanics check the hydraulic pressure and the temperatures.

“You need at least eight people to start the car,” says Humm. “There are guys monitoring the various aspects of the engine, like the temperature which is very crucial. You just can't start an engine and rev it up like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “The Formula One engines are very sensitive and can suffer what we call a ‘thermal shock', which would lead to engine seizures. It's a situation no team would want to have.”

Starting a Formula One car is a lot different from switching on the ignition of a road car. “They use an external starter to awaken the Formula One car. The starter has a long shaft which is plugged into the back of the gearbox and turned on,” explains Steve Cooper, the public relations officer of McLaren, who shows us around his team's garage.

Cooper then picks up a McLaren steering wheel and asks us to have a feel of it. “No photographs, please,” he says. And as an afterthought, he adds: “Even if you shoot photographs, you are not allowed to publish them.”

The steering wheel, made of carbon fibre, is pretty light. “It weighs about just 1.3 kilograms,” says Cooper. The switches and knobs on the wheel are dainty. You get a crispy feeling when you depress the switches and turn the knobs. The drivers use these switches and knobs to deploy the pit-lane speed limiter, KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and DRS (Drag Reduction System) and change the differential. Attached behind the wheel are the gear and clutch levers.

“The steering wheel costs about $40000,” says Cooper with a smirk.

Adjoining the main area of the garage is a small room, like an antechamber, where tyres wrapped in electric blankets are stacked up. “These electric blankets keep the rubber warm which ensures maximum grip right from the time the car leaves the garage,” explains Cooper.

According to Humm, the blankets also help keep a team's tyre strategy under wraps. “That's why we remove them only just before the start of a race, so our adversaries won't know what tyres we are running on until the final few seconds,” he says.

As per the FIA rules, for a race weekend, each driver is allotted 11 sets of dry weather tyres (six prime or hard compound and five option or soft compound), four sets of intermediate and three sets of wet slicks. For Friday's two free practice sessions, a driver cannot use more than three sets of dry weather tyres (two primes and one option). He has to return one set of primes to the tyre supplier before second free practice and one set each of prime and option before third free practice. He will then be given another eight sets of dry tyres (four primes and four options) for the qualifiers and the race.

These regulations, according to Cooper, are enforced in order to make sure that the teams don't misuse tyres.

As it is difficult to recognise the drivers in their helmets, a team allots colours — red or yellow — to each of its drivers to enable the pit crew to identify them correctly, for in the rush of the competition and while performing complex tasks like changing tyres in the midst of a frenetic race, it could all go wrong. (At McLaren Lewis Hamilton is red and Jenson Button yellow; at Ferrari Fernando Alonso is red and Felipe Massa is yellow. The colours are displayed on the onboard camera, above the driver's head.) Similarly, the tyres allotted to each driver are marked as per his colour.

“Tyres can't be swapped. Even by mistake you are not allowed to fit, say for instance, Hamilton's tyres to Button's car. This is a very serious offence and the offending team can be penalised heavily,” informs Cooper.

This is where the pit-stop drills help. More than how quickly a team performs a task in the pits, it's how well it accomplishes the job in such a short time — about 3.5 seconds — that matters. (It takes about 16 active crew members to perform a tyre change. And it is one of the most exciting actions one can witness off the track. But the pit-stop drills are done in camera.)

So, there's definitely some truth when they say, ‘In Formula One, most often a race is either won or lost in the garage.'