Q&A: Sam Michael on Supercars, Triple Eight and Ludo Lacroix

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 01/10/2017
  • By Stefan Bartholomaeus

Following a 21-year career in Formula 1 that included high-profile positions at Williams and McLaren, Sam Michael has become the invisible man of the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.

Almost 12 months ago, Michael took on a mentoring role with Triple Eight to help grow the team's in-house engineering talent following the departure of its former technical director Ludo Lacroix.

The part-time position has given Michael a connection to motorsport while still allowing him to focus on his software business, which he set up upon leaving F1 and returning to Australia in 2014.

Although Bathurst will mark Michael’s first appearance at a Supercars championship event this season, his input behind-the-scenes is an important part of Triple Eight’s quest for ongoing success.

In an extended chat with Supercars.com editor Stefan Bartholomaeus, Michael details his unique role with the team and describes the impact of Lacroix’s move to Shell V-Power Racing.

Michael also gives his take on the Supercars category and its technical future, including the V6 turbo engine that will be demonstrated in public for the first time at Bathurst aboard Triple Eight’s Sandman ride car.

Sam, talk us through what your involvement has been with the team through the season. You’ve kept a pretty low profile during the year.

I’m absolutely behind the scenes. My main role is mentoring their engineers and helping guide them towards what they need to do to be successful in this sport.

They know what they’re doing, but obviously with the change of staff last year Roland [Dane] was keen to have someone that’s been through the battles and wars and can say ‘these are the right areas to focus on’.

I’d say a lot of that work is around development and leadership and people skills. It’s about 60 percent that and 40 percent helping the team technically.

I’m completely non-operational which is why you don’t see me at the race track. I’ll do a couple of races, but even then, I’m not calling shots on the pit wall. The team here know how to do that.

I’m looking at how the team interacts with one another, the technical decisions they’re taking, how the pitstops are working, how the software is working and general areas where I can advise and help them improve.

Sam Michael with Triple Eight engineer Grant McPherson Sam Michael with Triple Eight engineer Grant McPherson

Whenever I do get involved I’m always of the mind of ‘how are they going to do it?’ It’s not about me being involved from an operational sense. I only do a few days a month and that’s worked out really well.

When I left Formula 1, I set up a software business focussing on applied machine learning and artificial intelligence with the University of Oxford and 90 to 95 percent of my time is invested in that.

This has allowed me to keep a small involvement in racing and I’m quite enjoying it. It’s a unique role and a unique situation.

What have your impressions been of how the team and the category itself operates? You’ve seen the highest level of the sport, but this is your first Supercars involvement.

When I left in the early 1990s I was involved in Mark Larkham’s Formula Brabham, running at the touring car events, so I knew about them but wasn’t involved as you say.

Back then they were effectively hotted-up road cars with roll cages in them.

In terms of the series, I’ve been really impressed. It’s an interesting time in the sport with a new tyre this year, a new car next year and a new engine on the horizon too. From an engineering point of view it’s a good time to be involved in Supercars.

When I came back I initially thought it was still how it used to be, I wasn’t completely aware of the Car of the Future and the layout of the cars. They’re very adjustable, technical machines under the skin.

Anything you want to do mechanically on the set-up, camber, roll-centre, geometry, springs, bars, dampers, all those things, I thought a lot of that was control, so it’s been interesting to see all that, even though I’m not directly involved in the race engineering.

In terms of Triple Eight, it’s a fantastic group of people that have won plenty of championships without me here. The technical level in the team is extremely high. I’ve been nothing but impressed since coming here.

What’s really good, and it’s because of the style of Roland and Dutto [team manager Mark Dutton] and the race engineers, they’ve kept improving things as time has gone by, whether it be the gene pool, or processes, just making sure they cover the first principles of going motor racing.

Without giving away IP (intellectual property), when you go inside the team, you can definitely see that’s there. They’re always looking to push the boundaries. Even the ideas we’ve spoken about where I’ve thought ‘this would be good for an F1 team but is maybe out of reach for these guys’ I’ve been surprised by how receptive they are to them.

Michael working with Larkham at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix Michael working with Larkham at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix

Obviously they do them in their own way. It’s not a $350 million F1 team with 650 people, it’s a tenth of the size so it’s a different world, but their efficiency and the way they go about things is really impressive.

Racing teams are normally built on pillars of strong individuals and Roland is definitely one of those. He’s the equivalent of Frank Williams or Ron Dennis. Those people are racers at heart and they attract talent.

Smart and talented people want to work for people that are passionate about what they do. It doesn’t matter if it’s Elon Musk or anyone in any industry, Supercars or the next Google or Facebook, you have these people who want to innovate and aren’t afraid of chance.

Roland has that characteristic about him and it’s why the team is so successful. It attracts high-level engineering staff. Motor racing always goes up and down, but in the long run those people will always be successful.

You slotted in when Ludo Lacroix left. There’s been a lot of talk about the difference he’s made at Penske, but does it feel like there’s anything missing at Triple Eight without him?

I don’t know Ludo, but there’s no question that he’s the best guy in the business. Look at what he’s done at Penske. He’s turned up there and single-handedly turned them into a winning force.

He’s turned up there and the team has literally gone right to the front. That’s clearly because of Ludo. There are people like that throughout history. Ludo has the Midas touch in the way that Adrian Newey has.

He (Ludo) is very intelligent and has spent a long time understanding the regulations and knows what is very sensitive on the car. His history speaks for itself so there’s no question he’s been a loss for the Red Bull team, absolutely.

I’m not here to replace Ludo, he’s a full-time operational person, which I don’t want to do now. The much more sustainable thing from Roland’s point of view is that he builds this team of engineers underneath him working as a team.

