How to be an ace engineer: DAMS technical director Remi Decorzent

From designing a mountain bike to engineering for Sauber and Toyota in Formula 1, Remi Decorzent has enjoyed a fascinating career to date. Now a decade into his time at French junior series stalwart DAMS, he shares his top tips for budding engineers

How to be an ace engineer: DAMS technical director Remi Decorzent

Given the ubiquity of Dallara chassis in junior single-seater categories, very small differences in set-up philosophy can make all the difference between a driver finding themselves in midfield obscurity and fighting at the front. Stalwart Formula 2 squad DAMS has a glittering record in the junior categories since its foundation in 1989, and technical director Remi Decorzent has been central to its most recent successes in the GP2/F2 era, with six titles over the past 12 years.

The experienced French engineer’s two spells in junior formula bookend a decade spent in F1 with Sauber and Toyota, but he’s also sampled life on the Indycar circuit, worked on sportscars and even designed his own downhill world championship-winning mountain bike.

Decorzent explains that every decision he made in the early years of his career was targeted towards reaching Formula 1. 

“I always found I am really stressed and let’s say a bit shy, but I always want to face the hardest [challenge],” he says. “This is a bit how I am, I think. I’ve always been humble, I don’t want to be facing the spotlight. I think it’s my nature that I’m always doubting a bit.”

Having gained his education at ENISE (Ecole nationale d'Ingenieurs de Saint-Etienne) in mechanical engineering, he discovered the ins-and-outs of car engineering by reading books in English, including Carroll Smith’s Tune to Win.

“I learned motorsport by myself,” he says. “I discovered everything little by little.”

His first job was for Daniel Gache Racing in 1989, working as a mechanic for rookie French Formula 3 driver Laurent Aiello – who would go on to become one of the world’s top tin-top drivers at the turn of the millennium.

Decorzent worked with three of the French Formula 3 drivers pictured at Macau in 1990 - Jerome Policand (middle), Eric Helary (second-right) and Laurent Aiello (right) are joined by Olivier Panis and Olivier Beretta

Decorzent worked with three of the French Formula 3 drivers pictured at Macau in 1990 - Jerome Policand (middle), Eric Helary (second-right) and Laurent Aiello (right) are joined by Olivier Panis and Olivier Beretta

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“I was doing also the run sheet and running the driver and all that,” he says. “[Aiello] was quite fast, he was for me a French driver a bit special, a bit like [Christophe] Bouchut for me, very talented.”

But after only six months, Gache asked Decorzent to help his son Philippe at the Apomatox Formula 3000 team, where he worked under English engineer Alan Langridge. Decorzent’s first podium came with Didier Artzet at Birmingham the following year, but the team was short on funds relative to the top squads.

“It was difficult to compete,” he says, “so I decided to go to Danielson.”

Originally an engine specialist with extensive machining and design facilities, Joseph Le Bris’s operation had also built up a successful race arm. Decorzent enjoyed considerable freedom working across multiple projects, alongside running Eric Helary to the Peugeot Spider title in 1992. To LeBris, Decorzent “was like a son” and encouraged to learn.

"[Joseph] LeBris always said, ‘You will see Remi, you will always reference to us because I give you the time to learn’. And this is something that I nearly never found anywhere else" Remi Decorzent

“He never stopped anyone in their will to do better,” says Decorzent, who developed his own lap time simulation programme, aeromap and monoshock suspension for the Martini-built Spider, and even worked on a “very high-level, very expensive” mountain bike together with damper specialist BOS that Nicolas Vouilloz rode to downhill world championship success.

“For me, [Danielson] was a very good school,” he continues. “In the summer, when there was no racing, I was doing suspension design for Peugeot, I was doing my lap time simulation, I was doing other things and more engineering. It was for me fantastic.

“LeBris always said, ‘You will see Remi, you will always reference to us because I give you the time to learn’. And this is something that I nearly never found anywhere else.”

It was while at Danielson that Decorzent first encountered Jacky Eeckelaert – “a very important person, he taught me a lot, like a step-brother”. Eeckelaert ran Bouchut in Danielson’s F3000 team in 1995, the 1993 Le Mans winner taking a strong second at Spa, while Decorzent looked after Jerome Policand – now a top Mercedes GT team boss with AKKA ASP.

