How to be an ace engineer: BAR F1 and BTCC man Steve Farrell
From winning in Group C to the British Touring Car Championship via Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship, Steve Farrell has seen and done it all. Here are his top tips for making a success of a career in engineering
Having traded its trusty Mercedes A-Class for the British Touring Car Championship’s first customer BMW 330i M Sports, Ciceley Motorsport will expect to be in the mix for regular wins in 2021. And while the battle-hardened Adam Morgan and Tom Chilton can be relied upon to get the job done on-track, no less important will be the Australian-accented voice on the radio belonging to 40-year industry veteran Steve Farrell - whose distinguished career has spanned all levels of motorsport from Formula Ford to Formula 1 and almost every-thing in-between.
After being “dragged along” as a nine-year-old to clean the wheels of his elder brother Chris’s Mini in June 1969, Farrell started a love-affair with motorsport that continued upon moving to Europe in 1977 to enter Chris in British Formula 3. “We did that particularly poorly,” says Farrell, “probably because he had a shit mechanic!”
Returning home to complete his degree, Farrell fulfilled a “long-term plan” to race Formula Ford in the UK himself in 1983, but he was still recovering from a massive accident in Australia the previous year. “I wasn’t really healthy enough to race so I stopped,” he says.
He instead turned to team management with his own Milldent Motorsport squad, which ran Perry McCarthy in 1985 and gave future Reynard designer Malcolm Oastler his first job. It was Farrell who introduced him to Adrian Reynard, starting a formidable partnership that would dominate junior single-seaters for the next decade and win the Indianapolis 500 twice.
“It didn’t take him long to get established because he’s such a clever bloke, hyper intelligent and massively practical as well,” Farrell recalls of Oastler. “I would consider myself to be reasonably practical, but he’s way above that and was clearly destined for greater things. Then obviously that whole Adrian Reynard-Malcolm thing obviously led to the BAR connection later on.”
Farrell sold his team at the end of the 1987 season, having made a “modest” profit each year and decided not to “stretch my luck”. He immediately found employment as a race engineer in sportscars for the Chamberlain Engineering Group C2 team, before settling down at Tom Walkinshaw Racing where he guided Teo Fabi to the 1991 World SportsCar Championship title in the awesome XJR-14. Had it not been for Walkinshaw switching Derek Warwick to Fabi’s car at Silverstone – Warwick scored no points as he wasn’t registered against it – the title would certainly have gone to the Briton, but Farrell says journeyman Fabi was just as worthy a champion.
Teo Fabi, Ross Brawn, Martin Brundle Jaguar XJR-14 1991
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“He had a lot of things going against him, like how he looked and being such a quiet guy,” says Farrell. “But actually he was very motivated, he was completely professional, I don’t think he scratched the car as far as I can remember.
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“One of us had to win the championship and Teo was a very fast driver, underrated, so I don't think it was unfair at all. He was so well-liked, just a brilliant guy and just did the job.”
"There were some really good bits, but reliability was just so shit, the quality of lots of stuff was just not up to it because we were a new team" Steve Farrell
After tin-top stints at Prodrive and RML, Farrell returned to TWR as chief engineer on the Nissan Le Mans programme, before the call-up came from Oastler in 1998 to assist with building up British American Racing. It had taken over Tyrrell’s entry, but was for all intents and purposes an all-new outfit.
“We were in portacabins in Brackley until the building was finished!” he recalls. “It was chaos for about 18 months.
“We decided to split the responsibilities between Andy Green and me so that whenever the wheels were turning, it was my responsibility and when the wheels weren’t turning, it was Andy’s responsibility. I was responsible for all the testing, and I even got given the young driver programme at one point.”
The 1999 season was a hard slog as poor reliability thwarted efforts to score points, but the promise was evident, with Jacques Villeneuve running third early on at the Spanish Grand Prix.
“A lot of people are very dismissive and critical of the first year of BAR, but considering the complete shambles that we were in, JV managed to get us some quite respectable grid positions,” he says.
Jacques Villeneuve, 1999 Spanish GP
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“When we came back to Europe, we went to Spain and qualified sixth which was fantastic. Then off the start JV managed to jump everybody except the two McLarens and there we were with Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari behind us! He held him behind until the first pitstops and we were all looking at each other on the pitwall thinking, ‘Are we dreaming here?’
“There were some really good bits, but reliability was just so shit, the quality of lots of stuff was just not up to it because we were a new team. But within that bunch I would say we were a real proper, practical team – you had no ego-type people and we got on with it.”
But from those foundations, progress was slow, which Farrell blames on “stupidly heavy” Honda engines which didn’t live up to the hype. Villeneuve scored attrition-assisted podiums at Barcelona and Hockenheim in 2001, but the team never looked on the verge of breaking out of the midfield.
