Christian Neyrat, 51, and Jonas Candido de Souza, 28, work in the electronics department of Renault Sport F1. Christian started with Renault at the very start of the V10 era and has seen electronics evolve from a basic level through active suspension and onto the latest generation of power units. Jonas joined in 2012 to work on these hugely complicated engines.
How and when did you start at Renault Sport F1?
Christian Neyrat: I started at Renault Sport F1 in Viry-Châtillon on 14 February 1989. It was the very start of the normally-aspirated V10 era and my first job was working on the control systems for that engine. There were only two of us at the time and we split the workload between us. The aims were the same as today: making the engine work as effectively as possible. We had electronics and software to control ignition timing, fuel injection and the quantity of fuel injected, spark plug timing plus some other parameters. I won’t say that it was the start of electronics in cars, but we weren’t far from it. And I’m not just talking about racing cars, but in road cars as well. I still work in the same department today so I have seen a fair few changes!
Jonas Candido de Souza: I am Brazilian and did my studies back home in Brazil. In 2009 I received a grant to continue my studies in France at the Ecole des Arts et Metiers. I studied there for a year and a half before returning to Brazil for another six months to finish my degree. I wanted to come back to France, and I particularly wanted to work in F1. As I knew that hybrid engines were the future of F1 I decided to go with the Master’s with the Renault Foundation. I asked if I could do a placement with Renault Sport F1. It seemed difficult, but in the end I got an interview, which took place on my birthday. I got the job – the best birthday present! After the placement I worked as a contractor, but now I am a test engineer in the electrical test department. I work with the hybrid systems, or with the ERS-H more specifically. I design the test programmes, execute them and then write the reports to help the design office develop and validate the component parts. I love the technical challenge, the contact you have with other people, the team spirit and the opportunity to push yourself and make progress.
Christian, when you started work in the 1990s, it was the golden age of electronics, when the cars used active suspension, there were many driver aids and the systems were extremely sophisticated. What are your memories of this period?
CN: The biggest evolution was when the engine could ‘speak’ with the chassis, the suspension and the gearbox. The suspension became active and the car was extremely advanced, with suspension that could move with the track, adjust the ride height, adjust the speeds into the corners. As far as we were concerned, it was this dialogue with the chassis and gearbox that changed things and cleared the way for the many refinements in control systems.
The daily rhythm was intense; there was nearly always something new to try out. We had regular evolutions of software and almost every race we had a new code that would impact on another part. The hardest part was the preparation before the race as everything was very rudimentary. We used the dynos for testing, of course, but we didn’t have the same simulation tools we have now. This meant that the trackside work at the tests between races was crucial as it was our main and only way of refining the control systems and engine maps and checking everything was OK. There were lots of test sessions, and everything was incredibly laborious.
Jonas, were you inspired by these times?
JDS: Of course. I wanted to work in F1 and Renault has a long and rich history. And that is due to the people involved. Above and beyond their technical knowledge, the older generation is passionate about what they do and I admire this a lot. I work every day with a guy who went to races in Brazil before I was even born! It’s inspiring to speak to someone who is as motivated as ever, even after 30 years in the sport. It is also lovely to hear anecdotes about Ayrton Senna.
And do you draw on this experience?
JDS : It’s very important to speak to the older generation. Even if F1 has changed a lot and things were very different before, they have a lot to bring to the table. The older generation have lived through a lot of different, very challenging, projects and in spite of the technical evolutions, the basic steps involved in a project have remained the same. They know what they have to do, and how to transform an initial project idea into reality. When I have an issue, I ask for an opinion. Even if the person I ask doesn’t have the exact reply, he will ask questions that will help me find a solution. They always give good advice. It’s very important for me as a young engineer. I have the tendency to go quite quickly to the next step without validating everything completely. They have made me understand that you need to check everything out in its entirety and learn from it. They are right on a lot of occasions. For example, last year when I went trackside, there was one day of testing when we had to change the battery five times in one day ! They remained completely calm and knew what we had to do.
And Christian, what did you feel about the introduction of the V6 turbo with their sophisticated electrical systems?
CN: It was a real revolution. First of all it was a turbo engine; I had never worked with this type of technology. Moreover it was a turbo engine coupled with electric motors. The additional challenge was to manage the restrictions linked to the battery and technical regulations, which we didn’t have in the past with the V10 or V8. The arrival of the V6 turbo hybrid was a new level of complexity for electronics and electrical systems that we had never encountered before. Everything concerned with engine management, or Power Units as they became known, electrical consumption was a big step in terms of strategy and definition.
