- Alan Permane Q&A
'A golden week far beyond our own expectations'
After the Lotus E20 set the fastest time of any 2012 car at Jerez last week, trackside operations director Alan Permane talks about the new car, his expectations and what it's like working with Kimi Raikkonen
Everyone in the team seems happy so far, is that a fair assessment of how you feel about the new car?
Yeah, it's definitely been a good week that's for sure. By Thursday night we'd done over 1,400 km and the next closest was just over a 1,000 at the other teams, so we're very happy with reliability. Pace looks alright, but it's difficult to say of course because we don't know what fuel loads other people have been running. But we know where we should be with downforce numbers and we're happy with that, that's for sure. One thing that you can get a little bit of a read on is what other drivers are saying about their cars, because they'll know what fuel loads they are on. OK, they won't know what we're on, but people have been quite complimentary about the new car. So it's all looking quite good.
In the press conferences your drivers have both noted how easy the new car is to drive...
That's an implication of a good car, how easy it is to drive and how well it responds to setup changes. It's true that pretty much straight away it was nicely balanced and anything that we've done ... I wouldn't say it's all been successful, but it's all given a definite either positive or negative response. With a poor car the drivers are never quite sure about those things, but they've been very definite in their comments so that bodes quite well.
Because it's easy to drive, does that mean there is more performance to be drawn out of it, to bring it closer to the edge, or is that too simplistic?
Yeah absolutely. We haven't done a lot of setup work. Our basic programme has been spent time in the morning doing a bit of setup on fresh tyres and then taking those tyres in the afternoon and long-running them on higher fuel for reliability work. It's nicely balanced, that's for sure, and the drivers are both happy. Kimi said after he finished that it's great and perfect for what he wants at the moment, but that doesn't mean you stop, you always spend time trying to find more grip mechanically. Of course the main gains come from the wind tunnel and we can always tweak it in there to try and get it better at the track.
How's Kimi been to work with so far?
He's very easy to work with, very, very easy indeed. No complaints at all. His feedback is excellent, he spends an awful lot of time with his engineers looking at stuff, going through data and telling us what he wants. From what I can see, he's happy firstly with the car we've given him, but also the other stuff, the bits that he asked for when he came; the type of steering wheel he wanted, the seat, the seat belts, things like that. We've also delivered the braking stuff he wanted, he's got all that. He's a pretty happy guy I think.
Do you think he can be the team leader that maybe you were lacking last year?
Being a world champion, we can't get a lot better than that. It's a difficult one, the question of leaders and do we need a leader. I think a driver will become a leader if he delivers and we can deliver to him. Then he can tell us what he wants, we give that to him and he delivers again, so we build up a trust in each other. I think that's how a driver becomes a leader. I think so far everything seems to be working well. Of course there will be ups and downs, we've had a golden week far beyond our own expectations. That, of course, can't carry on. It would be lovely if it could, but there will be ups and downs and that will test us and that's when you see how strong people's characters are - how hard someone is prepared to work and dig the team out of the shit when things aren't going well.
One thing that seemed to be lacking from last year's car was low-speed traction, has that been a particular focus this year?
Your right in saying low-speed traction was a problem last year's car, we struggled all year with that and we struggled all year with rear tyre wear. We had higher than average rear tyre wear and that is why we raced so poorly towards the latter half of the season when everybody else had developed a nice rear-blown diffuser, which gave you a load of extra downforce on exit. But it hasn't been a particular focus, I think the focus has been to deliver as much downforce as we possibly can. It just so happens that the car does have very strong traction and both drivers are reporting that it stays good and stays nice. We have to be a little bit careful because Jerez is a funny place and we've been quick here before and gone to other places and struggled a bit. But I don't think we're going to be like that this year, when we look at what the aerodynamics are doing it's incredibly stable, the platform. There's nothing nasty going on at all so I'm very confident we'll take this to another track and have equally the same performance.
Are you quite glad to see the back of the exhaust-blown diffuser now?
It's easy to say yes because we're going relatively well this week, or we think we're going relatively well this week. If the regulations hadn't changed we would have done a rear-blown floor and, OK it would have been against second generation ones, but I think we would have very quickly caught up with the others. Overall I suspect it's good for the sport.