Decorzent had high hopes of Kristensen (green nose, #30) in 1996, but Shannon's non-payment spelled trouble for Danielson

Decorzent had high hopes of Kristensen (green nose, #30) in 1996, but Shannon's non-payment spelled trouble for Danielson

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Danielson’s switch from Reynard to the unpopular Lola in 1995 gave it a head-start on the rest when F3000 became a Lola one-make category for 1996. With Tom Kristensen signed as its lead driver, Danielson was set to take a leap into the big time and Kristensen took pole at Pau – but when backers Shannon failed to pay its invoices, the team came to a shuddering halt. Decorzent found himself unemployed, though continued to work with Kristensen on a freelance basis whenever Edenbridge boss Peter Briggs could afford to run the future Le Mans ace. He then saw out the 1996 season at Auto Sport Promotion with Thomas Biagi.

He had made an impression on Lola’s Ben Bowlby and joined the Cambridge company in 1997 to work as an IndyCar support engineer with customer teams Tasman and Della Penna.

“But Lola was not strong, we were having a lot less downforce than the manual [said it would have] and then Reynard,” recalls Decorzent. “Little by little, I think they understood there was a big mistake, so there was nearly no chance.

“It was a bit difficult, being more commercial [than race engineering]. Everybody shouted at me because I was the representative of a car that was not working. But you need to be always putting the points in a positive way, because the teams were complaining all the time.”

Feeling that Lola “was not high-level enough for me learning”, combined with the company’s perilous finances resulting from its ill-fated F1 dalliance, Decorzent sought an opportunity that could put him back on the path to F1. He returned to F3000 with McLaren’s newly-established junior arm for 1998, working under former Williams man David Brown.

Together with Nick Heidfeld, they narrowly lost out on the championship to Super Nova’s Juan Pablo Montoya after a fuel irregularity denied the German pole at the Nurburgring finale, but the near-miss didn’t dampen Decorzent’s enjoyment.

“For me this was also a sort of dream, to speak English better, to be integrated in a good team, to have Gordon Murray that can come to speak to us - it was incredible,” he says.

McLaren’s process-driven methodology, which initially came as a shock, also influenced Decorzent in other ways: “It’s this philosophy of why you are fast, why you are in front that I try to put in place in DAMS,” he says. “In my life, without the English teams, I will never be what I am, this is clear for me.”

Decorzent's charge Heidfeld came close to the 1998 F3000 title. His McLaren spell provided crucial learnings for later on in his career

Decorzent's charge Heidfeld came close to the 1998 F3000 title. His McLaren spell provided crucial learnings for later on in his career

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Having been inspired by working up close with F1 engineers on McLaren’s seven-poster rig on the 1998 title-winning MP4/13 – “For me, the greatest car ever, it was so fast [in testing] that they had to put 80 kilos straight away” – he joined the Sauber F1 team for 1999 as a performance engineer.

Initially working on the test team, he soon won over compatriot Jean Alesi – “He knew me from his very close friend Philippe Gache, so they listened to me” – and was incorporated in the race team set-up. Then, when Pedro Diniz’s race engineer Steve Clark fell out of favour with Peter Sauber, technical boss Willi Rampf chose Decorzent as his replacement: “He said, ‘We have a very good return from your work Remi, we have a problem and we need to find a name, do you accept?’ So I say, ‘Of course, it’s what I want to do, nothing can stop me’.

“But it was very difficult, especially going with Pedro Diniz who didn’t want me. He wanted to keep his engineer.”

"I was throwing up after every qualifying in all my F1 [race engineer] career, nearly. It was extremely high stress because I consider the result is [down to] myself" Remi Decorzent

Their first race together was at Spa, but life as an F1 race engineer didn’t get off to a good start when Diniz’s wishbone cracked at Eau Rouge – which Decorzent attributes to the effect of the exhausts blowing at 800 degrees directly onto the suspension, which sustains high vertical and lateral loading at that corner – and when the Brazilian’s rollhoop broke in a frightening roll at the Nurburgring.

Switched to run Mika Salo in 2000, the pair took the team’s only points finishes and twice finished fifth. Decorzent was impressed by the ex-Ferrari driver and credits him with helping to gain confidence.

“He was a bit like Tom Kristensen - he always said, ‘Remi don’t worry!’” Decorzent chuckles.

That year he was reunited with Eeckelaert, who arrived at Sauber in 2000 as chief test engineer before taking on prodigious rookie Kimi Raikkonen for 2001, when Heidfeld also joined the team from Prost and was assigned to Decorzent. With Sergio Rinland’s excellent twin-keel C20, Sauber duly enjoyed its best-ever season, taking fourth in the constructors’ standings as Heidfeld gave Decorzent his sole F1 podium in Brazil.

