Given that Pat Symonds has spent the past 35 years in the ultimate frenetic environment, Formula 1, and with the sport currently deemed to be failing in a variety of important ways, it is a pleasure and rather a surprise to walk out of an hour’s interview with the Williams technical director feeling good about 2016.
But that’s Symonds for you. He’s never been one to panic or follow the herd. Measured decisions are his stock in trade, made on evidence overlaid with a well-honed intuition. And right now, he’s optimistic about the future of his sport – both for the 2016 season, whose stable regulations mean success will depend on careful development of a known package, and 2017, whose new rules involve major aerodynamic changes, aimed at making cars faster, which are likely to rearrange the grid.
“It’s true that motorsport could make a better job of things like its governance, income and expenditure,” Symonds says. “If I could change one thing, I’d cap budgets. But for all its faults, we have an honest sport, which is something we should value highly in today’s difficult times. Racing consists of a set of regulations everyone has to adhere to and, broadly speaking, the best man wins. That challenge still excites me, although I don’t miss it in winter because that’s a very busy period. But now we’re at the end of winter and I can’t wait to be out there.”
Although involved in pure racing nearly all his working life, Symonds turns out to be deeply interested in the transfer of F1 technology to road cars. That’s a big reason why he is an enthusiastic supporter of F1’s current hybrid electric powertrain formula, introduced in 2014, even though it has been criticised for a plethora of ‘housekeeping’ reasons - too little noise, technical complexity, high costs and difficult driveability being among them. Some have called for it to be replaced by a simpler engine-transmission system from the so-called good old days.
“It’s vital that the formula stays,” says Symonds passionately. “What we’ve done with F1 and WEC [World Endurance Championship] engines makes a direct contribution to future road cars and it would be a complete tragedy if we backed away now. Sure, the cost was high, but there were reasons for that.
“The engines raced for the first time in 2014, but their conception goes back to 2007-2008. Back then, there was no financial crisis. Sponsorship was still quite plentiful. Society’s big concerns were CO2 and energy security. Western oil reserves were low. The whole idea made a lot of sense. It was very important not to be seen as a formula for consumption but for efficiency. The cost of development wasn’t so important.
“Move forward to 2014. The engines were ready but the world was different. The US now had ample oil through fracking. The price of a barrel of crude was $40, not $120. CO2 was still important, but people were also talking about clean air and particulates. And the worldwide recession had knocked advertising and sponsorship budgets for six. We were a bit out of sync with the world, but so were many other parts of industry and society. But what we’d achieved was still very relevant.”
Symonds believes F1 should not feel the least bit apologetic for its powertrain achievement. The sport did the right thing and continues to do so. “We can’t go back to gas guzzling,” he insists. “That would be wrong on every level.”
If electric road cars are to take off as more than urban vehicles, Symonds believes, there will need to be a breakthrough in battery technology. “Take a look at the roadmap for CO2 reduction laid out by the UK Automotive Council between now and 2050. It depends on the development of much better batteries. I don’t say motorsport will necessarily produce that breakthrough in battery chemistry, but we’ve been pretty good at these things in the past, and we can provide a pretty good test bed to take things further.”
Talking about his own team’s prospects, Symonds admits that early Williams success after his 2013 arrival (the team scored much-improved third positions in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015) tends to make improvements look easy to achieve, which they emphatically aren’t. Especially when the team is operating for the third year on a budget close to the £110 million of the past two seasons. (By comparison, the F1 grapevine says Manor spends about £80m, Mercedes and Red Bull have about £200m, and Ferrari’s budget is believed to be £250m-plus).
If your budget is limited, says Symonds, deciding how to spend it becomes a special challenge. “An F1 team is mostly an R&D operation. In road car R&D, maybe 80% of what you do doesn’t work, but success with the other 20% makes it all worthwhile. But in racing, when you’ve got less to spend than your rivals, you have to do better.”
Symonds takes a novel but logical view of the scale of investment in grand prix racing, so often portrayed in the tabloids as enormous. “Road car companies spend billions on R&D,” he says, “so a few million spent in F1 is neither here nor there…”
Interestingly, the expenditure disparity between teams can be as visible in relative performance in a year of stable regs as in one where everything changes. A lot of advantage flows from attention to detail – which costs money. Teams like Williams must back themselves to pick the areas in which improvements will be particularly productive. Even so, Williams has a new car for 2016 that Symonds describes as “very evolutionary”.
Stable years tend to move cars closer, Symonds explains. “I always believe that for a given set of regs, there must be an ideal answer, a perfect design. Of course, you never get there. You don’t get halfway there, probably. But in a stable period, evolution takes everyone closer to this ideal solution, so the racing gets better. Which is why there’s plenty to be said for leaving things alone.”
Having said that, the Williams technical boss admits he prefers shake-up years for their greater intellectual challenge. “Our 2016 car is still new,” he says, “but we’re already working hard on the 2017 car, because there will be lots of changes to dimensions and aerodynamics. We had our first official meeting on it last December, and we’d been talking unofficially before that. So far, I’ve laid down the concept specification, the performance targets. We’ve also done some CFD [computational fluid dynamics] testing but no wind tunnel work yet, mainly because Pirelli hasn’t yet made any tyres, which you need for decent results.”
Could Williams pull off an advantage for 2017 on the scale of the one that delivered Jenson Button and Brawn their world championships in 2009? No reason why not, says Symonds. “Williams is as capable of innovation as anyone,” he says. “We certainly have the talent. If you look back through history, there have been plenty of occasions when an obtuse interpretation of a new set of regs has delivered a big advantage. Some are recent, like the emergence of McLaren’s F-duct, for example.”
Others go back into history. When Symonds arrived in F1 at Toleman at the start of the 1980s, success was impossible to come by. “F1 car were ground-effect designs,” he recalls, “and we struggled at the back on very little money. Then the regulations changed to flat-bottomed cars for 1982, we went to Rio for the first test and first time out we were fastest. So it can be done.” Mind you, in those days, the technical regs amounted to about eight pages. Now you’re looking at 80 pages, with as many more in the various appendices…
Symonds may not believe F1 is in deep trouble, but he still has some powerful ideas about how it could be improved. “One metric people like to quote is the declining TV audience, but one reason for that is that less and less racing is free to air. “I don’t think we’ve embraced the possibilities of the internet,” he says. “And we could do much more to engage younger people, because research says our audience is getting older. Kids aren’t as engaged by cars as our sport’s leaders were when they were young, so you have to ask if we should be doing something different.”
The length of races could be an issue. Symonds points out that we expect people to stay focused on a race for at least 90 minutes, whereas at a football game they can pause after 45 for a beer and a hamburger. And then there’s the sponsorship issue: the tobacco sellers and car companies have long departed, and today’s non-auto partners always look for very powerful business cases.
And yet… Motor Racing Britain Ltd continues at a very high level of success, says Symonds, and it shows no sign of losing its supremacy. “It’s still an amazing industry,” he says, “and it encompasses not just F1 but the wider spread of motor racing. That’s a point I often make when young people ask me how to get into F1. I ask them back: don’t you mean motorsport? Start in motorsport and get good enough to move up. That’s how I did it."