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How to be an ace engineer: Single-seater performance guru Peter Wyss de Araujo

In his long career digging into data and making cars quicker, there's very little that Peter Wyss de Araujo hasn't encountered in motorsport. He reflects on his fascinating journey and reveals top tips for aspiring engineers

Romain Grosjean, Barwa Campos Team

Sutton Images

Engineering

Our experts' guide on how you can become a better racing driver

Swiss engineer Peter Wyss de Araujo has sampled virtually every motorsport discipline from hillclimbing to Formula 1, taking in a successful decade of touring cars and a spell in Formula E along the way. But he’s never stopped learning, and that mantra remains today in his current position race engineering an ORECA-Gibson 07 in the European Le Mans series for the Team Virage outfit set up by a former colleague at Campos Racing, where Wyss de Araujo enjoyed his longest spell at a single team and helped numerous drivers rise through the ranks.

His time in F1 was full of hard knocks, spent with an almost literal A to Z of low-budget teams – having jumped out of the fire at Zakspeed only to land in the flames at AGS via a brief stint at Leyton House. Along the way he counted spells at Coloni, a team to which he would return 15 years later, and the short-lived Lamborghini outfit where he experienced the brilliance and chaos of Mauro Forghieri. All his lessons, Wyss de Araujo says, “I had to find out myself, I didn’t have someone giving me advice”.

Much of his career has involved switching between race engineer, performance engineer and technical director roles – the latter a position he confesses “I never wanted to do, that is just when there was nobody else, I had to do it” at the CiBiEmme Engineering BMW team. But Wyss de Araujo views his “zig-zag” trajectory philosophically.

“Sometimes it’s a situation where there is one job available and not the other one, so you go in and do what is needed for the team,” he reflects. “Then you work through it and contribute to the team effort in the role which at the moment due to circumstances you are placed in.”

His motorsport journey started out while studying, helping various Swiss drivers. Wyss de Araujo remembers cleaning the bodywork, tyres and rims of Jo Vonlanthen’s Williams FW03 at the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, and in 1978 engineered Patrick Studer’s Chevron to the Swiss Formula 3 championship – in which hillclimbs featured predominantly.

He also joined Studer at the occasional European Formula 2 race, and learned quickly to do all manner of jobs himself. In the early days, working in small teams, he points out “you didn’t have all this kind of luxury” of ensuring a division of labour. “The person engineering the car does everything – performance engineer, race engineer, psychologist, the whole thing,” he explains.

Wyss de Araujo (with clipboard) spent several years toiling with small F1 teams such as the Modena Lamborghini outfit

Wyss de Araujo (with clipboard) spent several years toiling with small F1 teams such as the Modena Lamborghini outfit

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Wyss de Araujo spent two years studying engineering before deciding “I didn’t want to learn to design bridges or trains”. He switched to maths, subsequently completing a PhD at the University of Bern focused on forecasting the energy consumption of a country, and says it doesn’t matter what your educational grounding because “you will learn doing the job in the first years”.

“In the very beginning I wanted to be able to build my own lap time simulator, which I did by studying, and that is probably how it all started,” he remembers. “Apart from that, I like science and I like numbers and precision. If you are born in Switzerland, you are born with precision. Mathematics basically teaches you to be a logical thinker and that’s what you use a lot in motorsport.”

After graduating, in 1985 he began a productive relationship with Gabriele Tarquini that later would take in three different F1 teams. Running the inexperienced Italian at Alberto Colombo’s SanRemo Racing squad in the inaugural season of Formula 3000, the partnership yielded a podium at the third attempt in Portugal. Wyss de Araujo and Tarquini switched to Coloni for 1986, but there was only one podium in Austria as the team chopped and changed parts in a bid to keep its year-old March competitive.

"[Coloni] were going there with eight people and on the grid you have Ligier around the car with 35 people. To fight teams like that with a massive budget was good"
Peter Wyss de Araujo

Undeterred, Enzo Coloni spied an opportunity in F1 as its turbo era came to an end. But his ambition wasn’t matched by resources. The Ford-powered FC187 that was entered at two grands prix for Nicola Larini was the result of minimal manpower.

“We were two engineers designing a Formula 1 car,” Wyss de Araujo says. “That was F1 as it was in the past. I was the race engineer of that car because it was the owner, me, and an engineer that didn’t travel doing the updates. Again, you would do everything.”

The monocoque needed to be modified for 1988 to accommodate Tarquini, but the team’s work was vindicated by finishing a twice lapped eighth in Montreal after Tarquini had come through pre-qualifying to join Stefan Johansson’s Ligier on the back row. Points were only awarded down to sixth, but it was a rewarding result all the same.