Heidfeld gave Decorzent a first F1 podium at Interlagos in 2001, but he was overlooked for McLaren promotion as Raikkonen got the nod

Heidfeld gave Decorzent a first F1 podium at Interlagos in 2001, but he was overlooked for McLaren promotion as Raikkonen got the nod

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Despite his lengthy relationship with McLaren however, he was overlooked to replace Mika Hakkinen at McLaren in favour of his Finnish team-mate, and stayed with Decorzent for the next two years.

PLUS: How Raikkonen's rapid rise stalled his team-mate's F1 career climb 

“Nick was the same number of times as fast as Kimi,” he says. “For me it was very equal in the team, it was very good and I think it worked very well. It’s true that Kimi on a very high-speed track was probably a bit faster than Nick. But he was still very good technically, working very hard with his engineers.”

Decorzent found race engineering in F1 especially stressful, and today advises younger engineers to try not to get overwhelmed.

“I was throwing up after every qualifying in all my F1 [race engineer] career, nearly,” he says. “I have to go to the toilet to throw up because I was having a huge headache. It was extremely high stress because I consider the result is [down to] myself.”

He also wrestled with what he considered Sauber’s inability to win, given its aero deficiency relative to numbers he’d seen at McLaren, and so elected to join the ambitious Toyota team for 2004.

“Jacky [Eeckelaert] says to me, ‘At least you will have the money to be world champion,’” says Decorzent. “But I think some teams had better drivers than us.”

He first ran Cristiano da Matta – “Not slow, maybe not enough preparation” – before being switched to Olivier Panis at the Frenchman’s request. Decorzent believes the team would have been better focusing on building the foundations, recalling technical director Mike Gascoyne’s analogy: “‘We want to build an Airbus, but at the moment, we have only the garage, we don’t have the plane’”.

“It was not stable enough,” reflects Decorzent. “The bosses should have said, ‘No, we keep what we have and we carry on building’.”

Decorzent was switched from Da Matta to Panis in 2004 with Toyota, before being shuffled onto the test team lineup at Ralf Schumacher's behest

Decorzent was switched from Da Matta to Panis in 2004 with Toyota, before being shuffled onto the test team lineup at Ralf Schumacher's behest

Photo by: Motorsport Images

That was underlined by the team changing its entire driver line-up for 2005 – having done the same for 2003 when Allan McNish and Salo were both axed – and brought in Ralf Schumacher to partner ex-Renault man Jarno Trulli.

PLUS: The single F1 season of a British sportscar great 

But Decorzent’s relationship with Schumacher never got going and to appease the team’s expensive new signing, team principal John Howett shuffled him into the test team to work with veteran Panis. Decorzent recalls this as “a very hard period of my life”.

“It was for me like being removed from my dream. My dream is to race,” he says.

The team’s potential arguably remained untapped when Toyota pulled out at the end of 2009, still having never won a grand prix.

"F2 is giving a good balance. With my knowledge, I try to form the young driver and the young engineer to go forward – and I try to keep them" Remi Decorzent

“We have done some mistakes because the team was too young to be fast,” he says. “But the car was starting to be very good, we started to have a good level of engineering, the windtunnel tools we were having were still used since some years [by McLaren], they were very high-level.”

Having not been informed in advance of the decision by Toyota boss Pascal Vasselon, Decorzent decided to leave. Unable to find another position in F1 – he acknowledges “I was also scared to ask and to take my phone to call, I was only doing letters” – he had a brief stint with the BOS damper company before being hired by former Toyota colleague Loic David to join DAMS, initially on a race-by-race deal before becoming technical director.

He likens what he discovered to an “empty box” ripe for rebuilding, together with promising young engineer Yannick Hubert and former Oak Racing boss Francois Sicard, who arrived in 2012 to replace David as general manager.

After a rough start to life in GP2 in 2010, with a qualifying miscalculation thwarting Romain Grosjean at Hockenheim, he gained “little-by-little” the confidence of team owner Jean-Paul Driot by helping the driver Grosjean had initially replaced – Jerome d’Ambrosio – to find a run of form in the latter part of the year. Paired with Grosjean for 2011, he oversaw the Frenchman’s successful title tilt.