“We were all excited about [Honda engines], but honestly it was a disaster area,” he says. “They were very heavy and we could never get enough front weight distribution. Bridgestone were developing tyres around Ferrari and we could never get the front tyres to work because we couldn’t get enough front weight forward, so we were always going to struggle.
“All things considered, I think there was good progress and a lot of the key players when they won the championship [as Brawn in 2009] were the same core people. It just takes time to gel, like any football team.”
When Prodrive chairman David Richards arrived to replace ousted team principal Craig Pollock in 2001, he approached Farrell to oversee Subaru’s World Rally Championship programme. Although an entirely different discipline to anything he’d done before, Farrell thrived and Subaru won the 2003 title with Petter Solberg, the only time Sebastien Loeb was beaten in his full-time WRC career.
“I’d already been at Prodrive before, so I knew everybody,” he says. “Doing the WRC was fantastic in that era, it was probably one of the best eras of electronics and active diffs and stuff like that.”
Petter Solberg, 2003 WRC Rally GB
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Farrell complemented Prodrive lifer David Lapworth when it came to deciding priorities for development and explains that the role of a chief engineer is more about understanding processes than fine details - “I didn’t go there and pretend to know about gravel tyres!” - regardless of the environment. It’s a principle he picked up from Ross Brawn during his TWR years.
"I thought we shouldn’t be spending any money on Tarmac because we could win gravel rallies, so we should do more gravel testing. People said, ‘Well we’ve got to improve on Tarmac’ and I said, 'But they’ll beat us anyway!'" Steve Farrell
“Ross always used to say, ‘I don’t have to know everything about everything, I just have to know enough to have an intelligent conversation with the guy who does,’” says Farrell. “You don’t need to know the specifics, you just need to know the process to get to the right answer.”
He cites a shakeup of Subaru’s testing regime in 2002 that initially riled the team’s newly-arrived four-time world champion Tommi Makinen as a key early move, but ultimately won the Finn over.
“We were doing maybe 60 test days a year and seven of them were on snow,” Farrell recalls. “I thought, ‘Hang on, that’s crazy’. At that point Michelin had really overtaken Pirelli on Tarmac and I saw that there was a massive amount of budget on Tarmac uprights and all the kit. I thought we shouldn’t be spending any money on Tarmac because we could win gravel rallies, so we should do more gravel testing. People said, ‘Well we’ve got to improve on Tarmac’ and I said, ‘But they’ll beat us anyway!’”
Farrell reckons the 2004 iteration of the Impreza was even better than its title-winning predecessor, but three consecutive mid-season retirements meant even a hattrick of wins across Japan, Wales and Sardinia were not enough to stop the Loeb steamroller. Frustrated by frequent budget cuts, he left in 2007 to work as technical director of the football-themed Superleague Formula single-seater series from its 2007 inception until its demise in 2011.
There he enjoyed complete technical freedom to develop the Elan Motorsport Technologies V12 monster, with an all-new weekend format involving knockout qualifying head-to-heads and a dash-for-the-cash five-lap sprint that stood out from an increasingly crowded market. It then switched away from the “legal nightmare” of agreeing licensing deals with football clubs to countries, but ran aground “at the last hurdle on a couple of silly things”.
Since then, Farrell has worked as a freelance race engineer for several touring car teams in Britain and China - where he first met Morgan. While NGTC-spec BTCC cars don’t have the complexity of their 1990s Super Touring antecedents, Farrell still relishes the challenge of finding the last performance differentiators to improve.
James Cole, Steve Farrell 2017 BTCC Knockhill
Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography
“It’s that process of making it all joined up,” he says. “The BTCC is about detail now, because everyone runs the same stuff roughly. So it’s a matter of absolutely understanding every nut, bolt and spring on that car and have you optimised it? Identifying what’s important and what’s not is where that experience is useful.”
Farrell says Martin Brundle is “not even open to debate” as the best driver he worked with in his career, with fellow TWR driver David Brabham and BAR junior Anthony Davidson also in his top bracket: “All have the full package of everything: fast, hard-working, good people.”
“There’s far more potential to extract out of a driver than there is out of a car,” he explains. “But you’ve got to do it together, saying to the driver, ‘You’re part of the machine, you’ve got to understand the machine to know how to drive it and when I know how you’re going to need to drive it, we can tune the car’. But you have to do it together.”
Top tips for engineers from Steve Farrell
Try to build a broad knowledge of everything so that you can have semi-intelligent conversations and recognise when people are bullshitting.
Do what’s best, not what’s easiest. That doesn’t always mean spending money, it just means doing things to the very best that you have available.
Volunteer for a Formula Ford team. Do that for six months and you’ll get a feel for what the driver says, a holistic overview.
Steve Farrell, 2020 BTCC Croft
Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography
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