“From having built the car and designed the car between two persons – and not even a new car, only a modified car from the season before – that was an achievement,” Wyss de Araujo chuckles. “We were going there with eight people and on the grid you have Ligier around the car with 35 people. To fight teams like that with a massive budget was good.”

Tarquini's eighth place finish in the 1988 Canadian Grand Prix for Coloni is one of Wyss de Araujo's favourite F1 memories

Tarquini's eighth place finish in the 1988 Canadian Grand Prix for Coloni is one of Wyss de Araujo's favourite F1 memories

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Tarquini failed to qualify on eight occasions that year, but that paled by comparison with the tally racked up by Bernd Schneider at Zakspeed in a trying 1989. That year, typically 13 cars vied for a spot in the top four that would progress to qualifying proper – when another four would miss out.

After 13 straight failures to qualify, Schneider made the cut at Suzuka after the team had tested a new Yamaha engine at a dark Sugo with Aguri Suzuki. Wyss de Araujo vividly remembers the moment Schneider surged up the leaderboard to third in pre-qualifying – before he took 21st on the grid ahead of a Benetton and both Arrows – after a spin on his first set of tyres as a highlight “that pays you for the whole year”.

“These are emotions you cannot describe,” he says. “It’s worth one year of suffering going home all the time, only for that one time. In the old days where you did this job for passion mainly, those are moments that you never forget. How I felt there, I can close my eyes and put myself back into that moment.”

Wyss de Araujo joined Leyton House in 1990 but it was a difficult start to the year with drivers Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin on occasion struggling to qualify, while the team’s impending financial doom had resulted in the appointment of a finance director intent on trimming funds. The engineer reckons he was “not mature enough to handle the situation correctly” and fell out with Adrian Newey before leaving for AGS to reunite with Tarquini from the French GP.

The situation at AGS was no less dire, however, as owner Cyril de Rouvre stopped investing. Wyss de Araujo recalls that staff went unpaid while a new owner was sought and just six team members travelled to Phoenix for the 1991 season opener to run its two JH25Bs for Tarquini and Johansson.

But while the Swede failed to qualify, Tarquini finished a remarkable eighth, capping a weekend when the skeleton crew had lacked the funds to pay a rental car deposit and relied on fast food takeaways bought by their loyal driver for sustenance, until the FIA decreed that other teams should permit them entry to their hospitalities. Wyss de Araujo picks it as his standout F1 memory because “it was so much against all the normal laws”.

But it wasn’t a sustainable situation and so he joined Lamborghini, where Forghieri ran the show. The legendary former Ferrari designer, who died in 2022, commanded respect due to his pure intelligence, but Wyss de Araujo found him “chaotic” to work with.

“He had a very fast thinking-brain, but he was also very Latin,” he says. “We had 11 engines, I think in Lamborghini, and nobody knew the specs of these engines. Nobody! You would come to a circuit and you would not even know what you had on the car.

Cash-strapped AGS team gave Wyss de Araujo (left, with Tarquini in car) plenty of headaches

Cash-strapped AGS team gave Wyss de Araujo (left, with Tarquini in car) plenty of headaches

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“That Lamborghini car was an absolute shitbox. We had no downforce, we had flexing everywhere, and an engine that had a nice sound and used a lot of fuel.”

After one more low-budget season of F1 with Fondmetal, once again with Tarquini, he joined Umberto Grano’s CiBiEmme outfit for the 1993 Italian super touring championship. The recommendation had come from Tarquini, who had also driven for CiBiEmme in 1992.

“He was responsible that I got into the BMWs,” states Wyss de Araujo. “So I went to do Super Touring cars and forgot about Formula 1.” It marked the start of a decade-long stint with CiBiEmme that would yield two Italian championships and later take in the European Super Touring Car Cup, its super production class and in the S2000-based European Touring Car Championship.

"We had official engines from Germany but we built always the chassis ourselves. We had sometimes six dampers in the car, heave dampers, pushrods. These were serious racing cars"
Peter Wyss de Araujo

In 1993 he was assigned none other than touring car legend Roberto Ravaglia, and the partnership yielded the title in Wyss de Araujo’s first season in tin-tops. He describes Ravaglia as “like the Alain Prost of touring cars” and learned a tremendous amount from the driver who had previously won European championships in 1986 and 1988, the World Touring Car Championship in 1987, the DTM in 1989 and back-to-back Italian titles in 1990-91.

Wyss de Araujo regularly sat alongside Ravaglia in tests and even experienced an accident when a tyre blew at Monza’s second Lesmo – “there’s so much stones and things coming into the cockpit [when you go in the gravel] that you understand why people should use full-face helmets!” It was from Ravaglia that he discovered the value in a softer-than-usual set-up.

