Inside Brackley – Mercedes AMG F1 Headquarters

Gary Anderson and Graham Robson
Mercedes-AMG and Gary Anderson
A visit to the home of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team in Brackley, Northamptonshire. The idyllic atmosphere belies the noise and excitement of the f1 events that are its focus.

Inside Brackley

Behind the scenes at Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 headquarters

Article Gary Anderson

Images Mercedes AMG Petronas & Gary Anderson

 

When we watch a Formula 1 race, we see only a small part of the overall effort that determines whether a team’s drivers will win or lose. Unlike many other professional motorsports series, each F1 team is actually required to build its own racecars, though teams may buy the engines from other suppliers; trophies are awarded to the winning constructor, as well as the winning driver. Consequently, there is much more going on behind the scenes than we see on our television screens on race days during the season.

A tour of Brackley

Just before the 2016 season began, Graham Robson and I were given the rare privilege of visiting the home of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team in Brackley, Northamptonshire. Located in southeastern England and situated on a lovely rural campus bisected by a rippling stream near the Silverstone Circuit, Brackley’s peaceful atmosphere provides no hint of the noise and excitement of the F1 events that are its focus.

We were given a tour of the F1 team’s facilities and even watched the first racecar for the 2016 season being assembled two weeks before testing in Barcelona, Spain – something that few people outside the team ever see.

Surprisingly, eight of the 12 F1 team factories are located in this region of England. They are there for the same reason that banks are sited in New York and London, entertainment companies in Los Angeles and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley: People with the particular skills a company needs to succeed in the industry are located there.

The Brackley facilities were established by British American Racing in 1999. Many of the 700 current staff members have worked there since that time, though the F1 teams have evolved through changes in shareholders. The team became Honda Racing in 2006, then Brawn GP for the 2009 season through a buyout led by Ross Brawn before becoming Mercedes GP for the 2010 season. In 2011 Brawn left the team and it was substantially reorganized under ownership of Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd.

Coaxed from his position at Williams Racing, Toto Wolff became executive director in January 2013, taking 30 percent ownership and assuming complete coordination of all Mercedes-Benz motorsport activities. Daimler AG, Malaysian oil company Petronas and Aabar Investments own 70 percent of the company. The team is now formally known as Mercedes AMG Petronas F1, often referred to by the historic nickname, the “Silver Arrows.”

Team organization

In addition to the F1 factory and team based at Brackley, Mercedes-Benz motorsport activities include the Mercedes-AMG DTM team and a power-train manufacturing facility in nearby Brixworth. Originally the home of Ilmore Engineering, which built the engines Mercedes-Benz raced in its last time at the Indianapolis 500, the Brixton facility now supplies the power trains for the Mercedes AMG F1 team, as well as Williams Martini, Manor Racing and Sahara Force India, and builds Mercedes-Benz Formula 3 engines.

With nearly 30 years experience in F1, Paddy Lowe also joined the team in 2013 as executive director (technical) after having worked for the McLaren team and playing a key role in Lewis Hamilton’s first World Championship. The third principle manager on the team is Niki Lauda, non-executive chairman, who offers advice from his experience as a champion F1 driver and team manager when questions of team harmony and cooperation are critical to success.

Those who have worked within the team suggest that the best analogy for the management style is that of an aircraft carrier: The entire organization exists for the sole purpose of putting two “pilots” (the term often used in the past for racing drivers) into their vehicles for F1 races. Lowe makes short-term tactical decisions as a carrier captain would, while Wolff makes strategic decisions concerned with staffing, budgets and long-term planning as the fleet admiral on the carrier. Lauda might be thought of as the flying coach for the pilots, advising and resolving issues between them, and at the same time interceding between the pilots and team management.

Activities at Brackley

Although the first-time visitor would never suspect it when crossing the bridge spanning the little creek that flows past the complex’s main building, inside that attractive structure is a very high-tech engineering and manufacturing facility. In this building, the team designs and builds the racecars, as well as later reviewing and overseeing data transmitted from the cars during their time on racetracks around the world.

In the high-tech world of F1 today, designs begin inside the computer, where all of the components are assembled and the car’s performance is simulated before any components are manufactured. Upon approval, the components are built within this one building – except the engines and simple parts such as fasteners. Carbon fiber is cut, laid up on molds, and then baked under pressure in huge autoclaves big enough to hold the entire tub – the racecars’ primary structural member – in which the driver sits.

Design specifications are transferred from the CAD system to equally huge seven-axis automatic milling centers that carve, drill and machine the many complicated components in the car: Even in this highest of high-tech operation, highly skilled individuals still make some of the small, fine-spec parts by hand with the intense focus of watchmakers.

During our visit, all of this complexity was coming together for the first time on the first chassis designated for the 2016 season. It was an unbelievable frenzy of activity; people moved quickly and purposefully through the building, all focused on assembling one car in the ground floor area called the “race bay.”