You can’t compare what Triple Eight has now to what it had. The model that Roland has now is very different, but both models work. The other model isn’t available to him because Ludo went. You can’t make another Ludo.

There’s no question he’s a loss and a massive gain for Penske, which I’m sure they’d acknowledge. All the engineers and drivers around him will all be learning from his input.

When someone arrives at a team they bring two things. One is the quick, technical ‘bang, put this damper on, run this roll-centre, do this to the camber’. But then there’s all the processes and leadership skills. There’s no question he brings both of those.

Lacroix in his role as competition director at DJR Team Penske Lacroix in his role as competition director at DJR Team Penske

Having been in F1 and now seen how a top Supercars team works, what do you think is the next area of advancement in this paddock? Is it the infiltration of the sort of high-end simulation you see in F1?

A lot of those areas like simulation are very exploited and saturated in Formula 1 because they have the budgets and teams to be able to do it. As time goes on things become much more economical to do.

There are things that Supercars teams do now that are possible because F1 has been investing in those areas, like simulation, for 30 years and eventually they become very cheap and trickle down.

Look at the data systems you’ve got on cars now. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I started in F1, you couldn’t buy that stuff. To make a tiny little pressure sensor and accelerometer you had to do full-blown sensor development inside the company. Now they cost $5.

Back then the only type of sensors you could get were massive, heavy industrial things or aero stuff, but even a plane has a lot more room than what you can run in an F1 car. Because F1 pushed that barrier, eventually it feeds down into other categories like this.

There’s a lot of things happening now in F1 that’s way ahead of what anyone else is doing, which are the next things that will trickle down. I see less of it being about hardware and more about software and simulation, like you say.

For example, when you think about the ideal car set-up, there’s a lot of decision making in F1 now that is fully automated because a human can’t always make the best decision with the amount of information they have and they can’t make the decision quick enough, either. Even if you’re Einstein, you can’t beat the machine if it’s well developed.

Those things will trickle down to Supercars, provided they don’t put things in the regulations that stop you from deploying them. Even F1 does that. If it was up to the teams, the pitstops wouldn’t involve humans, they’d be fully robotic and it’d be four or five tenths for a pitstop.

Every category has a different level of cost and idea about technology, so getting that balance is something that Supercars has to choose. But in general as that technology gets cheaper and more accessible, Supercars teams will adopt it as well.

Of course there’s simulation for training drivers and systematically assessing set-ups on the car. F1 has been doing that since the late 1990s, but it’s almost moved beyond that into the ability to model and accurately determine what’s going to happen. That’s all going to come to Supercars.

It’s coming to the whole world when you look at the future of work, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and what machine-learning is doing. There’s no way you can divorce yourself from that, even if you’re in a sport.

If anything, sport is more open to it because it’s open to measurement. One of the biggest barriers to development in AI area is people saying ‘I don’t want anyone looking into my business’. Athletes look for intrusiveness because they want to make themselves better.

Sam Michael during his time at McLaren Sam Michael during his time at McLaren

Doesn’t matter if you’re a racing car driver or a rugby player or a sprinter. They’re completely open to being intrusively measured. So those techniques filter through sport quicker than they do through the outside world.

The big technical challenge for Triple Eight and Supercars itself at the moment is the V6 turbo. What’s your read on the direction that the engine formula is going in? It’s obviously a very big deal for the category having been solely V8s for so long.

Well, right now that happens to be the right direction. As far as Supercar regulations go, you don’t have to do a V6 turbo, that just happens to be Holden’s choice. Someone else can do something else.

But that’s always going to be like that and I don’t think it’s any different to other forms of racing where someone is always pushing to go down a certain avenue, particularly in an area like Supercars where you’ve got a lot of stock or standard parts but you’ve still got manufacturer involvement.

Formula 1 is an extreme where, it’s not ‘do what you want’, because it’s still tightly regulated, but it’s nothing like Supercars in terms of control. Then you’ve got completely stock cars, like a GP2 car or anything like that, where you can’t change anything, which is meant to drive the cost down and make it a drivers’ category.

When you have choice, that choice is always going to change. A V6 turbo may not be the right thing in 10 or 20 years’ time. It’s a challenge for the category, but it’s something that’s going to remain fluid.

I have been involved in the turbo program and one thing I would say is when I went to the first test when they ran the car, it was nothing like the experience we had in Formula 1 where the noise was shocking. The loudest thing in F1 now is the bloody wheel guns, you can’t hear the cars.

They’re trying to make the cars louder but it’s fundamentally flawed because you’ve got a system that takes energy out of the exhaust. It’s fantastic way of extracting energy but it’s crap for making noise. It’s not very hard to work out why.

The sound of the Supercar we tested was actually really good. I thought it’d be terrible, but it was louder than I thought and the wastegate noise was more than I thought because it’s not absorbing exhaust energy back into an electric motor like Formula 1 does, it’s just a traditional turbo supercharger. It’s not a V8, but it’s a lot louder than a Formula 1 car.

And don’t underestimate that, because it’s very important for the category, for the fans that turn up and be excited by it. I remember the first grand prix I ever went to as a kid, in ’91 or ’92 working with Mark Larkham, I was blown away by the noise. I thought ‘this is me, I’m going to F1’. The noise has to be really impactful.

It’s been good to have some involvement in the V6 project, being involved in the meetings, going to the tests, getting involved in the communications with GM in America and just bringing my experience to the table with direction and problems and trying to guide them.

But in that space, Ken McNamara [Triple Eight engine supplier] and Ken Douglas [electronics expert and Triple Eight contractor] have a tonne of experience and are very, very good. It’s great to work with those guys and add my bit where I can.

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