One of the newer faces on the pit wall of the Marussia F1 Team is Francesco Nenci, race engineer to Jules Bianchi.
The Italian joined the squad at the Spanish Grand Prix in May after previous stints at Sauber and Toyota, and his impact was felt almost immediately: Bianchi scored his and the team’s first ever championship points by finishing ninth at the following Grand Prix in Monaco.
Our own Yassmin Abdel-Magied sat down with Francesco to have an exclusive engineer-to-engineer discussion…
What prompted your move from Sauber to Marussia? What are the greatest changes you have found since switching teams?
Marussia is a small team, it’s very clean and tidy in its structure. It’s the smallest team I’ve worked for in Formula 1, but it’s very well organised.
It’s also very ambitious, and that was the immediate impression I had of the team when I first visited the team. So I was very excited to make the move, and I think it’s proven very quickly to be the right one!
I obviously left a lot of friends behind at Sauber, particularly Esteban Gutiérrez, who I engineered and was working very well with. But life changes, and sometimes to have to drive those changes. I’s been great to get a new challenge with Marussia.
What is the biggest challenge facing Marussia?
Time. The team is only four years old. There are a lot of things that need to be done and set up, and some of these would be in place in a twenty-year-old team. So obviously there is some work to do, but the basic foundation is all here. I’m confident that we can build on this. Our target is to compete regularly with the established midfield teams and I have every confidence we will achieve this.
But don’t forget that Formula is challenging wherever you are on the grid. It’s tough for the top teams to keep winning, and it’s challenging for the smaller teams to survive and remain competitive with those around them. This year, Marussia has a very good car and very good drivers, so it was a matter of time before we scored our first points.
On that topic, what happened differently in Monaco for the team to scores its first World Championship points?
There’s the old phrase: ‘Anything can happen in Monaco.’
To some extent that’s true, but if you don’t have a good car to start with, then you’re unlikely to be able to capitalise when the opportunity comes knocking.
We had great pace: enough to keep Romain Grosjean behind and keep pace with the Toro Rossos ahead. That was the case in Monaco, although we did have some troubles – Jules had a gearbox grid penalty before the race and then another penalty during the race – but we proved that our strategy was the right decision. In the end, we opted not to send Jules in to serve his stop/go penalty and cop the time penalty [the team was judged to have initially served the penalty during a Safety Car period], and this proved to be the correct decision.
Were you directly involved in the decision not to serve the penalty?
The rules allow you to forego the penalty and add five seconds to your final race time. We were judged to have served the penalty during a Safety Car and so we were ordered in to serve it again. But doing so could have given us a bigger penalty in terms of track position, so we decided not to serve it and instead have it added to our race time. It worked out perfectly for us.
How does a small team like Marussia balance the conflict between reliability and outright speed, and what is your role in helping in this decision-making?
Reliability is an absolute ‘must’ to start with: you can’t score points if you’re not running at the end. In saying that however, the challenge is constantly finding that borderline: the car needs to run right to the finish – but no more – so you have to identify solutions that can give you more performance without compromising on reliability.
It’s always a compromise. My job as a race engineer is to help simulate different options and scenarios, and to find the ideal compromise between performance and reliability.
What are Marussia’s prospects for the rest of the season and beyond?
I think we have a very good chance of scoring more points and threatening the lower midfield. The car is very good and we have a great team of people all working towards a common goal.
It was a massive challenge for such a small team to adapt to major rule changes this season – particularly with the new power train – which really made it a challenge to balance that focus on improving reliability and performance. Now that the reliability is largely sorted, the next step is to continue to make the car quicker.
There are much larger and better-funded teams around us, and we have to regularly break into that group and then stay there.
How did you personally become involved in Formula 1?
I was rather old when I started [laughs]. I started out as an engineer in the Coloni Formula 3000 team, which was based in Italy.
Then I moved to Spain and worked in its national Formula 3 championship before joining Toyota’s F1 team.
I was there for almost ten years and did a bit of everything – performance, systems, race strategy – before becoming a Race Engineer, I helped Ralf Schumacher and then Timo Glock.
Then I joined Sauber, where I engineered Kamui Kobayashi and Esteban Gutiérrez.
What is the advice you would give to a young engineer looking to make a career in motorsport?
It’s very tough work, but I absolutely love it. You have to have a passion for it and to want to contribute to making the cars quicker.
We are all part of a giant family racing on the same tracks at the same venues, so it’s a great environment to gain experience, build your skills and really hone your craft.
We extend our thanks to the Marussia F1 Media Team for making this interview opportunity possible. Image via XPB Images