Several other buildings, considered significant sources of the team’s competitive advantage, were off-limits to visitors. These buildings house the wind tunnel, capable of testing a 60-percent scale model of the racecar and considered a major competitive advantage because not all teams have one of that size; the suspension simulator, capable of replicating every bump and crack in every F1 racetrack on the actual cars; and the driving simulators, as sophisticated as any airplane simulator, on which the drivers become the final part of the simulation and hone their skills for each circuit.

As soon as the season gets underway, a different rhythm is established. Only 100 team members may travel to each race, but that doesn’t mean anyone at Brackley relaxes. During practice and qualifying sessions – and the race itself – there are a like number of specialists who oversee each function of the car and monitor every aspect of the car’s behavior on computer screens in a large room that looks and works like NASA mission control.

Chatting briefly with one of the engineers – the son of one of The Star magazine’s contributing photographers – we talked about the incredible commitment everyone makes: Team members understand before accepting employment that their responsibilities with the team will be the primary focus of their activities. “This isn’t a job. We aren’t employed by a company,” he said. “We’re members of a team, and it can continue to be a winning team only if we all want it to be.”

All hands on deck

The importance of planning, preparation and commitment at Brackley could not have been clearer following the aftermath of the incident that took both Mercedes AMG Petronas cars off the track and out of the race during the first lap of the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona May 15 (see The Star July-August 2016, pages 26-29). Though the stewards later ruled that neither driver was at fault, the fact was that both cars had been severely damaged – and the Monaco Grand Prix was only 10 days away.

“We held our heads in our hands for about 10 seconds, and then said, ‘What’s next?’” said Rob Thomas, chief operating officer. As soon as the cars were back in the pit garage, team members catalogued more than 1,200 parts to be “quarantined” – not to be used again until cleared for safe use – and emailed the list back home. The full team at Brackley was notified that they would be working through the following weekend.

The departments responsible for performance parts on the list began pulling parts from the warehouse or notifying suppliers to send replacements. By the time the racecars were unloaded and disassembled three days later, all replacement parts were staged. The composites department inspected all structural parts, performing nondestructive testing to check for almost-invisible cracks in the carbon fiber and measuring for dimensional integrity: Any part that aroused doubt was remanufactured.

Reassembly began that Friday; by Monday, both cars were completed and ready to be loaded and shipped to Monaco. Even as the cars left the factory, work was not finished; every part that had been taken out of storage had to be replaced to replenish the stock of spare parts. It is a tribute to the entire team that within 12 days, two wrecked cars were rebuilt and qualified second and third for the Monaco race.

The corporate perspective

Why does Daimler-Benz support this very risky and very expensive motorsport effort? Of course, there is an important and quantifiable marketing benefit – informal estimates are that the visibility obtained by the team on all media is equivalent to $1 billion of direct advertising during each racing season.

Just as important is the transfer of new technologies: Since shifting to a 4-cylinder engine in combination with a kinetic-energy recovery system and electronic motor-power boosting, many of F1’s performance advances – from internal engine coatings to hybrid-system optimization – have transferred directly into the power trains for the company’s consumer automobiles.

It has taken the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team five years, from the beginning of 2010, to reach this level of competitiveness, but Wolff, Lowe and Lauda say it has all gone exactly according to plan, though that first constructors’ trophy in 2014 may have come a year earlier than originally thought possible. However, as other constructors quickly follow the Mercedes AMG Petronas example and begin to master the new design formula – with its subtle interrelationships among sophisticated aerodynamics, advanced suspension and complicated power train system – the company’s initial lead in innovation and management is beginning to narrow. The current season promises to produce at least one serious challenger for the Constructors Championship: From what we saw at Brackley, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 is ready to respond to the competition.

 

END

Belying the non-stop activity hidden within, Mercedes AMG Petronas headquarters at Brackley, Northamptonshire, nestles in a garden-like setting beside a meditative reflecting stream.

A row of carbon-fiber steering wheels perfectly illustrates the astonishing technical complexity of today’s F1.

 

More than 700 employees work 24 hours a day, seven days a week in facilities that cover more than 645,000 square feet.

Races are held thousands of miles away from Brackley; on race weekends, engineering support groups are linked in real time via satellite to the team’s mobile trackside race-control center anywhere in the world.

Aerodynamic testing in the Brackley wind tunnel uses 60-percent-scale models.

 

It takes more than 450,000 hours to design and build a single F1 racecar at Brackley.

Computer-aided design (CAD) in design office

 

Setting out carbon-fiber elements.

Autoclave used to vacuum form carbon-fiber components.

Trimming carbon-fiber components.

 

Paint shop.

State-of-the-art machine shop includes multiple 7-axis vertical machining centers.

Non-destructive testing of prototype parts

Driver-in-loop simulator.

 

 

The fruits of the team’s labor on display – a wall of trophies.

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