When a Formula One race car screeched to a halt outside its garage, crewmen rushed over and attached what looked like four large hair dryers to each wheel, wrapped its tires in black electric blankets and scooped pellets of dry ice into oversized cup holders attached to the car’s outer shell.
Other crewmen stared anxiously up at TV monitors hanging from the ceiling. And one carefully placed another monitor in front of the driver, who used a silver remote-control pad to change the channels he was watching.
This sure ain’t NASCAR. So what was going on here?
The ING Renault team answered that question and others by giving me rare access to its garage for two days of practice and qualifying during last weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Rookie phenomenon Lewis Hamilton of the McLaren Mercedes team won the race Sunday, and the two ING Renault drivers, rookie Heikki Kovalainen of Finland and Giancarlo Fisichella of Italy, finished fifth and ninth, respectively.
Formula One is considered the most technologically sophisticated form of motor sports. The cars are extremely powerful yet light and nimble, and to say their aerodynamic, braking and steering systems are complex is an understatement.
It’s an expensive sport. Fielding a two-car team can cost between $200 million and $400 million a year, several times that of a NASCAR Nextel Cup team. For each race, the Renault team flies in more than 80 people, crew members, administrative personnel, technical aides and such. Most of the cost is shouldered by sponsors, and ING, a major Netherlands-based financial services firm, became the Renault team’s main sponsor this year.
And based on my inside look at the Renault team’s operation, it was clear that a small budget won’t work in Formula One.
Renault is a French automaker that still supplies engines to the team, but the cars’ chassis are made in England where the team is based. Most of the 35 crewmen who work directly on the cars are British and in their 30s.
At Indy, their garage next to pit road contained Kovalainen’s and Fisichella’s cars and one complete spare, in case either crashes. The garage was about twice the size of a typical residential two-car garage.
But the word “garage” doesn’t do justice to the area. It looked more like a hospital operating room, and, when the cars were parked, they looked as if they were on life-support systems.
And like many doctors, each crewman was a specialist in only one aspect of the car -- tires, engines, front end, rear end, traction, hydraulics and so forth.
Before the practice runs and qualifying, above each car was a high-tech metal canopy with lights, electrical outlets and more than a dozen black cables that dropped down and attached to the cars.
What were the cables for? After Fisichella and Kovalainen brought their cars in from the track, some cables instantly transmitted data about the cars to the team’s computers: Fuel consumption, tire wear and the car’s balance, to name a few areas.
Four other cables provided power to the blankets placed around each tire. Teams wanted the tires kept warm, so they would be soft and “grippy” the moment a driver went back racing.
Conversely, teams wanted to prevent the car’s brakes, engine and oil from overheating. That’s why they instantly attached the blowers that look like giant hair dryers to the wheels. They were actually pumping cool air to the brakes.
F1 cars don’t have radiators. So the team attached what look like oversized cup holders -- each containing another blower -- to each side of the body, then poured in dry ice. That forced cold air into the engine.
When the drivers came in, I saw their crews put a TV monitor in front of them and hand the drivers the remote control. That way Fisichella and Kovalainen picked from two viewing choices: A readout of every driver’s lap times, or the TV feed showing cars going around the track.
That’s also what the crewmen watched, along with telemetry readings about the car, when the cameras caught them gazing upward in the garage.
Although I saw the Renault crew move quickly around the cars, it was not chaotic, and members seldom bumped into one another despite the tight quarters. “Everybody knows their job,” said Steve Nielsen, ING Renault’s team manager. “You have to learn to work together.”
The drivers’ steering wheel looked like something out of video-game heaven with 14 colored buttons and dials that let both drivers instantly make changes to the car, including its gear-box settings and the engine’s air-fuel mixture. On the back of the wheel is the car’s “paddle shifter,” levers that the drivers manipulate with their fingers to change gears in the blink of an eye.
As crews prepared their cars for qualifying, Fisichella and Kovalainen passively stared at their monitors as they switched channels back and forth, each sipping water through a straw attached to a bottle.
They usually show up only when it’s time to drive. Behind the garage, out of public view, they put on their fire suits, helmets and head-and-neck restraints. When not in the cars, they spent much of the day talking to the team’s many engineers, going over data and discussing ways to find a bit more speed.
Also out of view are two banks of six additional crew members each. Sitting at laptop computers behind the garage, they evaluate all the data being sent from the cars as the stupendously loud noise of other F1 cars screaming down the track fills the background.
Everyone wore ear plugs or, as I did, over-the-ear headsets. Even with that protection the roar was deafening.
When Fisichella and Kovalainen took to the track, chief crewmen sat alongside the speedway talked to them on the radio. “Let’s go, one timed lap mates, please,” one said to the drivers as they started qualifying. Moments later, another radioed to the crew: “Point-two in both fronts, please, zero-point two,” meaning they should adjust the tire pressure by that much when the cars returned.
As the cars prepared to return, the crews were told precisely how long it would take for them to arrive. “Thirty seconds for Heikki,” they said. “Ten seconds to Heikki.” Ten seconds later, Kovalainen stopped on a dime in front of his garage.
While their crews again measured every aspect of their cars, Fisichella and Kovalainen resumed watching their personal TV monitors.
Fisichella first checked his competitors’ most recent lap times, then switched to the TV feed, which was now panning the crowd. Fisichella stared straight ahead as the monitor showed one group of fans that had hoisted a giant banner in the grandstands. It read: “LEWIS” -- as in Hamilton.