Q&A with Nikolas Tombazis, ex Ferrari Chief Designer

Nikolas Tombazis born in Greece on April 22nd in 1968, his father, Alexandros Tombazis was an architect. In 1989, Nikolas graduated from the Trinity College in Cambridge as an engineer, a few years later (1992) he completed his PhD in aeronautical engineering at the Imperial College London.

Tombazis, entered to the Formula One world on November 1992, he became aerodynamicist at the Benetton Formula 1 team, a couple of years later he promoted to Head of Aerodynamics. In 1994, he was a member of the team, which celebrated Michael Schumacher’s world title. The following season Benetton won both the constructors’ and the drivers’ championships.

In 1997, Tombazis followed Michael Schumacher and moved from Benetton to Ferrari. One year later he became Ferrari’s Chief Aerodynamicist and he was responsible for Ferrari’s dominance from 1998 to 2003, Nikolas celebrated six constructors’ titles and five drivers’ championships with the Scuderia Ferrari.

In 2004, the Greek designer, moved to McLaren, he remained in Woking for two years and then returned to Ferrari as Chief Designer. At that period Ferrari, won two constructors’ titles and Kimi Raikkonen won the drivers’ championship in 2007.

Manor, was Tombazi’s final team in Formula One. Nikolas, joined Manor as Chief Aerodynamicist but he was unlucky as the team didn’t take part to the 2017 championship, due to financial problems.

I have the honour to host an interview with one of the best Greek engineers, and the person who played a major role to Ferrari’s dominance.

When did you realise that you wanted to interact with Formula One and what influenced you?

I was hooked to this sport as a kid, when I was around 10 years old. In those days the TV did not show that many races, and of course there was no Internet, so finding all the information required quite a lot of research. These were also the years of the start of ground effect (Lotus 78 and Lotus 79) and the subsequent heavy emphasis on aerodynamics. So I guess that also influenced quite a lot the direction that I followed subsequently.

What were your worst and your best memory during your years in F1?

Best memories: championship wins… 2000 with Schumacher, 2007 with Raikkonen (my first car as Chief Designer), stand out. Most wins were very special, but these championships had something extra.

For sure the worse moments were when a driver was killed. Senna’s death (which was very early in my career) shocked me even though I never had the luck to meet him. But there have been other difficult moments: periods when the car was uncompetitive, losing championships in the last race, retiring from races while leading…

How much role plays the physical characteristics of a driver in the designing of a car?

Depends exactly what you mean. If you mean his actual body dimensions (height, width, etc.) we do need to package the bigger / taller driver in our cars, and to make them comfortable. This is not a major exercise, but it has to be done.

If you mean the driving characteristics, some times drivers have a particular sensitivity to a certain aspect of the car and we try to make sure that we do not design something that they will be uncomfortable driving. But this is not perhaps as frequent as it used to be: nowadays we rely a lot more on telemetry and measurements.

In 1998 you became Ferrari’s Chief aerodynamicist, Scuderιa had not celebrated a title since 1983, how much pressure did you have and how easy was for you to keep “producing” a winning car for six consecutive years?

The pressure was always high in Ferrari. The constructors’ championship in 1999 was bitter-sweet, because we had also lost the drivers’. The real special moment came in 2000, and I still remember the feeling when I saw Michael come out of his final pit stop in Suzuka ahead of Hakkinen.

 

Who was the best driver that you have worked with and why?

Schumacher and Alonso. Difficult to compare them, but their understanding of the car and their speed was on another planet. There were numerous other drivers I enjoyed working with (and most were very good) but these two were something special.

What is your opinion about Halo and how much can affect the aerodynamics of a Formula One car?

The aerodynamic effect is not massive, and the teams will do what they can to keep it to a minimum. Every time a driver has been killed or seriously hurt we wonder why we did not do certain things earlier. So while the aesthetics are clearly not its strong point, we need to do what we can to keep the drivers safe.

They are saying that to be an aerodynamicist in Formula 1 is one of the most challenging jobs because you have to combine downforce with low drag. Which part of an F1 car is the most important and how long does it takes to design a car?

The design of the car never really finishes, it is a continuous process of development. All the areas close to the ground are difficult, the front wing and the area between the diffuser and the rear wheels are particularly complicated.

Being an aerodynamicist is very challenging (and also satisfying when things go well), but there are many jobs in Formula 1 which are very difficult and important for the final result.

