The first thing to greet any visitor to Red Bull Racing's F1 factory is an upended RB1 racing car, mounted on the wall to the right of the doorway. It's a 'decoration' sure to take your breath away, but it isn't even among the team's most illustrious race cars, having been developed from the last cars to be fielded in Formula One by Jaguar, before that team was sold and remodelled as Red Bull Racing.
On the other side of the reception area are the trophies won over the past three years, filling glass cabinet after cabinet. Antony, our guide for the tour, explained that the trophies have all been won by the RB5, RB6 and RB7 race cars during that time. The team stumbled upon success rapidly, once the RB5 began competing.
Unfortunately, for the tour, motoring.com.au was not permitted to take a camera along and snap away. So, much as we would have liked to bring you some images of the inner sanctum that is the Milton Keynes facility, word pictures will have to suffice.
The facility comprises four buildings, home to 550 staff, not including an ex-RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) wind tunnel with its own rolling road, in Bedford. In its earlier life, the wind tunnel was used to test the nose of Concorde (for take-off and landing).
Unlike technical centres for series production car companies, Red Bull's R&D staff work very closely with the production side of the company. There's practically no manufacturing engineering to speak of, since every car produced is effectively a prototype. The manufacturing side of the facility is subject to change of course, but it's largely locked in concrete.
Our tour began with the designers and engineers. Adrian Newey is the team designer, and according to our guide, is the last technical officer in the sport still to use a drawing board. His CAD team, conversely, uses Computational Fluid Dynamics and produces 350 to 400 drawings, of which only a handful will make it into the car. At the time we visited, the team was working on the racecar's bodywork behind the driver. The FIA issued new regs for this year, insisting the exhaust move into a higher position, within a virtual box behind the driver. Red Bull's aim is to comply with the FIA rules without losing power or aerodynamic efficiency. Over 100 designers work to exploit every loophole the FIA regs allow.
In some ways the more work the FIA creates for the race teams, the more cost-effective the Red Bull outfit becomes. A run in the wind tunnel takes 20 mins, but finding the ultimate design for a part can take days. Each designer needs to create 40 parts a week to keep the wind tunnel working 52 weeks a year. While Renault builds the engine as part of the chassis; adaption to the race car is the task set Red Bull. That adaptation involves aerodynamic design, naturally.
One anecdote mentioned during the visit was the matter of the driver's helmet generating lift. At speed, the helmet tries to lift the head of the driver; it's a very uncomfortable sensation for the driver, especially in case of Mark Webber, over 6' tall as he is.
Red Bull's CAD team is heavily reliant on computing power, but the RRA (the Regulatory Agreement between teams) prevents RB from using the most powerful computer in Europe. We caught sight of the computer banks near the end of our tour. To put it in perspective, our guide commented that Red Bull could muster processing power equivalent to 10,000 iPad2s.
Our next stop on the tour was the team's ops room, where races are monitored live. If the team notes any technical infringements by rival teams during the race, a message will be immediately sent off to the FIA. Engineers typically check a million lines of timing telemetry alone. Wi-Fi systems incorporate military-grade security.
In Brazil last year, Vettel handed the lead back to Webber when his car began to experience gear and oil pressure problems. Proving that there's still a little room for 'black art' in even a racing formula as scientific as F1, the engineers in the ops room didn't think Vettel would finish the race. But the car crossed the line and was then "finished".
In transit to our next stop we passed the team's gym, where the pit crew are required to work out between four and six hours a week. As our guide explained, when the team is spending one million US dollars to gain a tenth of a second, having your pit crew on top of their game is cheap and effective. But if they lose tenths of seconds because they're not fit, it's costly.And it's not only the pit crew that must be fit. Mark Webber weighs around 77kg, but will lose five to six kilos in a race. According to our guide, the cockpit temperature in Malaysia can get to 60°.
Working our way into the production section, we witnessed Red Bull's SLLA equipment, which fires a pre-programmed laser into a resin, hardening the resin slither by slither. Parts are built up from the sedimentation as a new layer of resin is deposited over the top. By this means the team produces extremely light, but strong parts for use on the cars.
Strength and weight are the two conflicting criteria in setting up any racecar. The FIA has embraced crash testing for F1 cars for the first time this year. Our guide observed that Ralf Schumacher's 200MPH crash at Indianapolis in 2004 had been measured at 74g (78, according to Wikipedia), but the carbonfibre rear impact structure saved him from certain death. Although he was knocked unconscious by the impact, he returned to racing three events later.
The car's gearbox is made from carbonfibre, for its native strength (and light weight). It's bedded in for 500km before it's even fitted to the car — and then it only has to last four races. Carbonfibre components are fired in an autoclave at 300° C. The autoclave can handle parts measuring between 16 and 500 square metres. At the other end of the car the front wing, depending on design, comprises between 20 and 30 pieces bonded together.
If carbonfibre lends the car strength, its paint contributes to weight reduction and aerodynamic efficiency. Over the last four years Red Bull has moved from stickers to painted livery to reduce aero drag. What stickers remain are covered in lacquer, we're told.
At the conclusion of the tour — during the busiest time of the year — our guide mentioned that the team would fly to Australia with enough gear to fill 47 trucks. His analogy was this: Red Bull on tour is bigger than popular Irish rock band, U2.
Less than two weeks after the factory tour, Red Bull raced in Melbourne for the AGP. As is well known now, they were pipped for first place by the McLaren-Mercedes of Jenson Button, but Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel placed second. The two Red Bull drivers were split by Lewis Hamilton in third; Webber placing fourth in what is regarded as his home event. So McLaren look like being the team to watch this year — based on just the one round run — and you can be certain that no one will be watching McLaren more than the brains trust in Milton Keynes.