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How to be an ace engineer: Single-seater guru James Goodfield

Moving abroad to work in the DTM set James Goodfield on a path that has traversed several disciplines, learning key lessons along the way that he now imparts to students

How to be an ace engineer: Single-seater guru James Goodfield

From winning the Safari Rally to working in a Formula 1 team’s R&D department, and race engineering across the DTM and a host of single-seater categories, James Goodfield has packed a lot into the past 25 years of his motorsport career.

A graduate of Cardiff University in 1997, Goodfield joined M-Sport by default as it was the only company that replied when he wrote to “every employer I could think of”. He enjoyed four productive years with the Ford World Rally Championship squad and played a key role in developing the new-for-1999 Focus – a Safari winner on only its third ever rally – under a technical group led by current Haas F1 boss Gunther Steiner.

“We designed the car, developed the car, homologated the car and ran the car,” says Goodfield, who ran 2003 world champion Petter Solberg on his first appearance as a Ford works driver on Rally Sweden in 1999. “That was the ultimate, it encompassed everything.”

Goodfield admits he would likely have “stayed forever” had it not been his first job. Feeling he needed to “make a break”, he joined the Ford-owned Jaguar F1 team, but insists his arrival there in 2002 was “independent and coincidental” of Steiner’s own switch a few months prior.

“I can’t stress how good a manager he is,” says Goodfield of Steiner. “He’s fantastic as a people person, getting the best out of people is very much his thing.”

Goodfield accepted he’d have to earn his dues in a factory role – “there was no way I could go into F1 in a trackside role because I didn’t have the experience” – but soon discovered that going from the thick of the action in a WRC service park to a backroom F1 job wasn’t everything he thought it would be.

“It was disappointing,” he says. “It wasn’t for me and I’ve never thought about going back to F1 since.”

The early days of Goodfield's career were intertwined with Steiner, although not always deliberately

The early days of Goodfield's career were intertwined with Steiner, although not always deliberately

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It was Steiner, who lasted a mere 12 months at Jaguar before leaving to head up Opel’s DTM team, that Goodfield called when Jaguar was experiencing a round of cuts, one of many before its eventual sale to Red Bull in late 2004.

“When it came my turn, the first person I called was him and he said, ‘We need a race engineer for next year, so drive down to Germany!’” recalls Goodfield. “It was entirely down to my relationship with him that I went down there.”

For his first trackside engineering role, Goodfield was entrusted with sorting the new Opel Vectra, a car that he believes “deserved to be more successful than it was” and was “not far away from the Mercedes of that era” based on his experience of running Susie Wolff (then Stoddart) in a two-year-old car in 2006.

"Had it gone on longer, I think it would have been much more successful. There was no question we had a good driver line-up so it wasn’t that the car couldn’t do it or that the team couldn’t do it" James Goodfield

“It was actually a very good car, a very well put-together car and very well-thought out,” he says of the Vectra. “In terms of its mechanical adjustability and its ability to move its weight distribution, everything about the car was pretty good. There weren’t any areas other than perhaps aerodynamics that it was really lacking in. The main thing we struggled with was getting the tyres working, particularly on the front axle.”

PLUS: The last-chance saloon of Germany's forgotten tin-top champions 

Searching for more front-end grip only conspired to create more problems, however.

“Once you start hunting for downforce, you start trying to run the front very low and then it becomes quite pitch-sensitive,” explains Goodfield. But Wolff’s understeer troubles in 2006 suggested “perhaps with the Opel we weren’t as far away at the time as we thought we were”.

“The car itself definitely wasn’t as bad as the results indicated,” he says. “One thing I suppose that stands out looking back was we had a few really experienced guys, but also quite a handful of people like myself who were pretty inexperienced. I think, had it continued longer-term, we’d have been in a really strong position with that group.”

Goodfield forged a good relationship with Scheider, who finished as the best Opel driver in the Vectra's first year in 2004

Goodfield forged a good relationship with Scheider, who finished as the best Opel driver in the Vectra's first year in 2004

Photo by: Motorsport Images

That was out of Steiner’s hands though – at the end of 2004, the decision was taken that Opel would withdraw at the end of the following year, with the 2005 programme scaled back from six cars to four. Steiner returned to Milton Keynes at the renamed Red Bull squad, while Goodfield stayed on in Russelsheim. Another contemporary was Jody Egginton, now the technical director at AlphaTauri.

“That meant a few people were lost along the way,” he surmises. “I suppose, had it gone on longer, I think it would have been much more successful. There was no question we had a good driver line-up so it wasn’t that the car couldn’t do it or that the team couldn’t do it.”

Goodfield ran Timo Scheider to eighth in the standings and top Opel in 2004, and then Heinz-Harald Frentzen who took the marque’s only podiums of a disappointing 2005. He views his time in Germany, concluded by two years with Wolff, as pivotal in his career.