And Jonas, do you feel the older generation have helped you develop the systems you work on in the V6 turbo?
JDS: Yes, definitely. I have learnt so much since June 2012. When I was on a work placement, I helped with the development of an electrical engine and then I was able to test different iterations to get to a reliable part that could be used on track. I saw how they made technical choices, and then how the H system could be used in the power unit.
Christian, how have you seen the electronics department evolve as a result of the various engine regulations?
CN: We were five people at the start and we did everything electronics-related, including the connectors, software, telemetry; all electricity or electronics in short. We also did development, testing and then went trackside, where we did everything like repairing connectors, telemetry and engine support. As the demands increased, we took on more people. Everyone became more specialized and our procedures were refined even further. We separated development from integration, validation and then exploitation. Now there more than 30 people in the department and each person has their own role and responsibility, specializing in their own area.
- The Generation Game: Electronics
How have the tools you use moved forward too?
CN: Now we can simulate everything (or almost everything) in a lab or on a PC. We have computers and machines that are able to replicate full laps or play out different scenarios before we even get to the dynos. On that front, the dynos have also evolved. We didn’t have the dynos that allowed us to reproduce engine behaviour when it is coupled with a gearbox, like a real car. As always though the track is the final test for the accuracy of our work!
Everything communication led has also evolved greatly, not just for us, but for the rest of the world too. The internet has revolutionized work trackside. When I started, when we left for the track we needed to have everything with us as there was almost no communication with the factory. You had the phone and that was it. Now when you arrive at a circuit, you connect your laptop and it’s almost the same as when you were at the factory. You can send emails, contact with people via an instant messaging system and see data almost straight away. It has changed a lot, but on the plus side, now you feel very connected and supported.
We also need to consider onboard computers, calculating power, the growth of processors, memory capacity, programming language, the acquisition and transfer of data, onboard and outboard connectivity
…as per a road car, electronics is everywhere in an F1 power unit: it really is the nerve centre to make everything work correctly.
How important is it for young people to join the department?
CN: It is crucial to have young people, they can take the baton from us! They bring a new vision to all areas of the company. Working on control electronics or electronics is much more natural for them than it was in the 1980s or 90s as everything is much more integrated. If we take a technician or engineer from today, fresh from school, he have a good grounding in control electronics from his studies. That wasn’t the case in my day as it was a mysterious area, reserved only for specialists in control systems. But now, there are lots of young people like Jonas, who come in and know automatically what to do. They come with a good understanding and we give them the experience of our years – how we have used things in the past, how we have operated , and things to avoid in the specialized environment of F1. Sometimes we can calm things down a bit, and that only comes with experience.
What do you enjoy most about your job, Jonas?
JDS: The timeframes involved in the car industry are very long and very few people get the chance to see a project through from start to finish, but I love the fact that this is possible in F1. On a more personal level I am lucky enough to work with people of various nationalities, generations and personalities. When I test different parts I have to speak to many different people, which is very enjoyable.
How do you feel electronics will evolve in the next 20 years?
CN: I think we will see even more calculating power, the same we see with our computers in the office. Development will be quicker, we will be able to do more things, there will be lots more interaction and interactivity between man and machine. Electronics and the electric parts of the PU will be more sophisticated due to ongoing technical evolution and it will be even more important to optimize and improve energy flow. We will also need to look after reliability and of course overall performance.
In terms of the actual job, I think the big evolution will be the way and efficiency in which we improve functionality. When we started we did the source code in ‘machine code’. Today, as the codes have moved forward, we write the code in a language that is much more graphical, elaborate but also more accessible. The code has become automated. I think that there will be more and more people that are able to read this code and more compatible systems. Twenty years ago the codes and development of the systems were only accessible by specialists. Now, I think this will become more open and allow us to develop new functionalities even more easily.
JDS: Technology has evolved, and the work too. In the past very few people looked after the electrical part of a car. Today, the system is so complex that it takes several people to manage different areas. The technology we see today is the result of years of research and development. In 1899 the first electric car broke the 100kph barrier. Many years have passed and now we have electrical engines, invertors, processors and high performance batteries. F1 technology is very expensive in spite of this evolution, although the kW/kg ratio is twice as large as the systems the aeronautic industry will use in 10 years. I think energy storage will remain a major concern in the future. I believe we will have the option to store different types of energy, a battery using supercapacitors, a flywheel and maybe consumable batteries. Maybe in 100 years we could see hydrogen in F1…