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Going Solo: Formula 1′s Lone American Driver Alex Rossi Talks About Racing in the US, F1 Technology and Building Better “Upside-Down Airplanes”

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Formula 1 is arguably the most popular motorsport in the world, but when the race series arrives in Austin, Texas, this weekend, it will mark the end of an era. Starting in 2014, new technical regulations will dramatically alter the F1 car and reduce the size of the engine, shrink the fuel tank, affect aerodynamics and alter the gear box. “Everybody is starting with a blank slate,” says Caterham F1 Team’s 22-year old reserve driver Alexander Rossi.

Caterham is working with scientists from GE Global Research to prepare for the changes. GE Reports managing editor Tomas Kellner talked to Rossi, currently the sole American with a “superlicense,” the document required to drive an Formula 1 car during an official F1 race weekend, about racing, using Big Data and GE science to build a better car, and the future of Formula 1 in America.

Tomas Kellner: In 2012, you became Caterham’s Formula 1 test driver and now, in 2013, you’re their reserve driver. Can you talk about your job?

Alex Rossi: Unfortunately, being a test driver is not what it used to be. Budgets and new regulations made testing very restricted. I get anywhere between three to six days per year in the car. We test things that may be a bit radical, which you would not try on a race weekend, like features that just came out of the wind tunnel or CFD [computational fluid dynamics] simulations. My responsibility is to have a good understanding of the original car and then test the update, what it should do and what it’s actually doing.

For 2013, as reserve driver I’m basically the guy waiting in the wings if anything happens to the race drivers. I’m what the name suggests, the reserve. I go to the races with the team, and I am there if needed. For me, that’s a great role. It means I’m embedded in the team. I see and experience everything the race drivers do without actually racing. That’s critical in helping me develop the skills you need when the race seat opportunity comes along.

TK: The 2014 rules replace the current 2.4 liter normally-aspirated V8 engine with a much smaller 1.6 liter turbocharged V6 engine, among many other things. Have you seen the new car?

AR: I’ve seen a mock up and it won’t be recognizable as a 2013 Formula 1 car. It looks more like a Champ Car. Everything from the aerodynamics to the tires, suspension, engines and electronics is changing. There is no past experience to fall back on. Everybody is starting with a blank slate.

TK: There seems to be a lot of regulations in F1.

AR: True, but there’s a lot of reasons why that’s how it is. One of the main goals is to help the smaller teams and get the budgets even so it’s more of a level playing field, not just a spending race. You used to have teams that would put in a new engine every week. It got to the point that it was not sustainable.

TK: Caterham has been working with scientists from GE Global Research on a car that meets the new regulations. Why GE?

AR: A Formula 1 car is an airplane upside down. At the end of the day, it’s about managing air and managing the balance between performance and efficiency. GE has a background in aviation. It makes perfect sense to have a partner like that.

TK: GE is a global company, but it is an outsider in Formula 1’s exclusive club.

AR: That’s exactly the point. F1 is such a small world. The difference between the first and last teams is just a few seconds. No matter who you are, you know all the tricks and there is not much else you can really do, especially on the current cars. GE gives us ideas that people who are stuck in the Formula 1 world would not have thought of. When you are looking for tenths of a second, any kind of fresh idea or a fresh concept can go a long way. GE has a very long history of bringing fresh ideas to the table.

TK: Can you give me an example?

AR: There are over 200 sensors on the car. They are constantly recording information and sending it back live to the team so they can analyze it as the car is driving. The car will record around 20 gigabytes of data in every 1.5 hour session on the track. The data is going from the car to about 50 different people not only at the track, but back in England as well. GE came up with a process that makes the transfer much quicker, helping the engineers understand what’s relevant so much faster.

TK: What kind of data?

AR: The data ranges from the most basic things like the speed of the car and brake pressure to sensors in the suspension of the car, which measure the aerodynamic load going through the car at a certain speed and a certain point on the track.

TK: What do you use it for?

AR: Every little positive thing that you can do to the car will make a difference. When we drive two cars, we pull information from both. I can overlay my data with my partner’s data and see areas where he is driving better or using a different gear when turning a corner, and what the effects are. The quicker I can get the information from both cars, the better I will become on that day. On the engine side of things, you can balance the need for power with fuel consumption and the wear of the engine. Just like with everything, there is a sweet spot and the data we get is how we find it.

TK: Is GE helping with the engine design?

AR: No. The engines come from the manufacturers. Ours is made by Renault. But GE is helping us understand it. The 2014 engines are much smaller. They are not going to generate as much horsepower as the current ones and the balance will be made up from a much greater hybrid system, what in F1 we call KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). It captures energy from braking and stores it in batteries. In 2013, KERS generates around 80 brake horsepower. Next year that rises to 160 horsepower. In 2013, you push a button and get an extra 80 horsepower for six seconds on a lap. Next year, you’ll get twice as much.

TK: What about capturing the energy in the exhaust?

AR: Yes, the second piece is a thermal energy recovery system, which is basically a turbocharger. To be honest, none of the teams have any involvement with these systems. But there is going to be a lot of reliability issues and performance discrepancies. Caterham’s GE connection is something nobody else has on the circuit. The other teams will have to rely on their own in-house expertise, which may or may not work out. The fact that we have a whole different level of technology at our disposal is quite an advantage.

TK: What about materials?

AR: We are trying to make the car as light as possible, but the trade-off is strength. For example, the wishbone at the rear end of the car comes under a lot of load and can develop stress fractures that you would not see with the naked eye. GE gave us a portable scanning device that can detect them.

TK: Austin’s Circuit of the America opened last year for F1 racing. Do drivers like it?

AR: Austin is an amazing place and I feel so lucky to be able to drive here in front of my home crowd. There hasn’t been an American involved in F1 for quite some time. This is very special.

Austin was not the first place that came to mind when you thought of Formula 1 in America. But after the 2012 race the feedback from the paddock and from everyone else was overwhelmingly positive. The drivers all loved it and they thought that the track was amazing. The excitement going into it this year is higher that before any other race this season, honestly.

TK: Why do you think Formula 1 is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in the rest of the world?

AR: I think that is to be expected. Before Austin last year there were no U.S. races all the way back to 2006. When there is no American driver and no American team involved, no Chevrolet or Dodge, it’s going to be very difficult to get people behind it.

TK: What appeals to you about Formula 1, compared to NASCAR or IndyCar?

AR: Formula 1 is so different from anything else we have in the U.S. because technology plays such an important role in it. It’s not just about driving the car quickly. It’s about who can be the most creative and most ingenious within the rules and regulations. It’s amazing to see the level of creativity that goes into it.

TK: Why do you want to race F1 cars?

AR: Many athletes will tell you that they want to compete against the best. At the end of the day, Formula 1 machinery is unlike anything on the planet. To have the chance to drive the car and compete against what are in my opinion some of the best drivers in the world is something that’s truly incredible.

TK: Thank you for the interview and good luck!

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