Watch a Formula 1 Grand Prix and the hard work of the driver and race team is obvious – but behind the scenes at Panasonic Toyota Racing’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany, that dedication continues all year round.
Panasonic Toyota Racing is one of the few teams in Formula 1 to build an entire car – chassis and engine – under one roof, with around 650 specialist staff working tirelessly to give Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli a competitive car when they hit the track.
But what goes on inside the team’s headquarters? President John Howett opened up the factory doors to give an exclusive glimpse behind the scenes. The first stop on his guided tour was the carbon composites department.
Without carbon fibre, a Formula 1 car would be a very different beast so the carbon composites department plays a crucial role in translating design to reality. "We use so much carbon in Formula 1 because it is light, it’s strong, it’s extremely stiff and it adds to driver safety,"John explains.
"This is one of the most important departments in any Formula 1 team, where the main body and structural parts are made. It doesn’t look exciting from the outside but inside it is much more. It is one of the busiest assembly shops in the whole factory.
"We translate the designs into real components. Carbon fibres are cut very precisely from large sheets and transferred to the lay-out area. From here the carbon fibre is placed in moulds in a specific direction to optimise the strength of the component."
But that’s not the end of the story for the carbon fibre parts, which must go through another process before becoming race ready, and John opened the door to a normally private area.
"It looks a bit like a bank vault but it is actually an autoclave, "John says. "After the parts are completed in the lay-out room they are placed in a bag, the bag is placed under vacuum and they are then baked under hi gh pressure and temperature in an oven. These ovens work 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Of course, all the clever carbon fibre designs need something with real grunt to get them moving and that is found in the engine workshop.
Before entering the engine workshop, team members get the chance to cast their eye over a piece of Toyota history – the engine which powered Mika Salo to a point on the team’s Formula 1 debut in the 2002 Australian Grand Prix.
Engine building is a specialised job as John revealed on his access-all-areas tour: "We have highly skilled technicians, probably more skilled than Swiss watch assemblers, working on our engines. We pre-assemble the cylinder heads then we have teams of two people assembling the final engine itself.”
The factory in Cologne is not just about building a Formula 1 car – that is only part of the job. Testing and optimising parts of the car are also keys to a successful operation.
To get the best out of a Formula 1 engine, technicians must gain as much data as possible to fine-tune every element of the power plant and this is where the engine dyno comes in.
With such small margins dictating results in Formula 1, this area is normally very much off limits. But John revealed: "The finished engines are installed on to test beds and we can undertake many different types of test and evaluation, either power development, mapping for each specific circuit or durability testing. Basically we can simulate everything in these facilities."
More so than engine performance, aerodynamic characteristics play a determining factor in whether a car can compete with the best and, to keep Panasonic Toyota Racing at the cutting edge, the team’s Cologne factory has two wind tunnels.
A 50% scale model of the team’s latest car, identical in every way but smaller, is subjected to a strong wind – between 50 to 100 metres per second - which gives engineers the opportunity to see how it behaves when moving at speed.
"The aerodynamic performance of a Formula 1 car is one of the largest contributors to its overall performance,"John adds. "The wind tunnel area is one of the most secret and restricted-access areas of any Formula 1 factory. Here new parts are fitted to a model and tested rigorously and remorselessly to gain additional performance.”
When all the individual components are built and fine-tuned, the Formula 1 workshop completes the task. The same mechanics who work in the pits during race weekends and test sessions painstakingly assemble the cars in dedicated assembly bays, taking time to be certain everything is in perfect working order before they are shipped to the next race.
After a rare guided visit by the President himself, he sums up: "All the parts from all the manufacturing areas in the factory come together and a race car is built."
When the car is finished, it is usually taken swiftly to the next track on the calendar, where many of the same mechan ics join to rebuild the car and get it ready for Ralf or Jarno to hit the track.
Obviously, with limited space available, the full factory team cannot travel to races but behind the pit box, there is space for gearbox and engine assembly areas, as well as working areas for tyre mechanics, who keep dozens of sets warm and ready to use at a moment’s notice.
Further behind the scenes, data engineers monitor banks of data screens, scrutinising the smallest amounts of information to keep the car in the best possible working order. Elsewhere, engineers can work from fully-equipped offices – either in the top of one of the specially-built race trucks or in permanent circuit offices - continuing the vital work they started back in Cologne.
Every car which rolls out of Panasonic Toyota Racing’s high-tech Cologne headquarters and heads to the race track is more than the sum of its parts – it is a combined effort from a team united by one aim: to succeed in Formula 1.