Under normal circumstances, the Mercedes Formula One team would today be starting to arrive in Vietnam for next weekend’s grand prix to help Lewis Hamilton defend his world title. Instead, they are deeply involved in the manufacture of ventilators to help fight coronavirus.
It is not just Mercedes, though. The seven F1 teams based in England have come together in a single campaign called Project Pitlane. These are highly competitive engineering units whose mission in life is to beat each other on the track, but for now they are racing against time and towards the same goal.
Their factories and competition bases have been locked down apart from those responding to the government’s call to build ventilators. They are working around the clock and collaborating in virtual meetings. As one team leader explained, they will typically have one daily to discuss the next required steps and that will be followed by two to three hours of intense engineering to take them.
One team described it as like “drinking from a fire hose”. Another said: “It’s a case of building the plane and flying it at the same time.”
The switch from making racing cars to ventilators is not only an engineering challenge but a supply chain challenge, with different parts being sourced from around the world.
There is then the test of upscaling from design to mass-manufacture with everything done at speed.
It all began on the day that the F1 season was supposed to start. The Melbourne grand prix was scheduled for March 15 and all the teams were in the Australian city in preparation. Three days before, though, the race was called off and the season suspended.
On the day the race should have been held Pat Symonds, the F1 chief technical officer, took a call from Mark Gillan, an engineer who formerly worked in a number of F1 teams, and is now chief technology officer at Innovate UK, the public innovation agency. The government had put a call out for advanced engineering skills. Both Mr Symonds and Mr Gillan knew that F1 was exceptionally well-placed to help.
They met two days later at Mr Gillan’s offices on Victoria Embankment. The next day they had all seven teams, which include Red Bull and McLaren, around a virtual meeting table with all in agreement that, for the moment, rivalry was suspended and now was the time to work together. This was the birth of Project Pitlane.
“We understand the gravity of the situation,” Mr Gillan said. “We want to deliver product. Since that Wednesday it has been a true collaborative effort.” It was, said Jonathan Neale, the chief operating officer of McLaren Racing, “a compelling call to arms from the government”. He added that it was hugely motivating, too: “We know that our pitlane rivals are fierce competitors and when they are motivated to do something, every one of them can perform something extraordinary.”
The F1 teams are a very specialised pocket of elite output. The quality of design and engineering in England is world-class and, even if not widely appreciated, has certainly become known to a number of F1 teams who, over the past two decades, have made England their base. It is not just British teams here, but German (Mercedes), French (Renault) and American (Haas). “We have in the UK this mix of brilliance in engineering technical knowledge,” Mr Gillan said.
It is this mix that he is calling on for Project Pitlane. He believes that the F1 teams “have probably the best rapid prototyping manufacturing reverse-engineering capability here in the UK”.
He also believes that the nature of their work, on F1 cars, makes them ideally placed for the challenge of building ventilators: “They are used to work in a fast-paced dynamic environment. Their abilities in creating a digital model of a device are second to none. They are used to this rollercoaster on the development side. That is why they are well-suited to this task.” Project Pitlane is a part of a greater campaign called Ventilator Challenge UK in which the government has challenged British industry to produce 30,000 ventilators in a matter of weeks. Companies such as Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Dyson are involved.
Mr Gillan is leading the contribution of the F1 teams. They have identified three different streams in which to work: reverse engineering existing medical devices; upscaling the production of existing designs; and designing and mass producing new devices from scratch. All seven teams are collaborating across the three streams. Mr Gillan virtually chairs a small governance group across the teams twice a day. “We are operating around the clock,” he said. “It is pretty humbling to see what people are committing to.” Have they had any breakthroughs? “About every two hours,” he said.
Even though the seven teams are usually fighting tooth and nail they have been quick to blend into one. Many of the personnel have worked on more than one team in the past. Also, the international nature of the sport means that they tend to spend the season travelling together to the same places in the same planes. Their challenge has been to slot together an engineering project with thousands of different parts. One hospital in New York, for instance, reported not only a ventilator shortage, but a lack of the necessary accessories such as tubing and filters.
In Project Pitlane one arm of McLaren has been designing trollies and stands for the easy movement of the ventilators around hospitals. Mercedes has been making CPAP (continuous positive airwave pressure) devices, which patients who are able to breathe on their own, but need help keeping their airways open. This has moved so fast that the government has already ordered these devices to go into testing.
Some of it is a challenge of sourcing and procurement. A Williams team has sourced more than 800 components in the past four days. The sourcing is not just from within the UK; McLaren has sourced a particular electronic component from the Middle East and information on valve technology from North America.
Inside each of the seven F1 bases, work patterns have completely changed. Many corners of these bases are dark, in others there are frantic pockets of activity. Staff canteens are shut; receptions are closed. At McLaren, an infamously clean environment where work surfaces are expected always to be clear, staff are, for once, allowed to eat a sandwich at their desk.
“Every one of us is feeling it,” Mr Neale said. “There isn’t any part of our operating world that hasn’t been dramatically changed. There is no sense of normality. It is all: what can we do next to make a contribution?” For McLaren, this call of duty has taken them beyond the ventilator project.
A request came from the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, asking them to make a facemask with a certain type of airflow. These devices have already gone to clinical trial. Other hospitals are making similar requests.
As devices like these get closer to mass production, those working in Project Pitlane can see the value in their work. The intention is to have a new product out and being used within a fortnight. For specialists used to working with speed this is their most important race against time.