Toyota spell ended abruptly when the team quit F1, and he joined DAMS in GP2

Toyota spell ended abruptly when the team quit F1, and he joined DAMS in GP2

Photo by: Motorsport Images

That Grosjean scored all of the team’s 89 points, while team-mate Pal Varhaug drew a blank, led many to contend that its success was down more to the driver than the team. But “being champion with [Davide] Valsecchi the next year changed the mind of everybody,” smiles Decorzent.

PLUS: Ranking the 10 best DAMS drivers

Then followed a third title in four years in 2014 with Jolyon Palmer, a “very mature, very nice guy”. Pierre Gasly (2015), Oliver Rowland (2017) and Alex Albon (2018) also impressed in their time at DAMS without winning a title – Decorzent puts them on a par with Grosjean as the best drivers he’s encountered at DAMS, though concedes his “very hard” stance towards AlphaTauri F1 driver Gasly did “destroy a bit his mentality”.

In parallel with the F2 team, Decorzent ran Nico Prost in the newly-created Renault e.dams Formula E squad in the championship’s first two years. After turning down an offer to join F2 rival ART to run Stoffel Vandoorne in 2015 – “for me it was like a treason” – he did briefly leave DAMS to join DS for the start of its FE partnership with Virgin in 2016.

But by 2017, he was back in the DAMS fold, having found the environment at DS “a bit too political”, the turnaround time for ideas to be realised a question of months rather than weeks.

“They say, ‘don’t worry, we will do that next year, we will do that in six months’,” he says. “At DAMS, we do that next week, next day. This is what I like.

“But Formula E honestly, it’s too much about energy, I missed F2. I try to develop the tyres side a lot in DAMS, so we can simulate – as the aero was so important, now for me the tyre is the new thing to do more”.

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With fourth-year DAMS man Nicholas Latifi joined by Sergio Sette-Camara – now in Formula E with Rowland and fellow DAMS alumni Dan Ticktum – DAMS won the teams’ title in 2019, although wins have been less frequent in the past two seasons, scoring just two sprint race wins with Ticktum and Marcus Armstrong. The team was sold last month, passing from the sons of the late Driot into the hands of ex-F1 driver Charles Pic, a prospect that enthuses Decorzent greatly.

Decorzent congratulates Albon after taking pole in Spain in 2018

Decorzent congratulates Albon after taking pole in Spain in 2018

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

For the foreseeable future, he is happy to stay in F2, where Decorzent says he’s still learning “all the time” – albeit just not at the same rate as F1, which he deems “too elitist and too egoistical” for his taste today.

“F2 is giving a good balance,” he says. “With my knowledge, I try to form the young driver and the young engineer to go forward – and I try to keep them. To build a team that is not an empty box, you need to have always the same people or to build a reserve of people that are coming from school to a level in engineering.

“That’s why I stay in DAMS.”

Decorzent is happy to remain in F2, where he has helped three drivers including Palmer to win titles with DAMS

Decorzent is happy to remain in F2, where he has helped three drivers including Palmer to win titles with DAMS

Photo by: Malcolm Griffiths / Motorsport Images

Advice for engineers from Remi Decorzent

  • It’s very important to be curious, to go to the end of things. We so often meet young engineers that don’t know basic stuff because they have not been curious enough. The very strong ones have not only the scientific knowledge, they know what the driver wants, what the driver feels, what will be the impact, because they have been more curious than the others. Some, they will carry on designing the rear geometry while their problem is the front tyre heat-up, so they will never go far. We select these very curious ones and we try to keep them and give them a future.
  • When you hit a problem, try to have an approach that could be different than the others. If someone is coming and saying to me, ‘We need this measurement on the car because like this we can see better how the tyre works’, I say: ‘This one has got thinking processes very different than everybody, he is the one I want’. The one that will come with a new method, a new approach will be employed directly by three top teams immediately. But respect what others have done too!
  • Nobody in motorsport took the time to teach me anything, maybe except Jacky Eeckelaert a bit later. But it’s a lot in books. I think the young guys because everything goes so fast, they forget to look at books.
  • It is very important to have a goal, because if not you will look only to the money, to a better salary, better company. My goal was to go to the highest, most difficult, most competitive level in F1 and now I have done this engineering level, nobody can remove it from me. If you need to go to the highest level, you can always come down again.
Decorzent, pictured with da Matta in 2004, says it's important to have clear goals in mind

Decorzent, pictured with da Matta in 2004, says it's important to have clear goals in mind

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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