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Toronto native and Ferrari engineer loves the highs of F1 racing

The toughest part of being an engineer on Ferrari's F1 racing team? Interpreting what the driver is telling you, and translating that into engineering terms says Toronto-born Maurizio Leschiutta.

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Maurizio Leschiutta plays an important role in developing and
running Ferrari’s race engines in the Formula One championship.
In this second part of a two-part interview with Jim Kenzie, the
Toronto-born and University of Waterloo-educated engineer takes
us inside one of racing’s greatest teams.

Maurizio Leschiutta’s first race track assignment from Ferrari
came, coincidentally, at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal in
June, 1993.

The following season he became Gerhard Berger’s engine
engineer, part of a three-man team (including the over-all race
engineer, Luca Baldisserri, and chassis man Andrea Galletti)
which runs the car at the races.

Leschiutta’s responsibilities during a race weekend sound
simple: monitor engine performance, analyze any problems that
arise, and implement solutions. (He doesn’t actually twirl the
wrenches – the mechanics do that.) The complicating factor is
the available time: basically, there isn’t any.

“The most difficult part of the job is interpreting what the
driver is telling you, and translating that into engineering
terms.”

The drivers vary enormously. “Berger liked to go into detail,
although his descriptions were often not very accurate
technically. (Teammate Jean) Alesi was often very vague, often
no more than ‘this is a piece of s–t’. We also have the
telemetry data, but because problems can be caused by minuscule
phenomena, you need to interpret this data very carefully.”

Berger did most of the testing for the team in ’94 and ’95,
meaning Leschiutta was on the road for about 250 days a year. It
was professionally rewarding, but taxing, both physically and
emotionally. It also cost him his marriage, to an American woman
he had met at Wisconsin. He doesn’t like to talk about that
much; failure doesn’t play a big role in this man’s resume.

The dynamic test cell, Leschiutta’s pride and joy, proved its
worth following one Grand Prix in 1995.
Alesi had a spark coil and spark plug failure during the race;
Monday morning an engine was fitted into the dynamic test cell,
the Monaco simulation was run, because it is the toughest test
of high engine revs, and they were able to replicate, and
subsequently solve, the problem before the next event.

Berger and Alesi were replaced in 1996 by reigning world
champion Michael Schumacher and Irishman Eddie Irvine.

Leschiutta was assigned to Irvine’s team, and is proud of the
fact that Irvine did not suffer a single mechanical
engine-related DNF this season. Other things broke, and he drove
into things, but the engine didn’t blow.

(Schumacher’s new one did, on the pace lap in the French Grand
Prix, when a piston broke, which Leschiutta wants to make clear
was not the piston manufacturer’s fault. Irvine’s engine didn’t
blow up. Leschiutta admits to catching a break on that one.)

In summary, Leschiutta says the 1996 season was a mixed bag.
They didn’t really expect to challenge for the world
championship – Schumacher raised not a few eyebrows when he said
as much at his first press conference as a Ferrari driver.

After some early successes, however, expectations went
skyhigh. When the inevitable failures hit – the lowest points
being Montreal, when Schumacher’s axle shaft fell out, and
France, where he didn’t complete the pace lap – the sudden drop
was harder to take.

Schumacher’s victory at Monza was a tremendously emotional
one, for obvious reasons. Two other Schumi victories, a third in
the championship (and 10th for Irvine, not bad considering he
seldom had the testing opportunities Schumacher had) bodes well
for next year.

But then, the other teams are not standing still. Everyone is
making progress.

Now, about those secrets. Leschiutta allows that a combination
of bright people on all the teams, applying the latest science
to the same set of rules, plus personnel movement among the
teams and leaks from the common supplier base, means the
technical solutions are seldom radically different.

The press is also a source of information. But by the time a
reporter is ready to “tell all”, his scoop may be fourth-hand,
and not entirely accurate. “Reporters will easily pass on what
they have heard,” says Leschiutta, “in hopes that you will give
them something in return that they can market or barter with
somebody else.”

Schumacher arrogant? ‘I’ve known other drivers who are much
more so, with less reason’

But figuring out what your opponents are doing is mostly a
matter of observation and calculation. “Did you see the chord
(thickness) of the rear wing McLaren was hauling around
Hockenheim, and what top speeds they were reaching? A few
calculations and you figure that the Ilmor (a.k.a., Mercedes)
engine must be around 755 horsepower (DIN).

“The question: how does Ilmor do that with the bore size they
are running? And how do you know their bore size? Just ask the
piston manufacturer the right questions.

“Everyone knows Williams is the best car, it is quite clear.
Everyone knows that Renault is a reasonable powerplant, but not
the most powerful (its output is probably around 740
horsepower).

“Hill’s engine failure at Monaco was a blemish on an otherwise
spotless reliability record. And what caused that? We’re
guessing it was a loss of oil pressure; we have heard stories
but don’t want to repeat them without confirmation. But you do
not have to be Einstein to figure it out; you just ask someone
at the right moment.”

He didn’t come right out and say how much power the Ferrari F1
engine makes – he likes his job too much. But he didn’t scoff at
suggestions of a peak of 750. But it can vary.

“On ultra-high output racing engines, very small differences
in build procedure, like tolerances and assembly techniques, can
account for larger horsepower swings than one might expect.
Built to nominal specification, there could be a 10 to 20
horsepower variation – anything much larger than that and you’ve
got a big problem.

“Quality control in our build process was one of our prime
targets this year, and we’ve been very successful, varying by no
more than two to three horsepower.’

While Leschiutta seems prepared to cut the drivers some slack
because of the nature of their job, he finds their behavior
childish sometimes.

As an example, one driver chose not to run a new evolution
engine, because, he said it was not as good as the old one, but
really, it was because his teammate was going to run it, and the
two always had to be different.

When the teammate ran quicker in qualifying – not because of
the engine, but because he was faster through a couple of
corners – the first driver started wailing that he did not have
the new engine, and that it wasn’t fair!

Leschiutta notes, “The further down the field you go, the more
normal the drivers get.”

His thoughts on Jacques Villeneuve?

“I want to say I like him, because he’s Canadian and all. I’ve
heard mixed comments about him from people who have worked with
him, but I have never really met him, so I don’t know.”

Michael Schumacher?

“He is very determined, and very professional. Detached, yes,
and sometimes he does not want to deal with the crowds, which is
understandable considering he is always in the spotlight. But he
is always friendly with people on the team and has a good sense
of humor.

“I have heard some people say he is arrogant, but I’ve known
other drivers who are much more so, with less reason.”

His man, Eddie Irvine? “I really like Eddie, he is quite down
to earth, considering he is a millionaire and an F1 driver.”
What’s next for the hometown boy? It’s hard to say.

Leschiutta, 34, has been with Ferrari for almost five years. A
restructuring of the team is apparently in the works, and
everyone is waiting to see what the new season has in store,
which begins in March.

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