It’s hardly surprising Renault gave us a high-performance Megane 220 RS model so we could rock up at the Renault F1 team headquarters in deepest Oxfordshire. The car drives like a go-kart, and takes us through the sharp countryside curves like it’s on rails before spitting us out in the car park of Enstone.
This is the former site of a stone quarry and has been the home of a Formula 1 team since 1992. It’s also prime British countryside, so the facility has had to be built into, rather than on top of, the old industrial site. Enstone is decidedly low rise, with some sections actually built underground. And expansion has had to be smart, innovative and eco-friendly in order to happen at all.
A short while later we’re talking with new recruits from the Renault Sport Academy, who coincidentally have all built up their driving skills as youthful go-kart drivers. The guys are young – so young in fact that one of them has yet to pass his test to drive a car on the road. After a quick retrospective on the facility and Renault’s plans for the future, as part of a six-year vision for winning, we head towards the HQ’s inner sanctum.
We see some genuinely amazing things during our tour of the Enstone facility. However, the midway point around the transmission that’s made from carbon fibre is probably the most-jaw dropping moment of the trip. It looks like some weird alien creation, a cocktail of carbon fibre and metal that feels like it could bite you. But, it’s just one of many components in an F1 car, 14,500 actually, all of which are designed using a formidable cocktail of computing power, traditional craftsmanship and ingenuity.
To kick things off, though, we walk past rooms chock full of computers and monitors. It could be any office to be honest. But then you see what the engineers and technicians are poring over onscreen in the design office. Here, workers who comprise just a fraction of the 700 or so employees, start fleshing out the initial details for what will become the next F1 car. While sometimes they retain bits of what has gone before, most of it is created from scratch.
As our guide points out, building F1 cars isn’t an easy or straightforward business. It takes around 150,000 hours and 19,000 CAD drawings in order to define what it’ll actually be like. Plans change by the day, sometimes by the hour, so the workforce has to be dedicated and prepared to pitch in whenever. You really get to see tangible evidence of this in the machine room later on, where a wall-mounted monitor displays the status of jobs. The progress curve sounds rather fluid, to say the least.
The willingness to go the extra mile for the cause is also flagged up in the comms room next door to the design office. It’s a darkened area, again, full of monitors, keyboards and a wall of big screens. This is like mission control for race days, where staff at the HQ can pitch in by being connected to their colleagues at any given Grand Prix and offer advice, updates and anything else needed in real time. And that goes on no matter what the time difference or location of the race.
Through another door and we get to drill down into the core of the facility. There’s a room where we find a steering wheel which can cost between £35 and £45K. We also get a mind-blowing breakdown of the features and functions that an F1 driver has to operate in fractions of a second. It’s enough to make you weep if you struggle basics like setting your cruise control on the way home from work. It’s at this point most of us on the tour realise that F1 drivers earn their big money wages justifiably, and then some.
Heading down some steps we gather around the skeleton of one of the cars. It’s a maze of cables, wires, connectors and lots of carbon fibre. In fact, Renault says that around 18km of the black stuff is used by the team during the course of a season. Much of the car is assembled by hand too, although the technology is such now that computers work out the best way to lay the carbon fibre matting to achieve maximum strength.
There’s a whole fabrication department inside Enstone, with clinical operating conditions that means workers have to wear paper suits and hairnets to avoid any foreign objects entering the almost sterile environment. Elsewhere, alongside the machine shop there are two Breton machines. These amazing creations allow the team to quickly, and more importantly accurately produce components in a fraction of the time it took before.
Testing is another critical aspect of the F1 car build. The Enstone facility has another awesome technical arrangement for this. The 7-post-rig is an area where cars can be placed on a collection of moving plates. The rig is subsequently able to replicate any course the cars race on, right down to the last little nuances of the circuit layout. Not only is this vital for current cars, it’s hugely beneficial for the development of future incarnations too.
We round out our tour of Enstone with a look at the driver-in-the-loop simulator, which is an incredibly advanced facility for developing not only the cars but also drivers, engineers and designers. Similarly impressive is the huge wind tunnel that allows the team to test cars and components. Pitch, roll, ride height, downforce and the deformation of tyres are just a few of the issues analysed in the tunnel. However, there’s an additional tech twist in the shape of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD).
In short, this is the part of the F1 equation that relies on supercomputers and cutting-edge software – located in the underground part of the facility. This aspect of the R&D allows engineers to simulate the complexities of airflow in and around the car. It’s kinda like a virtual wind tunnel. It’s also great at amassing data, with 60TB of data produced with ease over the course of a typical week. And, in a world where increasingly the power is in the data, that’s critical in working out where the Renault team are going to be heading next.
Interestingly, Enstone has attracted a lot of partners and collaborators over the years, and Renault still works closely with many of them. Microsoft supplies much of the software and hardware backbone, but the facility also has strong ties with Boeing. Being connected with the aerospace industry makes perfect sense as there is much here that is created with the same tolerances. In fact, as our guide points out, they’ve probably got more in common with planes than cars, such is the complexity packed inside an F1 car. We weren’t about to disagree either.