“I wanted to make the cars always too stiff, and he taught me to make soft cars,” says Wyss de Araujo. “When you put a kid into a soft car, he cannot use it anywhere. You have to make them stiff cars, so they are a bit more predictable and you can be more erratic. If the car is soft, you have to be precise in your inputs.”

Working in touring cars was an enjoyable challenge for Wyss de Araujo, who initially found “they were massively behind” F1 levels of preparation without bespoke seats and data acquisition. However, he found it “very satisfying” that the team could build and develop its own chassis: “We had official engines from Germany but we built always the chassis ourselves. We had sometimes six dampers in the car, heave dampers, pushrods. These were serious racing cars, like DTM cars but only two litres.”

Several enjoyable years were spent in touring cars at the CiBiEmme team. Pictured is Morbidelli on his way to victory in the European Super Touring Cup at the Hungaroring in 2000

Several enjoyable years were spent in touring cars at the CiBiEmme team. Pictured is Morbidelli on his way to victory in the European Super Touring Cup at the Hungaroring in 2000

Photo by: Sutton Images

In 1994, the Audi 80 was the car to have as Emanuele Pirro ruled the roost, before doubling up in 1995 with the A4. Rinaldo Capello then picked up the baton when Pirro moved to the German championship for 1996, although CiBiEmme’s Emanuele Naspetti put up a strong fight and took the title down to the wire. He was left to rue a stop-go penalty for contact with Audi’s Yvan Muller in the Vallelunga finale that dropped him to third in the standings behind his team-mate Johnny Cecotto, a driver Wyss de Araujo rates as “probably within the best two or three drivers I have had”.

Naspetti made up for his disappointment in 1997 by taking the title, but the new Alfa Romeo 156 and Fabrizio Giovanardi proved an unbeatable combination over the next two years. Then followed a merger between the Italian and German championships to form European Super Touring Cup for 2000, but Giovanardi was again the man to beat as CiBiEmme’s lead driver Gianni Morbidelli finished third in the points.

After instability had dominated his time in F1, touring cars represented the first time Wyss de Araujo had been able to truly get his teeth into a team and satisfied his desire to “demonstrate that I could stick to a job for 10 years”. He reckons “I probably would have stayed there forever” had the team not lost its works support at the end of 2000.

CiBiEmme switched to the Super Production class for 2001, but Morbidelli only won once and finished fifth. The following year in the European Touring Car Championship, which had adopted the FIA’s new Super 2000 rules, was an even greater disappointment with a JAS Motorsport-built Honda Civic as Euro F3000 race winner Salvatore Tavano failed to record a point.

“Every race we had a different engine,” remembers Wyss de Araujo. “The car was good, but sometimes the engine came the night before the first free practice and you would see that the exhaust wouldn’t fit and things like that. Not easy! At the end of the season, we had it on the speed like the private Alfas, so we went from being hopeless to the right direction and then the programme stopped.”

A chance conversation at a test also attended by Coloni’s Formula 3 team prompted a return to the Italian squad and single-seaters for the 2003-04 F3000 campaigns, before Wyss de Araujo joined Campos for the new era of GP2 in 2005. He would stay until 2017.

After two barren seasons, Campos became a winner when Giorgio Pantano joined Vitaly Petrov in 2007. Lucas di Grassi joined Petrov in 2008 as Campos won the team’s championship. By this stage it had already secured investment from Alejandro Agag, who Wyss de Araujo had persuaded to take Pantano despite the experienced Italian’s lack of budget, and it would be entered under the Addax banner from 2009 to 2013 as the businessman took overall control. The team was moved from its base in Alzira, half an hour south of Valencia, to a new site close to the airport, but Wyss de Araujo confirms “the manpower was always the same” with Chris Murphy continuing as technical director.

Longest career stint came at Campos, which took a first GP2 win at Magny-Cours in 2007 with Pantano and went on to win two teams' titles

Longest career stint came at Campos, which took a first GP2 win at Magny-Cours in 2007 with Pantano and went on to win two teams' titles

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Romain Grosjean was Nico Hulkenberg’s closest championship challenger in 2009 until he graduated mid-season to F1, but Petrov still finished second as the team also finished runner-up in the teams’ standings. That result was repeated in 2010, when Sergio Perez finished second to Pastor Maldonado, then Addax took the teams’ title again in 2011 with Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde.

However, the next two years were difficult. Addax slipped to eighth in 2012 with Johnny Cecotto Jr and Josef Kral, then in 2013 went winless for the first time since 2006. Drivers Jake Rosenzweig and Rio Haryanto managed just 22 points between them as the team slid to 12th in the teams’ standings. “Then Agag went into Formula E and he gave all the material back to Adrian Campos, so we moved back in the old workshop where we had begun,” adds Wyss de Araujo.

