One of the many job descriptions that did not exist in Formula 1 a few years ago is Performance Engineer, a title given to someone whose job it is to oversee all aspects of the car’s performance in order to back up the more subjective dialogue between Race Engineer and driver with hard facts about the car.
Giuliano Salvi is the man who fills this role for Felipe Massa and for him, the complexities of the Circuit de Catalunya make this one of the most stimulating weekends of the year. “If we consider Barcelona as one of the more modern circuits, then it has to be said it is one of the more interesting,” says Salvi.
“This is because it combines a slow section, with tight corners like Turn 5 and 10 which are very slow and challenging from a traction point of view and old style very high speed corners, like 12, 13, 3, 9 which are rarity on the relatively new tracks. Therefore it is quite complicated to get the car set up correct. You have to find a compromise between a car that is good in the quick parts and the slow ones.”
Salvi has a degree in Aerospace engineering, but like so many students of this subject he preferred to put his expertise to work with wheeled rather than winged machines and his first job was in the DTM touring car series in Germany for a couple of years.
“Then I joined Ferrari to work with the customer teams,” says Salvi, taking up the story. “We were supplying Prost in 2001 and I was in charge of the gearbox, as that was my department, until the end of the Prost era. From there I went to the Scuderia’s test team. In 2002, I was in charge of gearbox and hydraulics for the test team.”
“Then, in 2003, I became a Performance Engineer until 2005 in the test team and then this year, I now work with Felipe Massa in the same role. I was already his Performance Engineer in 2003, when he was our test driver. So I have worked with him since 2000, because when I worked in DTM I was also involved in the German F3 series and we became friends then.”
As to the characteristics of the Spanish track, they tend to deliver high speed understeer. “So you need a stable car that is very quick through the final two corners of the lap, to launch yourself down the main straight which follows, which is over a kilometre in length,” explains Salvi. “But you cannot just set up the car to be good here as for much of the time, it also has to cope with those slow corners I mentioned. It gives the engineers a hard time as they work on this compromise.”
Barcelona, in its five kilometres, has a real cross section of corner types and it is this variety which is the most interesting feature of the circuit. “You can play with the levels of aerodynamic downforce, as you have a long and very fast straight, where you can pick up speed and time, but that requires you to be quick through Turns 12 and 13,” analyses Salvi.
“So you have to work on the aerodynamics and set-up, which can vary a lot. Not for nothing do all the teams come here for winter testing because it is a track where you can get a lot of useful data. A car that works well at Barcelona works well almost everywhere.”
Indeed, Barcelona is probably the most widely used test track, so apart from the overall job of moving forward with the development of the car, engineers have to bear in mind that this is a venue for a grand prix and therefore some of the testing has to be more race specific.
“We keep in mind the fact we will be back to race here and the most important aspect to deal with is our understanding of tyre performance,” continues Salvi. “We need to try and get the tyre that gives the best performance which naturally tends to be the softest compound possible, while lasting the distance over what we expect to be our longest stint in the race itself.”
“So within the range we have established from our experience at this track, we try and push that to a softer tyre to see if we gain in performance and in grip. But one reaches a point where the driver can lose confidence in the way the car is behaving, even though he is being offered more grip. This is down to the moving sensation he feels, where although the tyres are stuck to the track, the chassis moves on its tyres.”
“This comes with a tyre that is a fraction too soft and does not mean the car itself is unstable. So, in this situation, even if the car has more grip, the driver tends to go a bit slower. The car is more unstable on the tyres and it is hard to tell for the driver what the car is doing. ”
A softer tyre might produce a better grid position, but if for whatever reason a driver finds himself further back than is ideal, this track does offer overtaking opportunities. “You can try Turn 1 after the straight,” says our Performance Engineer. “The difficulty here is that, if you are following a car closely out of the last turn onto the straight, you lose downforce, so you have to regain it as quickly as possible in the second half of the straight, in order to pass going into Turn 1.”
“Then there is Turn 4 which again follows on from a fast corner, but the best place of all for passing at this track is Turn 10, which for the past few years has been a much sharper corner than it was in the past and thus promotes overtaking as the braking for this turn is very heavy with extremely high longitudinal G forces. So if you come out of Turn 9 well, you can get past.”
If the layout of the circuit does not already provide plenty of food for thought for engineers, the elements can also add to the complexity. “The wind plays a key role at this track,” reveals Salvi.
“Naturally, it has an effect on what gear ratios you chose, but most of all when the wind blows almost directly across the main straight, the new enclosed grandstand in the shape of the “C” of Catalunya, which goes up to halfway along the main straight, creates a big problem, as it blocks the wind. While a driver is alongside the grandstand, he is protected from the wind, but as he comes out from its shadow, the wind creates instability in the car. So it is important to understand where the wind is coming from.”
For this year, Giuliano finds himself reunited with Felipe Massa with whom he worked when the Brazilian was an official test driver for the team. “He has changed a lot since then, especially when he came here for the first time he had a few rough edges,” reckons Salvi. “During his year in our test team he learnt a lot, becoming more involved in the technical side of the car and so he was able to return to the race environment.”
“He has grown a lot already this year, race by race. He is growing in confidence. For sure it can be scary to have Michael as your target, but it is also a resource because if you can match Michael you are doing very well. We are trying to emphasis the positive side of having Michael as a team-mate and it is good for his career.”