In the Alfa Romeo garage, he is probably the man who knows the Finnish driver best: race engineer Julien Simon-Chautemps, who sets up the car and manages its operation during Grand Prix weekends, tells us from the inside about driver Kimi Räikkönen.
MAKE THE CAR AS FAST AS POSSIBLE
A man of the shadows, the race engineer plays a crucial role in the performance of his driver. His mission is to help the driver to get the most out of the car by adapting to a whole series of parameters: track conditions, driver preferences, the team’s development programme…
“My job is to operate the car so that it goes as fast as possible,” Frenchman Julien Simon-Chautemps told F1i. I work with a team of five engineers (performance, aerodynamics, systems, engine, tyres) and six mechanics. On a race weekend, part of my role is to give them work lists, such as the set-up sheet for the mechanics and so on. While the car is on track, I receive feedback from all these people and filter this information to pass on the essentials to Kimi. I attend the meetings before and after the race.”
“Once back at the factory, I spend between one and two days analysing the race we’ve just run, and three, four days preparing for the following weekend. It’s a more analytical job, interpreting the data we’ve collected over the weekend. Even though I’m a racer who prefers to be at the racetrack, it’s important to give feedback to my colleagues at the factory so they know what needs to be improved to go faster.”
The Saint-Raphaël native has been playing this role of interface between technology and people for the past ten years in Formula 1.
After studying engineering at IPSA and a stint in Formula Renault (where he worked with Robert Kubica), then in F3 and GP2, he began his Grand Prix career as performance engineer for Jarno Trulli at Toyota in 2007. After a stint with Caterham, he spent six years at Enstone, where he was notably the track engineer for Romain Grosjean and then Jolyon Palmer. In January 2017, he moved to Hinwill to work with Marcus Ericsson for two seasons, before working with Kimi Räikkönen from last year.
BUILDING A COMMON DATABASE
However, the Finn was not a complete stranger to our interviewee, who had been his performance engineer for two years at Lotus.
“I had worked with Kimi back in the Lotus days when I was his performance engineer. We kept in touch afterwards, which helped a lot when he came here.”
“Usually we have a first technical meeting at the factory with the driver to get to know each other, but in this case it wasn’t necessary, because I knew what kind of driver he was.”
“Nevertheless, we always go through the winter testing stage, which is necessary to create common references. During the tests in Barcelona, we usually try out several set-ups, with different settings, each of which produces particular effects. This allows the driver to get an idea of what effect a particular setting has on the car.”
“Depending on the intensity of the problem he is experiencing, he knows that he has to change more aero or more anti-roll bar, differential, etc. We scan a whole series of settings, and we build up a common database, which evolves throughout the season according to the changes we make to the car.”
“The transition from Ferrari to Alfa Romeo went very smoothly. Besides, with his experience, Kimi knows exactly what he wants. It was very clear in his head what he wanted for the driving position, the steering wheel, the set-up, etc.”
“He wants a very special driving position. Last year, he worked on his seat himself during the tests, simply because he could see that we were all very busy. And he said, ‘Give me the seat, I know what I want, we’ll save time.’ Classic Kimi! (Laughs)”
IN A SPECIFIC DIRECTION
Räikkönen, who drove his first Sauber at Mugello in 2001 without assistance (it was only ready for the Italian Grand Prix), is very picky about the level of assistance he wants on his first impulses:
“We had a lot of reliability issues between different parts of the steering at Lotus when Kimi was at Enstone. He is so precise and fine on his driving that he wants a very particular steering.”
“It must meet his demands. He doesn’t want too much assistance, even if he wants it anyway. In a fast corner like Eau Rouge, it’s important to have a lot of assistance, and Kimi agrees on that, he doesn’t want to drive a truck!”
“You have to know that on a Formula 1 car, you can modulate the assistance very finely according to the angle of the steering wheel. Kimi is very specific about what he expects in terms of assistance and how he feels about the first movement he makes behind the wheel.”
“This winter, when we knew he was going to join us, we quickly started working on the steering. Since we knew what he wanted, our first draft was the right one. But it took a lot of hard work.”
The Finnish driver appreciates a steering system that gives him as much information as possible about the variations of grip on the track. He is also left-handed, but drivers often feel the level of grip with their strongest hand, which drives the steering wheel movements.
With 17 seasons in Formula 1, 313 Grand Prix and 21 victories to his credit, the 2007 World Champion is no longer a rookie. He therefore needs less advice than the younger drivers with whom Julien Simon-Chautemps has worked previously (Jolyon Palmer, Marcus Ericsson, Romain Grosjean).
“I offer Kimi a starting set-up, developed at the factory based on simulations and historical data, which he accepts in 98% of cases. During the practice sessions, we improve and fine-tune the settings.