Many kids and students are dreaming to work in Formula One, what would you advise them?

Work hard, take your studies at university seriously, participate in a Formula SAE or some other minor category, learn a lot of skills (CAD, CFD, simulations, etc.)

At the beginning of the year, Manor’s staff posted a 50 percent scale model of the MRT07 as a goodbye to F1, how hard was that for you, and do you believe that Liberty Media should offer more funds to smaller teams in order to avoid situations like Manor’s?

It was a shame that Manor collapsed, and that we did not see the fruit of our effort. There were a couple of hundred people who suffered this big disappointment, and all the difficulties being left without a job caused them.

Formula 1 should become more sustainable both for the small teams but also for the big ones. How this will happen we just have to wait and see.

With what are you working now?

I am currently consulting a number of clients, and I find the varying range of problems very enjoyable. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot say who my clients are.

Victor Archakis

Twitter – @FP_Passion

 

Is Lando Norris a future Formula One star?

Until recently, Lando Norris was a name relatively unknown outside of junior categories. This is all set to change.

The seventeen year old is no stranger to success. Bursting onto the scene in 2014, he finished a respectable third in the Ginetta Junior Championship, taking four wins from twenty races. Norris had his first taste of success the following year at the 2015 MSA Formula Championship, where he took the title by sheer consistency. Last year, he enjoyed a similar run of success, dominating the 2016 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship as a rookie. It was a strong showing for Norris and a clear indication of his potential as he took six poles and five wins from seven rounds. He commanded the 2016 Formula Renault 2.0 NEC Championship, taking an impressive ten poles and six wins. Norris also won the 2016 Toyota Racing series in a domineering fashion, his closest rival a massive 135 points away.

Credit: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

His success last year caught the eye of one of Formula One’s most successful manufacturers. In February 2017, McLaren announced that Norris was joining it’s Young Driver Programme in wake of Stoffel Vandoorne’s graduation into the racing seat. It seemed like a good match. McLaren seemed the perfect choice to nurture Norris’s career through junior categories, having done so with Lewis Hamilton and Stoffel Vandoorne to great success.

Norris moved into the Formula 3 European Championship with Carlin in 2017. He faced tough competition from the might of Prema, the defending champions and Maximilian Günther, the runner up to Lance Stroll in 2016. Norris’s career in Formula Three got off to a strong start. He secured pole and the win in the opening race at Silverstone. However, in the second race, his Achilles heel became evident. He was slow off the start, hindered by the damp track and lost positions, finishing ninth. Norris’s bad luck with starts continued in the third race of the round and he was unable to challenge Günther and Callum Ilott ahead.

In Monza, however, he returned to his winning ways, scooping a win and two second place finishes in the three rounds. In Pau, Norris continued to look strong, taking two pole positions. However, he was unable to convert these into race wins. In the second race, he was jumped at the start by Günther and in the third race, he led comfortably, his poor start jinx was seemingly behind him until a front-suspension failure pitched him into the barriers.Again, in Hungary, Norris was plagued by bad starts. He lost positions in the races and only scored one podium finish. At the Norisring, Norris showcased his hunger to win by starting in a lowly fourth and hunting down his rivals to secure his third win in the championship.

Norris seemed unbeatable at Spa. He snatched two pole positions, taking a light to flag victory in the first race. His demons of a bad start seemed forgotten, even when he came under pressure from Ilott. The second race, however, saw the youngster swamped by his competitors, eventually picking up suspension and bodywork damage that ruled him out of the race. He seemed to put that disappointment behind him in the third race of the round. Starting in fourth, Norris surged through his rivals with ease, seemingly motivated by his failure in race two. He showcased some excellent overtaking manoeuvres, securing his fifth win of the season. Norris’s performance in Monza showed what he was capable of, that he could produce results and he wasn’t afraid of reaching the top.

Norris tested for McLaren in Hungary earlier this week, collecting the prize for winning the 2016 McLaren Autosport BRDC award. In previous years, familiar names such as Jenson Button and Paul di Resta have won the award, taking place in testing in older machinery. Interestingly, Norris was able to drive the most current car, showing how much faith McLaren already had in the teenager. He did not disappoint either. Norris completed a sensational run in which he closely challenged the two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen for the top spot. Clocking 91 laps, Norris treated Formula One to a mastershow as he produced a fantastic lap of 1.17.385, just 0.271 seconds off the pace of Vettel’s Ferrari. Norris also proved invaluable to the McLaren team as he gathered valuable aero data, long-run pace and set up adjustments. Éric Boullier in particular, was singing his praises at the end of the test. Norris showed that he could get to grips with the mechanics of a Formula One car and that he was a force to be reckoned with.