“It wasn’t easy for me, I didn’t speak German and I’d never lived abroad before,” he says. “But I’m here doing what I’m doing now because I took that opportunity.”

It also led to a spell in the A1GP one-make single-seater series for cars running under national flags, initially as data engineer working with former Williams and McLaren F1 man James Robinson for South Africa before switching to Great Britain for 2006-07 and serving as race engineer thereafter.

“I learned more in two seasons with James than at any other point in my career,” says Goodfield, a tutor at Monza’s Motorsport Technical School since 2014. “My skillset in the DTM evolved hugely just from being the data engineer under James. That’s the point where you think, ‘How have I managed to get away with this for the last couple of years?’”

Despite breaking his leg in a freak pit incident at Eastern Creek in 2008 – an airline hose from the neighbouring Team Portugal pitbox “came undone and the sheer force of the air coming out of the line turned it into some kind of self-propelled missile that whizzed its way down the pitlane, around the entrance to our garage and embedded itself inside my leg” – Goodfield recalls his time in the series fondly, winning races with Robbie Kerr and Oliver Jarvis.

Time spent working under Robinson in A1GP helped expand Goodfield's horizons

Time spent working under Robinson in A1GP helped expand Goodfield's horizons

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Running a car with team gear with Great Britain written across your back was pretty special,” he says. “I had a lot of fun doing that and it meant a lot to win a race and hear the British national anthem. It was nice to be running our own team car rather than running one for another country.

“If you look at any [single-make] championship like that now, the teams all have so many engineering tools and software and sims and all the rest of it that the level is very high. But, back then, we didn’t have all of that and we were sort of developing that.

“Although we couldn’t change the car, we could develop all the stuff around it that gave us any sort of advantage. So I think a combination of a decent driver, good engineering, good trackside engineering and then a decent toolset that we were developing were probably the three main ingredients. The day they signed the Ferrari agreement [for the 2008-09 season that proved the championship’s swansong] was a very sad day really.

"Getting your ‘big break’ isn’t about luck. Opportunities come along all the time to people and, when they do arise, you’ve got to embrace it" James Goodfield

“We actually lost our car - we’d built our car and then missed the first round because they gave it to another team. Those were interesting times...”

A1GP’s demise after a single season of the ‘Powered by Ferrari’ concept came as the new FIA Formula 2 series began in 2009, following the centrally-run model of Formula Palmer Audi (also run by Jonathan Palmer’s MSV organisation) that is now utilised by W Series.

As chief engineer, Goodfield was tasked with ensuring parity between all cars in the Williams-built fleet, managing the race engineers (each running three cars), and overseeing car maintenance between events. He says F2’s low cost, mandated by the FIA, was a bigger factor in its poor uptake following a promising debut – Red Bull fielding Robert Wickens, Mikhail Aleshin and Mirko Bortolotti – than its unique model.

“It didn’t curry favour probably because it was just seen as too cheap,” he says. “People judge a product not by what it does and how it looks, but on cost. People don’t go out and buy a Skoda when they can afford to buy an Audi, even though they’re coming off pretty much the same product line.

Ensuring parity was a key part of the job during Goodfield's F2 days, but the series lacked interest from top-billed drivers

Ensuring parity was a key part of the job during Goodfield's F2 days, but the series lacked interest from top-billed drivers

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Had we run it centrally but been charging twice what we charged, it still would have been good value-for-money, but the problem was the FIA had set a budget for the cars. It was a good car for the money and by the end we had effectively the F1-style DRS push-to-pass, albeit on an overboost, but I think the biggest problem was we weren’t attracting the best drivers. Without getting the top-line drivers, you’ve always got a limited shelf-life.”

Goodfield’s relationship with the Palmer family continued after F2’s 2012 last hurrah, and he classes Jolyon Palmer’s GP2 victory in Hungary in 2013 with Carlin as the highlight of recent years spent mostly at F2/F3 level, although he’ll be part of Risi Competizione’s LMP2 set-up at Le Mans this week – reuniting with Jarvis.

It will be only his second 24-hour race, but it can be no more gruelling than rallying in Kenya…

Advice for engineers from James Goodfield

Don’t try and run before you can walk; keep it simple. Often you can get results just by getting the basics right and not trying to be a hero. That for me has always been a bit of an underlying rule. Don’t try to overengineer things.

Getting your ‘big break’ isn’t about luck. Opportunities come along all the time to people and, when they do arise, you’ve got to embrace it. It may not always be easy, so be prepared to soak up some hardship and hope that the reward comes later.

Goodfield will again link up with Jarvis at Le Mans, having worked together in the A1GP days

Goodfield will again link up with Jarvis at Le Mans, having worked together in the A1GP days

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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