Currently reading: F1 2016 preview: Pat Symonds on the future of Formula 1
Williams' technical chief offers us a glimpse of his vision for the next few years and explains why he thinks F1 is alive and well

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.

Read - F1 2016 preview: pundits' predictions for the new season

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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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…”

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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”.

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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.”

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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."

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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Lessis More 18 March 2016

I've largely turned off F1,

I've largely turned off F1, but not because of good eggs like Pat. I'd be more keen if it was a flat out dash from lights to flag. Being told that there's 'more overtaking than ever' really annoys me. Perhaps cars do currently overtake each other more often than ever - but it's mostly because of DRS, so doesn't allow us to see at face value genuine superiority in car spec and/or driver skill. It's artificial racing, and therefore uninspiring. I'd like to see much more durable tyres (such as in WEC), get rid of DRS, and ban pit radio altogether. With only a traditional pit board each, I think we'd soon find out who the canny drivers are, and they might not be in the 'fastest' cars, at least not at first...
289 18 March 2016

Pat Symonds

I admire Pat Symonds loyalty to a sport which has not always reciprocated!
However, he like everyone else in F1 misses the point and also takes their responsibilities far too seriously in my opinion.

Its a game....a sport after all. It isn't going to change the world, and it is there primarily to entertain.
In order to entertain, it needs to be loud, and fast with plenty of overtaking/slipstreaming and sadly a few crashes too - in order to 'entertain the masses. Complexity of technology, and worse still ridiculously complex rules are counter productive to the entertainment factor.
The auto industry will get along just fine developing tech for the road without F1...PHEV works for road cars. it wont work for F1.
On the road simplicity is key to reliability, and importantly - affordability. Road cars aren't cosseted by teams of engineers in dehumidified/heated transporters and workshops. they are used in all weathers, have to contend with damp, cold and they invariably live outside 24/7 365 days a year.
Adding extra levels of complexity to road cars is resulting even now in catastrophic failures in many cars which render them a write-off even at 4 to 5 years old due to the cost of repair....this is NOT progress.
There is absolutely no benefit to be had in a world of 70-80 mph speed limits in ultra low profile tyres, downforce, or carbon brakes...all supposed advances as a result of motorsport.
And as we move inevitably to autonomous cars which will slavishly follow all speed limits even less relevant.

One of the single greatest advances in road cars over the last 40 years is undoubtedly ABS....not used or developed in F1!

I also find the drivel about not being seen to consume too much fuel insulting to the public's intelligence. No one watches motorsport to see who is the most fuel efficient, and running crappy V6's which just sound rubbish isn't an cant be because economy wasn't even a question ever asked by the F1 fans.
No matter how much fuel F1 has saved by running the current formula engines, trailing 100 people PER TEAM around the world in giant transporters and ridiculous ego inflating 'hospitality units' (complete with Gyms and even a pool in one case), flown in jumbo jets and Antonov's isn't in any way going to 'save the planet'.
In the 60's F1 teams had what?....6 mechanics and a converted bus?, and the racing was way closer and far more exciting than it is now.
IMO F1 needs to take a close look at itself...spending budgets of up to £250 million is just insane, and actively prohibits smaller new teams from joining in and disrupting the status quo....could you imagine a modern day Hesketh arriving in the sport and taking a championship?
The current structure also has fans switching off at a faster rate than ever before, surely even they can see that something is seriously wrong here?

LP in Brighton 18 March 2016

The article was about the future of F1

So why dwell on past mistakes? Crashgate was a desperate response to a desperate situation with the likely hood of Renault withdrawing from the sport - and it wasn't necessarily Symonds' idea. I found the article interesting and enlightening, much more so than a history lesson on a best forgotten subject.
Norma Smellons 18 March 2016

@LP in Brighton

Comments like yours are largely why the "sport" of F1 is dying. It cannot make new converts because it is packed with cronies in denial.

It is not that you fail to accept the unvarnished cheating; it is that you try to deny it even exists, at all.

In the eyes of most people, there was nothing "desperate" about that situation. This was not a "mistake" under duress but a consistent and unforced pattern of dishonest behaviour.

But woe betide anyone who should recognise it for what it is, for they are "dwelling" on bad news or giving a "history lesson" etc. They are bores. They, and not the cheats, are "doing the sport down".

Saddest of all is that people like you believe their own rubbish. And no amount of tinkering with the regulations will ever halt that.

Phil R 18 March 2016

@Norma Smellons

On the contrary, F1 is struggling because the fans are harking back to the past with rose tinted glasses, Bernie is making too much money to bother to do any promotion for it and the teams can't agree on a nose that isn't stupidly disrupted by airflow. There was no denial from LP, but a fairly accurate explanation of why it happened and stating that you should look forward rather than backwards, as after all the article was titled the future of Formula One. It happened the best part of 10 years ago, and twice as long as Pat Symonds exclusion from the sport had to be served out, so why bring it up again?