They’re the two biggest motor racing championships on the planet, they’re both coming down to the wire and two men have the fate of title contending drivers in their hands. But it’s all in a day’s work for NASCAR crew chief Ryan Pemberton and Red Bull Racing F1 engineer Ciaran Pilbeam.
Mark Webber may have seen his tilt at the Formula One drivers’ title come to a crashing end in the Singapore night but the Red Bull Racing star is still a crucial element in the attempt to overhaul Brawn GP’s Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello.
Brian Vickers too is in a hunt of his own, having reached his first season-ending Chase for NASCAR’s biggest prize: the Sprint Cup. He might not be the favourite but that won’t stop the Team Red Bull driver from pushing all the harder.
“There is a routine,” says Ciaran of the job of preparing Mark’s RB5 for a race. “I think every engineer-driver combination involves that in its own way, though everyone is different. I’m pretty happy with the way Mark and I work together. He’s a very easy guy to work with.
“With each driver I’ve worked for it’s slightly different, but the thing which stays the same is you adapt to work with the people you’re with – and that goes both ways. In this case I think we have a very good working relationship. So long as you trust each other and respect each other’s opinions – which we do – then that’s the basis of a good working relationship.
“This is our third year of working together, so our race weekends pretty much follow a pattern,” he adds. “There’s things that we think about before the race weekend that we’ll talk about in the week or two leading up to a race; then Thursday you start talking about what you’re doing in a bit more detail; then Friday/Saturday/Sunday you’re into the real detail of what you’re going to do. But I would say most race weekends are pretty similar.”
'He knows the circuits, he’s driven lot of cars, so he's a fundamental source of feedback' - Ciaran Pilbeam
Ryan Pemberton, NASCAR crew chief to Vickers, agrees. “It’s hard to step back and take a look at it because it’s all I’ve ever done,” he says. “More of it is by habit than anything else. We talk every week a couple times and we talk about what we did in the past week and what we are going to do in the week coming up. We look ahead at the tracks coming up and some of his concerns and the things I want to guard against.”
These are different disciplines, though, with F1 frequently viewed as the cutting edge of technological sophistication and NASCAR as its, shall we say, more agricultural cousin. So is there a difference in approach? Does F1 involve the brain power of dozens of computer wizards modeling every turn, incline and bump of a circuit and NASCAR involve crayons and paper?
In fact, when it gets down to the nitty gritty of a race weekend, with just engineer and driver at the sharp end, the tasks seem pretty similar.
“The initial setup comes out of a combination of many things,” says Ciaran. “Approaching an event I will always look back at my notes from the previous years because there are circuit-specific things that you need to remember. Mark does the same and then there are also current developments on the car to take into account. So, it’s a combination of many things”
The NASCAR approach is almost a mirror image. “Every racetrack is a little bit unique,” says Ryan. “We look at what the track does. Is it banked? Does it flatten out? Is it loose in? Is the pavement worn out? For example, Brian likes it when we run a certain bump stop [a rubber disc that limits shock travel] at a mile-and-a-half track.
“Or we’ll see that all the race tracks we did well at, we had certain things on the car and we start with that. So we start with the components in there that we think are most suited to the track — and what Brian likes — and we use that to try and make a versatile and balanced set-up.
“And then we anticipate that we will have problem X and problem Y and problem Z and work out what we would do to fix them when they arrive so we have a game plan.”
The idea is to arrive at a point where the race car is behaving in a manner that’s perfectly suited to the circuit. That in itself is a balancing act; lean the car too close to optimum spec for a flat-out qualifying lap and you could compromise full-fuelled race balance and vice versa. Drivers have been known to skew a car the wrong way in search of the perfect lap, so how do the engineers deal with driver input?
'We always talk about knowing your driver better than your wife' - Ryan Pemberton
“Brian has a lot of input,” says Pemberton. “Most of it is about doing it around what he likes and what he feels. Different drivers have different characteristics. Drivers are all great athletes, but some of them are sprinters and some of them are long distance runners. You try to curve the car to the style the driver likes. Some of them like to run the bottom and some feel totally comfortable running the top groove. So, you have to build the car and be versatile to make the adjustments needed for the driver.”
“It’s a bit from me, a bit from Mark and also what the data suggests,” adds Pilbeam. “We have a lot of people looking at it, and that’s a big source of information. But an experienced driver like Mark feels a lot and has a good understanding of the type of changes you need to make. He knows the circuits well, he’s driven lot of different cars, so he is a fundamental source of feedback.
“It would be different if we had a less experienced driver. Anyone who’s driven fewer cars and fewer circuits might need a bit more help from an engineer.”
Drivers, though, are a fickle breed and one moment’s perfectly set-up pole-winning machine can be transformed into a dog rough midfielder in an instant, with the driver complaining of wrong directions taken on set-up, of not being comfortable with the car, of his team-mate getting preferential treatment. In many instances, like horse whisperers, it’s up to the engineer to settle a skittish driver.
With Webber, says Pilbeam, it’s not a major part of his job, the Australian is experienced enough to shrug off any attempts to destabilise him. “There’s a little bit of psychology involved in the role, but Mark is a pretty tough character,” he says. “He doesn’t need to be told how good he is or how good everything else is; he has very good antennae within himself for how things are going, how he’s performing, so he doesn’t need much of that from me. Other drivers might.
“He’s also very good at reading human beings. So he knows – hopefully he knows – that he can be confident in me and the people around him. It’s a pretty intangible performance gain – but there is definitely something in that.”
For Pemberton it goes beyond the driver: the whole crew needs to feel confident in their roles. “Every position is different and some guys respond differently to others,” he insists. “Some things you can make up for with sheer hustle and sometimes you can’t and you have to do it by finesse.
“It’s funny, as crew chiefs, we always talk about knowing your driver better than your wife,” he adds. “You have to know if he’s in a good mood or if he’s anxious or aggressive – and you have to be able to know that before you even talk to him.”
The driver must also bring his motivational skills to bear. Both Pemberton and Pilbeam are thankful they have drivers whose input is valuable and productive. “It’s not their job to lift the team, but Mark does,” says the Red Bull F1 engineer. “He spends quite a lot of time in the garage; if he comes to the factory he’ll go around all the departments and talk to all the guys there, and that does make a difference. If the guys have been at the track late and the driver comes around and makes sure they know he appreciates it, it does help.”
In the end then, the NASCAR and F1 philosophies are not so far apart. Both Pemberton and Pilbeam sit almost as close to the heart of the racing machine as the driver. When all the data has been spat out, when all the models have been rendered, it is they and their drivers who must make sense of it all, tweaking, shaping and finessing their cars to some kind of racing perfection. And along with it comes the multi-tasking. Mechanic, data analyst, strategist, psychologist, nursemaid, there’s a lot more to race engineering than meets the eye.
Additional reporting: Matt Youson and Jeff Pappone