“Hundreds of sensors are installed on the car, which collect a lot of data, which can be consulted live and downloaded when the driver returns to the box (the degree of precision is then higher). Based on this data, the driver is usually told, ‘You do this on this corner, you should do this on that corner, you should do that, and so on.'”
“Kimi isn’t too keen on this kind of feedback, he’s receptive on the condition that it makes him go faster. To a young driver, you give more information.”
“You can, for example, know the lines of all the drivers with GPS data, and that can be instructive for a beginner. With Kimi, we don’t provide that kind of information, of course. It’s more about tips on how to optimise the car and, as a result, improve cornering speed.”
“Younger drivers want more data, which is sometimes a danger because you can be swamped with information.”
A DISTORTED IMAGE
Because he prefers the right word to long sentences, because he never describes his work precisely to journalists, Kimi Räikkönen gives the impression of a dilettante, with little interest in the analysis of telemetry graphs.
But the Finn spends the necessary time with his engineers, if not more:
“The image portrayed by the press does not reflect who he is,” explains Julien Simon-Chautemps. He lives half an hour’s drive from the factory. After all the GPs, he spends an hour and a half at the factory for a technical debriefing. It’s easier because he lives nearby, of course, but he doesn’t have to come. It shows his level of involvement and motivates the whole team. Despite 20 years in Formula One, he’s still hungry!”
LISTEN AND OFFER
Intermediate between the driver and the rest of the team, the race engineer identifies the points on which his driver is satisfied and those on which he is less satisfied. He also interprets the telemetry data and synthesizes the two feedbacks.
“As Kimi’s race engineer, I am his main contact and I communicate his wishes to the different technical departments. This is important for the driver (who would otherwise have too many people to talk to), but also for the race engineer, who centralises the data to get an overall view.”
“Put simply, my job is to come up with a list of options based on the problems he encounters. For example, if you have understeer in fast corners, you can change the aerodynamic or mechanical balance, depending on whether the problem is on the entry, middle or the exit side.”
“The level of accuracy of the technical feeling depends on the driver’s experience, but not only that. Guys with the same number of seasons will never achieve his finesse. Even though he’s old by Formula One standards (we’re only a year apart), Kimi is, for me, at the top of his game.”
AN EXCEPTIONAL TECHNICAL FEELING
Usually, it’s not the driver who finds the technical solution, it’s his race engineer who decides to change the differential settings, replace the springs, add a little bit of angle to the front wing… With Räikkönen, things are a little bit different:
“Kimi has exceptional technical feedback. Not only is he very precise, but he also knows the solution to correct this or that problem. In a way, he has passed a level: he describes with finesse what happens on the car, but he is also able to explain very precisely what he wants to change on the chassis to improve it. Which simplifies my job, in a way.”
“Kimi could be a really good race engineer. OK, he doesn’t have the basics of an engineer in terms of simulations, technical tools, but in terms of feeling and solutions, he would make a great engineer.”
“It may happen that I don’t entirely agree with the solution he proposes. In such cases, which are rare, you have to be able to argue solidly, because he has a strong character and strong opinions.
“But if we prove to him, through simulation or other means, that what he wants to do is not the best solution, he simply accepts it. Since driving time is limited, simulation tools allow us to anticipate, to clear the settings.”
It is especially during radio exchanges that the interdependence between the driver and his engineer is most palpable. On Sunday, Julien Simon-Chautemps’ mission is to optimise Kimi Räikkönen’s race by following telemetry data from the pits: tyre temperature, Ferrari V6 performance, oil pressure, brake wear, etc.
Busy fighting on the circuit, “Iceman” can’t be kept up to date with all the parameters. So it’s up to his engineer to sort out, according to the degree of urgency or according to strategy, and to inform him by radio at the most opportune moment.
“I’m the only one accredited to talk to him on the radio, for the simple reason that at 300km/h, the driver doesn’t want to hear several people giving him advice.”
“His way of responding to radio – which television often broadcasts – may seem dry (the famous ‘Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing’), but it’s never personal. It’s his way of expressing himself.”
“I don’t talk to him too much on the radio. Not because he’s opposed to it on principle (because it would distract him, for example), but because the information transmitted must teach him something he can’t know by himself while he’s driving: the strategy of the other drivers, for example. He wants to know what the three cars behind him are going to do, the two in front, to know how he should manage his tyres, for example.”
If Kimi Räikkönen is a man of few words, it is probably precisely because he considers words to be precious.
By an astonishing paradox, he is one of the most popular drivers in the paddock. Behind the mask of “Iceman”, which allows him to protect himself from the outside world, hides an involved driver, mistakenly casual, gifted with a very fine technical feeling and always passionate about his sport.
Wouldn’t appearances be tastier than reality?