The wins returned along with the Campos name for 2014, with Arthur Pic claiming the Hungary feature. Haryanto returned in 2015 and upstaged Pic with three victories, lifting the team from sixth to fourth, but it slipped back to sixth in 2016 despite Mitch Evans leading Sean Gelael in a 1-2 at the Red Bull Ring. The 2017 season following GP2’s rebranding as Formula 2 was disappointing, with no wins, although Campos did end the year with the tantalising line-up of Lando Norris and Alex Palou…

"I was not so good in talking to the drivers, relating to them, because I was too hard with them. But then in a certain moment, you get more mature and learn it"
Peter Wyss de Araujo

Seeking a new challenge, Wyss de Araujo bit the electric bug for 2018 and became a performance engineer with the Dragon Formula E outfit. He spent two seasons with Jay Penske’s squad, but having settled in Valencia, the requirement to move to England when COVID struck was unappealing.

Wyss de Araujo enjoyed the technical freedom, as he was “allowed to build my own dampers, to do the rear-suspension which is part of the homologation” and going into fine details on simulation work devising energy management strategies. “But at a certain moment honestly I missed a proper engine,” he adds.

Two more seasons in single-seaters with HWA (F2) and Jenzer (F3) followed, before Wyss de Araujo embarked on his latest challenge in sportscar racing for 2023. He’d worked with Team Virage founder Philippe Gautheron at Campos between 2007 and 2012, and again from 2014 to 2017, and was happy to accept an invitation to run its LMP2 car in the ELMS. The squad’s pro-am lineup of Tatiana Calderon, Ian Rodriguez and Alex Mattschull took a best finish of sixth at Spa.

“It’s a new challenge and you have three drivers, they are not the same quality or even the same height,” he says. “They will tell you different things about the car balance, so you have to find a compromise with three people. It is from the human point of view quite challenging but also quite interesting.

Wyss de Araujo, right, enjoyed his time in Formula E with Dragon but didn't want to relocate from Valencia

Wyss de Araujo, right, enjoyed his time in Formula E with Dragon but didn't want to relocate from Valencia

Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images

“It’s moving towards using more the driving simulator to teach them how to drive, a challenge which is new. Before, I had professional drivers, you didn’t have to teach them. I was not so good in talking to the drivers, relating to them, because I was too hard with them. But then in a certain moment, you get more mature and learn it.”

Although the Le Mans 24 Hours remains a box to be checked, Wyss de Araujo stresses he doesn’t have a motorsport bucket list. But he is clear that, if he did, there are plenty of things that aren’t on it. And he hasn’t excluded the possibility of one day engineering Stateside.

“In the end it all comes down to what you want; are you positive or negative?” he concludes. “If you are positive, you will always find the aspect of the difficult situation and then make the best out of this. And right now, it’s making racing drivers quicker.”

A new experience came in 2023 as Wyss de Araujo took the plunge in sportscar racing with Team Virage in the ELMS

A new experience came in 2023 as Wyss de Araujo took the plunge in sportscar racing with Team Virage in the ELMS

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

Advice for engineers from Peter Wyss de Araujo

  • Curiosity is very helpful in motorsport because you will strive to find out how things work for yourself, not only listen to what others say. There are people that say, ‘when it’s wet, the tyre pressure has to go up’ and I say, ‘because of what, tell me physically’ and it will come out, ‘in the team I was in before, the technical director told me that’s what they do’. ‘Yeah, but give me a physical explanation of what is the reason, not that your boss told you to do so’. I force people to use their brains, because you want to understand why something is like that, then you can discuss it as a group. Maybe you will come to a solution that means you do something different to how you did it for 30 years. This is one of the most valuable lessons you must learn, to think for yourself, take responsibility for decisions and be able to justify what you say with reason.
  • Use your head to make common sense decisions because there’s nothing magic, it’s only physics.
  • You don’t need to be a super-genius, but you need a lot of dedication. Passion and hard work brings you the result. If you want to become better in your job, that’s the way to do it.
  • What you study isn’t relevant. An engineering course is good but physics and mathematics are also good, it doesn’t necessarily have to be mechanical engineering.
  • Don’t be afraid, you have to jump in. 
  • Knowing your personality is important, and there are tests you can do like Red Bull’s ‘Wingfinder’. Everybody who comes to work here, I make them do this to know themselves better. I have done it on myself and it picked up some good stuff where I should improve.
Wyss de Araujo believes curiosity is an invaluable commodity for engineers

Wyss de Araujo believes curiosity is an invaluable commodity for engineers

Photo by: Jed Leicester / Motorsport Images

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