Milton Keynes, England.
The security here seemingly rivals that of the most top-secret government institutions.
“Without the proper finger you can’t get in,” says Silvia Halfar, grinning while prodding the fingerprint scanner. The door clicks open to the Infiniti-Red Bull Racing factory, where we would observe the hi-tech production techniques behind the success of four-time world F1 champion driver Sebastian Vettel and the four Constructors’ Championship titles earned by the team.
The design genius is indisputably Adrian Newey. With ten Constructors’ Championships under his belt, won with three different teams – Williams F1, McLaren and now Infiniti-Red Bull – he has no rival.
“Adrian draws up to 100 designs (car parts and components) a week and I mean draws, literally,” informs Silvia. His work is scanned and 3D printers generate models for testing.
It’s not a one-man show: more than 600 people design, test, build and assemble the hundreds of thousands of parts required for the race cars driven by Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo. Every season, the 110-strong design team produces a new car, that conforms to the strict F1 regulations. A super computer tests every part virtually, before a new model hits the former Concorde jet wind tunnel in nearby Bedford. Its processing power is a closely guarded secret but it’s greater than 35,000 iPads combined.
Different parts are designed for every racetrack, sometimes within 24 hours of a race.
“I had to take five bags to a race in Europe… some people have found themselves with a nose in the seat next to them!”
The race simulator is out of bounds but we learn new part profiles are fed in and tested virtually by the drivers on any of the F1 circuits programmed into the machine.
There are no underground tunnels between the four buildings so when a secret race-winning part is produced what happens?
Silvia laughs: “Well, then we put it on a tea trolley, cover it with a towel and wheel it across the road.”
Shortly before leaving, we stand by a windowless wall. It’s the operations room, in where live data is analysed and information fed back to the racetrack. No admittance.
“After one race the winning team Tweeted a picture of their ops room . . . . we could see who was in the room and what programs they were running on their monitors.”
With that, the exit door buzzed and the cool air rushed in to take our places.
Race route not for the fast and furious…
Milton Keynes, England: As we each climbed into a gleaming Infiniti Q50 sports sedan, one killjoy warned the road to the Belgian Grand Prix would be like a dance – quick, quick, slow.
The tour of the Infiniti-Red Bull Racing factory had us pumped and ready to roar Sebastian Vettel-like, along the UK’s motorway network to Folkestone, Kent. There we would take Le Shuttle train beneath the waves of the English Channel to France and on to Spa, Belgium. It would be a 600-kilometre drive (374 miles) and take less than six hours. The doomsayer was right, try ten hours!
The aforementioned four-time F1 champ influenced the production of this car so it was a neat idea to take the sharp-looking Q50 on an extended spin to a race weekend. However, plain sailing it was not as we encountered motorway chaos to the EuroTunnel. It was equal parts low-gear slow crawl, near-posted speed limit bursts – enabling a few paddle-flipping-gear changes – and parking pauses long enough to test the eight-position power seat adjustments and play with the large dual touch screen infotainment displays. The navigation system ‘lady’ suggested we take the M25 the opposite way around London. Whoops. Should have ignored her.
Nevertheless, this was all a blessing because the car was forced to perform in adverse conditions and its mettle/metal was truly tested.
Extended time at the wheel of a 328-horsepower 3.7-litre V6 version (starts at $37,500) and a Hybrid ($10,000 more) with a 3.5-litre engine left me scratching my head about which would be my choice. Both provide a quiet, comfortable drive, not averse to a sprint when necessary, all aided by a seven-speed auto transmission that is as a smooth as a baby’s you-know-what. All-wheel-drive would be my choice.
The drive mode selector offers snow, eco, standard, sport and personal settings – my drive partner and I invented the new exceptionally slow mode. Interestingly, the constantly changing speed limits flashing above helped show off the predictive forward collision technology. If you trust the car ahead, the radar-controlled gizmo will govern your speed and braking automatically.
You soon figure whether he’s trustworthy or not. In addition, lane control keeps you on the straight and narrow should you drift into that passing car you were alerted to by another warning system.
Thanks to the $320 flexi pass, we rolled with ease onto the train and smirked at the lineup with the $120 tickets. About 40 minutes later, we were enjoying the French countryside, travelling for extended periods at the construction zone speed of 30 klicks.
Darkness enveloped the road ahead but our way through Belgium was lit by the most spectacular electric storm. Ah yes, the windshield wipers performed efficiently in a downpour of Biblical proportions.
Along the way, reflective signs urged us to visit such historic locations as Dunkirk, Bruges and Brussels, but we steamed on determined to reach Spa, birthplace of Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot. It’s also famous for its cold springs though by the time we arrived, after midnight, we’d had enough of the cold springs from above.
Vettel showed off a prototype of the super-powered Q50 Eau Rouge version, named for the Belgian track’s famous corner. Perhaps a repeat of the route, including scenic diversions, in a production Eau Rouge would be fun. Just saying.
The Fast and the Fashionable
Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium: Champers is the breakfast of champions here at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.
If $3,500 is burning a hole in your jeans, you can enjoy all the Formula One Paddock Club fizz that flows freely on qualifying day Saturday and race day Sunday. (Shell out another $500 and you tip that flute all day practice Friday too.)
As a guest of Infiniti-Red Bull Racing, one feels duty bound to get value for the championship F1 team’s generous contribution to the Belgian coffers. Judging by some race goers uneasy gait after the victory by Infiniti-Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo – not our crowd, of course – they were closer to their consumption targets.
The Paddock Club offers a magnificent view of the fast and the fashionable, perhaps the most cutting edge conspicuous among the latter category being my suit designer pal Duncan Quinn, from New York, in his red suit. It was so eye-catching that Sebastian Vettel remarked on its sharpness.
While he drew the admiring looks of the Shell F1 gals, the rest of us made for the never-ending buffet. It featured such culinary delights as veal shank and rack of spring lamb, served with sweet corn terrine, sautéed summer vegetables, oven roasted pumpkin and port wine jus. The Chateau Villa Bel Air 2011 from Bordeaux was the perfect complement.
Icy treats, desserts, anyone?
1,000 calories a look.
Time to take a pit stroll, access via the ‘Millionaires’ trailer park’, where owners wine and dine. On Saturday, the team’s garage boomed with music but now the crew was in serious race mode. Outside they practiced pit stop changes, as they do daily at their Milton Keynes HQ. They hold the world record for a wheel change in 1.923 seconds! Every one-hundredth of a second can mean the difference between a win and loss.
Knowing they were working so hard, I almost felt guilty tucking into the gratinated lobster, arugula and artichoke salad, while quaffing the Mumm’s champagne.