It just caused a bit of a design panic, honestly. People had a few sleepless nights over Christmas about that, but things like that aren't difficult because you've got a specification, in this case the wing must not bend anymore than this much when this load is put on it, and you just go away and design the wing to it. It was last minute, but I think it's good for the sport that they're doing it, but I know it was hard work for everyone to get that done and designed and made.
Last year you upgraded your windtunnel from 50% to 60% of full size, is that now all working correctly in terms of correlating with the track?
As well as you can measure aero at a regular track we've been doing it and it's been in very good correlation to our windtunnel. So we're happy that that's all up and running and that's fine.
Has that been a big contributor to the success this week?
Well I suspect it has, but the success this week has been a tricky one because we haven't changed anyone or anything back at Enstone. We had a concept that we thought would work very well last year and it didn't. We didn't, and I think this is well reported, see the downforce on track that we saw in the wind tunnel. If we had done it would have been a totally different story. We're now seeing the downforce on track that we see in the windtunnel and we've got a decent car. There is no magic bullet, it's just hard work and the car is behaving as it should be. But nothing else has really changed apart from moving those exhausts away and now everything is a lot more predictable and clearer. It's certainly made looking at downforce figures and performance a lot more straightforward at the circuit.
Talking about Enstone and the resources there, do you think the gap between you and the top four teams is greater than it was in 2005 and 2006 when you last won a championship?
Honestly, I don't really have a feel for that. I know what we have, the hours our guys do and how much the windtunnels work and stuff, so it's difficult to answer. I know McLaren are able to churn out parts incredibly fast. I'm sure design-wise we're the same, but they may have a bigger manufacturing capability than maybe even Ferrari and Red Bull, but that's just the impression we get. We're not a million miles away and if we put a good car out there is no reason why we can't win the championship.
The target is fourth, do you think that's a bit conservative then?
The target is fourth, and who knows, we haven't seen Mercedes yet and we've only done a couple of days winter testing. Although we look good, we're still a long, long, long way from talking about podiums and winning races - that's all to come. All we can say is that everything is in the right direction. We've got a reliable car, a car the drivers are happy with and a car that's well balanced and appears to be delivering the downforce we think it should be delivering, so we've got a good platform to build from. We've got two excellent drivers; a world champion who looks as good as he ever looked honestly, and a young kid who's obviously quick as well and has got a fantastic opportunity to suck as much information from Kimi as he can.
Romain drove a stonking few laps on Thursday. He had the same fuel load as Kimi, sure the track was better, there's no doubt ... and it's one thing to be able to be quick, but to be able to get the laps together consistently and put them together is fantastic. So I've got absolutely no doubts on Romain's pace. The rest of it won't necessarily come naturally, he'll have to learn how to do it. There's an awful lot more to Formula One than just putting one lap together and that's what makes a champion. That's the sort of thing you can see in Kimi and see how good he is, how he uses the car over a long run, how he looks after the tyres. He's never driven these tyres before and already after a couple of days you can see that he's understanding them and altering his driving to look after them - he's got a lot of feel in the car.
How does Kimi rate compared to the other driver you've worked with?
I think it's early days to say that and it's a little bit unfair to rank them. As an engineer the greats are of course Fernando [Alonso] and Robert [Kubica]. I also worked a lot with [Giancarlo] Fisichella, who's a very good driver. Fernando we obviously gave a great car and he made the most of it and won a couple of championships, so I think it's unfair for me to categorise them. Ask me at the end of the season and maybe I can tell you some more.
With Fernando, what was it that made him so good? The ability to put in consistent, very fast lap times?
Fernando was incredibly impressive in the car and it was not only one lap it was time and time again, which is something true of Kimi. When Fernando drove for us in 2003 and 2004 he was incredibly hard on his front tyres and that's how he got the most out of them. So when the FIA brought in this single-race tyre in 2005, I remember thinking how is he going to cope with it? But he completely changed his driving style like it didn't matter and just got on with it. Again, that's the sign of a champion, they instinctively know what needs to be done and it wasn't ever a problem for him.