So could we see Norris in Formula One anytime soon? Norris certainly has the potential to be a contender for the McLaren seat in a few years time. Fernando Alonso’s contract is due to expire at the end of this season and seeing Norris’s raw pace and ease with the controls of the McLaren could certainly make him a strong contender to stand alongside Vandoorne. His strength in Formula Three, a series that has produced many F1 drivers in recent years, coupled with his exceptional testing certainly have made McLaren take notice. They seem to be the perfect fit for Norris, being a team with an extensive driver’s academy who have moulded Lewis Hamilton and Kevin Magnussen into F1 drivers, both of whom still compete in the Championship today.

Norris currently lies in second position in the Formula Three Championship. The strong showings in Formula Three show that Norris has something special. He is performing well in the face of tough competition. Norris is still inconsistent at times, particularly in his race starts but he seems to be overcoming his demons. And as Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi show, drivers don’t often come into Formula One polished. If Lando Norris does manage to make it into Formula One, he is likely he will be the same to begin with. Fortunately, for Norris, McLaren are a team that are patient and allows their junior drivers to develop at their own pace. This is clear from Vandoorne’s recent performances, blossoming after a shaky start at the wheel of the McLaren.

Credit: Mark Sutton/LAT Images

It seems unlikely however, that with Alonso’s departure, that Norris would be filling the vacant seat next year. Although, Norris could potentially acquire enough points for a 2017 FIA Super Licence next season and he would be eligible later this year when he turns 18, McLaren may not want to take on another rookie driver so soon after working to develop Vandoorne’s ability. McLaren may desire a bigger name and a more experienced driver to work alongside the team for the 2018 season, one that could potentially bring in more sponsorship deals. They may bring Jenson Button back for a season and send Norris to Formula Two or another series, in a situation similar to Vandoorne’s, to hone the teenager’s race craft and prepare him for Formula One. His status also depends on how successful the Formula Three season is for him. He needs to showcase his talents and prove to McLaren that he is a winner in all aspects and worthy of taking Alonso’s position away. His status as a British driver, and one that could follow in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton could certainly improve his prospects of driving for McLaren in later years. Norris is capable of producing results when qualifying doesn’t go well for him and he is experienced at carving his way through the field to reach the top step. It’s a hunger that undoubtedly, would be welcomed in Formula One.

It still remains to be seen what will happen next year at McLaren. It is dependent on Norris’s results and whether McLaren are ready to take a chance on a driver from Formula Three, as Toro Rosso and Williams did before them. Norris has proved so far that he is a diamond in the rough. He can produce sensational results both in his own series and in F1 testing, and he has the drive and hunger to succeed. The way he conducted himself within the test shows clear maturity and work ethic, factors that are critical to success in Formula One. There are elements of his driving that could be improved, but these can be honed as he continues to develop in his career. If McLaren are willing to shape him into the driver they need, he could well be a commanding force in years to come.

All images courtesy of McLaren.

Hungarian GP: Big chance for McLaren?

The Hungarian Grand Prix could be one of the biggest chances for McLaren-Honda to score some points and start to catch up the midfield. But while the focus is on track performance, the big question remains if the long-suffering British-Japanese alliance will be still competing together in 2018.

Steven Tee/McLaren

The upcoming weekend in Budapest will be the big hope for the third year in a row for McLaren. In the last two years, the team’s best results of the season have been achieved at the Hungaroring, where a good chassis is much more important than on most of any other tracks in the current calendar.

While Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button finished fifth and ninth in the disaster year of 2015 both McLaren drivers made it to the third qualifying session in last year’s Grand Prix.

With the MCL32, probably the best McLaren chassis in the last few years, showing significant progress at Silverstone, this race should be a good opportunity.

Also (currently) Alonso doesn’t have to worry about a grid penalty this weekend: this is due to the fact that McLaren changed all parts of the engine in Silverstone, to protect Alonso from grid penalties in Budapest.

