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Watches and Formula 1 - Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

Watches and Formula 1 Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

On a factory visit to Red Bull Racing, our editor-in-chief discovered a number of behind-the-scenes parallels with the watch industry.

The links between the world of cars and motorsport and that of watches are often explained by the fact that both are based on mechanical engineering. They also both appeal mainly to a masculine audience as well, of course, which makes joint marketing activities all the more appealing. But a guided tour through the Red Bull Racing factory in Milton Keynes showed me just how much the two worlds have in common behind the scenes regarding how their respective products are made.

Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

© Jed Leicester

Red Bull Racing grew out of the former Jaguar Racing works Formula 1 team, which itself evolved from Jackie Stewart Racing. The three buildings that make up its headquarters are on the outskirts of Milton Keynes and fall within a regional cluster known as “Motorsport Valley” where the majority of Formula 1 teams have their operations based (the logical exceptions are Ferrari, Scuderia Torro Rosso and Swiss team Sauber). Given that Red Bull Racing does not build its own engines, instead sourcing them from Renault but, under a complicated arrangement, badging them as a TAG Heuer power plant, I naively expected the operations at the factory to be akin to a watch brand assembling a number of components bought in from outside. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before any new component in a watch reaches the machining stage, it has usually been designed and simulated by computer in the technical office. The same is true at Red Bull Racing, although the huge open-plan office that is home to around a hundred people working on design, aerodynamics, gearbox, suspension and strategy, dwarfs anything you might find in the watch industry.

Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

© Jed Leicester

The base for a Formula 1 car is a carbon-fibre shell, which can be compared with the mainplate that acts as the base of a watch movement. But whereas a watch movement at its most complicated might stretch to 1,300 components, no fewer than 30,000 individual components make up the Formula 1 car and in true manufacture style, the large majority of them are produced in-house. All carbon-fibre composites, for example, are produced at the factory in the composites workshop. The individual sheets of fibre (Red Bull Racing uses 100 different types of prepreg carbon fibre) are layered over a mould in an anti-static room, then vacuumed sealed so that the fibre layers take on the shape of the mould. Finally, they are heated to 180° Celsius in an autoclave at a pressure of 4 bar to cure the composite. Red Bull Racing has five huge autoclaves on site, making it the envy of many a materials research institute.

Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

© Jed Leicester

All mechanical parts are machined in-house on five-axis CNC milling machines from technical partner DMG Mori. These are familiar in most large-scale Swiss watch manufacturers, but what differs here is both their size and their quantity. Red Bull Racing’s machine park includes 22 such machines, some of which are several times the size of those found in watch factories. Unlike watch brands, Red Bull Racing also works with no fewer than 60 different types of metals and alloys, from lightweight metals such as aluminium and titanium right up to Densamet (tungsten steel), which is used for ballast and is over ten times heavier than aluminium. But the parallels with a machine shop in a watch factory don’t end there. You can also find a separate department for producing tools for stamping presses, which allows certain components to be produced without interrupting the manufacturing process. There are also electrolysis-based machines for tiny components, just as there are in watchmaking.

Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

© Jed Leicester

Skilled manual labour also has its place inside the factory. In a department that could easily be confused at first sight with an assembly workshop at a watch factory, electricians sit at desks hand soldering the individual elements of the wiring loom that runs throughout the Formula 1 car, acting as the nerve centre that transmits information between sensors and the engine control unit, as well as the radio telemetry unit that sends data to the pitlane and even back to the factory during a race weekend.

Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

© Jed Leicester

The parallels with the watch industry end, however, when you look at how the factory operates as a whole. Most departments work on a 24-hour shift pattern, and the teams need to be on hand throughout a race weekend. If circumstances and geography permit, the factory is even capable of designing, producing and shipping a component out to the race circuit the same day. You might also think that a paint shop at Red Bull Racing would have no equivalent in the watch industry, but remember that Red Bull Racing has a distinctive matte blue colour on the car, which the company coyly admits is “not necessarily” painted, so think along the lines of powder coatings. This has absolutely no aerodynamic advantage but it looks great on TV. With over 14 different changes to the car’s livery possible between each race, this proprietary process is naturally done in-house too.

Behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing

© Jed Leicester

Unlike a watch brand, in fact unlike most companies, Red Bull Racing does not aim to make a profit and thus has no customers. Once the car or any new components leave the factory, however, they are handed over to a team of 60 relatively young people trackside for the race weekend, who are supported by a similar amount of people in the Operations Room throughout the weekend. It’s like customer service in real time, where anyone in Milton Keynes can speak directly to the driver if required (although in practice this hardly ever happens). People in the Operations Room monitor absolutely anything that could have an influence on the team’s performance, including the weather, the social media feeds of competitors, video clips and even audio soundbites to try to work out what gear ratios competitors are using. I even saw someone writing mathematical equations during free practice 1 of the Mexican Grand Prix – it’s anyone’s guess as to what they were for!

So as we head into the last race of the season this weekend, spare a thought for the 700 individuals at Red Bull who have been working tirelessly throughout the season to keep the cars of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen at peak performance throughout the season.

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