A whole generation of Renault F1 engineers has passed since the 1990s. People have grown up, technology has changed, time has moved on and the younger generation has taken over, building on the inherent experience of their elder peers.
Christian Blum, 56, looks after the dynos at Viry-Châtillon. He started work with Renault Sport in 1985. Yannick Rohrbacher, 34, is a trackside engine engineer for Renault Sport F1. He joined the team in 2014.
How would you describe your role, Christian, when you worked trackside in the ‘90s and Yannick, this season?
Christian Blum: Michael Schumacher and Johnny Herbert were the drivers when I started with Benetton and I was Johnny’s engineer. There was a Renault team leader who had the task of managing the engines for the team overall, but I managed my own car and my driver. There were common strategies, engine usage, problems, etc, but we had the freedom to work with our driver and to optimize the performance of the engine within a certain envelope. Williams had won the constructors’ title in 1994 but Benetton had taken the drivers’ title so there was a lot of competition between the two teams and we did our best to make sure Benetton stayed in front.
Yannick Rohrbacher: I’m responsible for everything to do with the power unit for Carlos Sainz, including usage, performance and reliability. I have a team working with me that includes an engine technician and control systems engineer and together we optimize the unit over a race weekend. The job starts at the factory as I prepare for each race, trying to get the best performance possible from the power unit at the coming circuit. After each race we come back to Viry to look through the data and analyse the weekend as a whole. You’re constantly looking for more of everything to improve at the next race.
Christian, how do you think the role of engine engineer has evolved in the last 20 years?
CB: The aim has not changed. At 2pm on a Sunday there is the green flag and there is a race. We do x laps and you do everything you can to finish, and to finish first. You need to have a level head, be able to take onboard a lot of information, look after it and know how to use your tools and develop them. Now, though, the systems are much more complicated. For Yannick, who learnt his trade at university, it probably does not seem too complicated as studies have evolved. There are also a lot more parameters in general to monitor and more interaction between them. In my time, we looked at the fuel consumption, temperature of water or oil, and a few others. Now instead of 30 parameters to look after there are closer to 60 or 70 so everything is a lot more intense. You also need to know when to automate things and when to delegate as you can’t possibly look at everything. As a result the stress levels are so much higher. But the delight when you win a race is exactly the same.
Yannick, what do you enjoy most about your current role?
YR: What I like most is being trackside, being on the ground, at the heart of the action, working with the team and the drivers to find the best possible performance for the car overall. We obviously have to play a close eye on reliability, but I love being able to make a difference to the car and performance overall. We are always pushing, looking for the last hundredths of a second amongst the multiple scenarios that can play out over a race weekend and within a race itself. My best memory so far? Winning the first race with the V6 turbo was a huge buzz. I was with Red Bull at the time and it was the first win for the team that year, the first win for Ricciardo and the first win for the Renault V6. And it was my first win in F1 too!
And have you been inspired by the history of Renault Sport F1?
YR: Yes. I very clearly remember weekends spent at my grandparents, watching F1 races in the 1990s. We watched races together, and I think my interest in the sport grew from there. It was the ‘90s and the glory years of Williams-Renault, Schumacher, Benetton...they were the great years for Renault. The engines were so strong, completely dominant, and the expertise of Renault was respected. I grew to love F1 and Renault was a massive player in the sport in my youth. This elder generation achieved so much, so many victories, and of course that inspired me as a young boy watching the TV at home.
Christian, can you see how the tools you used have evolved in the past 20 years?
CB: Curiously, 20 years ago the tools we used were very similar to those used today. Real-time telemetry had been in play since 1994 so we received information each lap. We looked at some of the same parameters, including the oil, temperature, fuel pressure, fuel consumption, air consumption…and we needed to manage the engine strategy too.
In those days, as it is now, competition was fierce. In 1995 Williams arguably had the best car and it had the same engine as us! We needed to have better strategies to win, but we had a bit more freedom to do what we wanted. There were people working at the factory supporting us but they did not work the weekend. Remember this was also the time before mobiles and email, and very often there were no calls outside working hours. If something went wrong, you had a helpline or a fax to one specialist but that was it – outside of working hours you had to sort it yourself. As a result, we were very autonomous. Now you have the operations room following everything back in the factory, which means more support, better communications…and specialists in each area. It has maybe taken away some of the autonomy as decisions are taken by committee.
We would also systematically change the engines many times each weekend. An engine back then had a lifespan of just 300km, or a race distance. We would do Friday and Saturday with an engine, then always use a new engine on Sunday. Now each engine obviously has a much longer life cycle.
There were fewer people in each team as well, maybe 50 people whereas there are now around 100 trackside. There are people you do not know, or have not met before. It’s a bit more anonymous. We had a team spirit that is still there today, but you felt it more keenly back in the day.
And Yannick, did you lean on the expertise of the elder generation when you joined Renault Sport F1?
YR: I had never worked in F1 before I came to Renault Sport F1. I had worked within the car industry, but never within F1 and certainly not trackside. I knew the sport, but not from the inside, so I had a huge learning curve. In this respect I leant on the people who did have the experience, who had been trackside. It’s a role that needs rigour and where experience counts as the scope of the role is so large – you have to understand the technology, procedures, regulations, communications, normal habits…and you need to understand them quickly. The elder generation had mastered all of these, so by getting the benefit of their experience I was able to learn quicker.
And do you still use this experience now?
YR: Definitely. I’ve been at Renault Sport F1 for a year now and I am still learning every day thanks to the experience of the people here. They will always pass on good practical advice on ways of working, procedures, expertise, etc. Of course it’s not necessarily that they sit down and talk to you about it every day, it’s more that they pass on their knowledge to their successors, who then pass it onto their successors, and so on.
There’s a continuous line of experience when you look through the company. You also see the passion of the elder generation.
It’s a shame in some respects that I have not been able to experience the V8 or V10 era like they did when the revs were 19,000rpm or above at times and it hurt your ears to be next to the engine !
Have you given any advice to Yannick?
CB: It’s complicated to give advice as they are very different eras, with very different emphasis so you cannot just say do this, do that. We can explain how we did it and give advice on how it worked in the past, how to deal with the pressure, how to run a car in a team, radio calls, use English, just little bits of advice. But people arrive with knowledge or skills that I don’t have, so we just need to let them do their job. I do hope though that when I do my current job in the dynos that knowing how it works trackside makes me able to give people the tools they need to do their job right now.
And Yannick, how do you think the technology F1 uses and your position will evolve in 20 years?
YR: F1 is dictated by regulations, but also guided by road cars to a certain extent as the sport has to live in the real world. If you look, for example, at the V6 turbo hybrid we are using now, with the use of electric recovery systems and fuel efficiency, it is a reflection of what the road car industry is doing as hybrid technology and fuel economy is incredibly important for the man on the street. It is difficult to imagine what will happen in road cars in 20 years as things will evolve, but I think the role of an engine engineer will be shaped by the technology we use. But F1 should still be the pinnacle of motorsport. From a personal point of view, I feel good here and I hope to still be here in 20 years. Naturally I hope to have put down a marker myself within Renault Sport and accrued a lot of experience and to be able to pass this on to others.