Steven Tee/McLaren

With the good chassis, there is also light on the other side of the garage.  Stoffel Vandoorne was able to show a clear uptrend in the last races: most recently his Q3 appearance at Silverstone, in which he outqualified his teammate for the first time this year.

“I’ve won in Hungary before, in GP2, and I enjoy driving on this track,” Vandoorne said. “Although we’ve been a bit unlucky, I feel that my performances have been consistent and improving race-by-race.

“I’ve been working hard with the engineers and I feel confident in the car—my weekends are coming together better now in the first part of the season and as a team we are progressing every weekend. We have to be patient, keep working hard, and I hope to see the reward for our efforts paying off soon.”

McLaren have to score points in Hungary. Just in mind: even in the painful 2015 season, the team had more points than now. With only two points in the  bag, the ex-winners still hangs in the last place of the Constructors’ World Championship.

Sutton/McLaren

Reliability

Unfortunately, there is still a big concern for this weekend: and there it is, the big topic of the last weeks: Honda. While the Japanese were able to bring more power with the latest upgrade, the engine is still hurt by massive reliability issues—the latest being on Alonso’s car in Silverstone, when the Spaniard had to drag his McLaren back into the pits with the words, “No power”. Reason enough for the star pilot to think about the reliability:

“The important thing for us, as always, is reliability,” Alonso said. “Even if our car could perform better in Hungary, we need to have a trouble-free weekend to take advantage of every opportunity for points.

“We made some big decisions in Silverstone in terms of taking grid penalties in preparation for this race, and hope that’s paid off so we can put ourselves in the best possible position for points this weekend.”

A current statistic from Speedweek.com shows the worse numbers since 2015. They put the rate of DNF’s from Alonso’s F1 years from 2005–2014 in comparison to his last three seasons with McLaren-Honda. The shocking result: while Alonso had a failure rate of less than 10% in the first few years, the Spaniard failed to finish 40% of his races in the last three years.

Andrew Hone/McLaren

McLaren and the engine question

Regarding the competitiveness of the engine, more and more people have been wondering how the McLaren-Honda partnership could continue. If all the media reports tell the truth, McLaren would probably start with four different engines in 2018. From the obvious Mercedes comeback, to a branded Alfa Romeo-Ferrari engine, and finally the possibility of Renault.

The fact is, McLaren and Honda have an existing contract and Honda Motorsport boss Masashi Yamamoto spoke to the media last week and made it clear that Honda has no intention to leave McLaren or the sport, or consider the possibility of McLaren using another engine until the Japanese company solves its problems:

“There is a contract between us and the premise of the talks with them is to continue,” he said. “We exclude the possibility that McLaren will even temporarily use the power unit of another manufacturer. I am always talking with president Takahiro Hachigo and the board members, and there is no intention to withdraw from Formula One.”

After comments to the media from both the McLaren leadership and from the drivers, the words of McLaren boss Zak Brown and the whole Woking team have been much quieter since the Austrian Grand Prix.

Sutton/McLaren

While Mercedes and Ferrari don’t seem to want supply McLaren, the talks with Renault as an engine partner continue. But the chance of seeing McLaren and Honda together on the 2018 grid is getting more and more likely. Not only because of the loss of money, but because time is also playing against the British team. But there are other reasons why McLaren will probably stay with Honda:

  1. There is maybe time until October to decide what engine should be in next year’s car—but remember that the Renault engine has a completely different layout then the Mercedes or Honda engine. Honda copied the Mercedes concept after getting to the performance limit with their 2015/2016 engine layouts. According to Zak Brown, the building of the 2018 car begins now. That means that the team has to build two different chassis, one for a Honda engine and the other for a Renault engine. That will definitely be no help for 2018.
  2. If McLaren break the current contract between them and Honda while not having another engine deal in the pocket, they will not only pay much money for breaking the contract. The FIA Rules say: The manufacturer with the fewest teams to supply will be forced to supply a team which has no engine. And you know what manufacturer that is? Bingo! It’s Honda.

Remembering these facts, McLaren will probably be forced to keep Honda as partner next year and hoping for a massive improvement.

Whatever is going to come out at the end of this engine-war, a decision will probably be taken in the coming weeks. So the team and the fans will have no choice, but to make the best of the situation and believe in something similar as two weeks ago in Silverstone,  where a McLaren finished a session (Q1) fastest for the first time since India 2013.

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