With the final pre-season test now in the books and the 2013 Formula One campaign a week away, Canada’s reigning three-time world champion is eager to defend his title.
Okay, maybe Gavin Ward never drove an F1 car to a grand prix victory, but he’s certainly played a key role in helping the Red Bull Racing outfit take the past three constructors’ titles.
In many ways, the team title which demonstrating the competitive spirit and co-operation across the entire outfit is more important to the Red Bull crew supporting drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. And make no mistake, Ward and his colleagues certainly won’t give up their claim to being the top performing F1 crew willingly.
“The pressure to defend the championship comes from our own ambitions,” said Ward who is the performance engineer for the No. 2 Red Bull car piloted by Webber.
“We care about it a lot: There is a lot to this sport – a lot more than two people – it’s a massive group effort.”
“It’s amazing how when we never had a podium all we wanted to do was finish on the podium and as soon as we had one, all we wanted to do was win a race. As soon as we won a race, we wanted a championship and as soon as you win a championship, you want to win another, and nothing else will do.”
In addition to taking the past three constructors’ titles, Vettel has also scored a trio of consecutive driver’s crowns starting in 2010.
Red Bull begins its double title defence on March 17 in Melbourne, Australia, and hopes to wrap up a fourth consecutive double championship when the 19-race F1 season ends Nov.24 in São Paulo, Brazil.
The F1 circus makes its annual stop at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal on June 9, where Ward would love to see his team finally take a win. Having many family members on hand to celebrate former Red Bull driver David Coulthard take the team’s maiden podium with a third-place finish in Montreal in 2006 remains one of Ward’s best memories in F1 so far.
On race weekends, the 28-year-old Toronto native spends most of his time making sense of the reams of data extracted from the car with the goal of finding tweaks to help his driver go faster.
“The job description is pretty broad: I am responsible for optimizing the chassis performance at all times, working closely with the other engineers,” he said.
“So it’s aero, tires, suspension, brakes, there’s a lot of data analysis and working closely with the drivers. Mark and I have a very close working relationship and we have been working together for a while now. I know him pretty well now and he’s a good guy.”
Essentially Ward's job is to ensure that Webber’s car is configured in a way that allows the driver to perform to his highest potential on each of the 19 circuits F1 visits.
Webber, a veteran of 196 grand prix starts, had nothing but praise for his Canadian engineer.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Gavin very closely over the last few years at Red Bull Racing,” said the winner of nine grands prix.
“What’s completely apparent is how gifted he is at his role in Formula One at such a young age.”
A job in F1 is dream come true for the Toronto kid who can’t remember not getting up early on Sunday mornings to watch F1 as a youngster. He tried karting but when that got too expensive, he began volunteering for a Formula Ford team at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park when it was known as the Mosport International Raceway. Conveniently, the track happened to be next to his grandmother’s house.
After high school, he moved to England to attend Oxford Brookes University, a school that has a seen many graduates end up in F1. He first tasted F1 action in 2005 as a 20-year-old intern with Red Bull Racing, which led a stint with the outfit’s testing team. Two years later, Ward stepped directly into a full-time job with the Red Bull squad upon graduation.
“It’s been amazing for me – I started working with the team in the early days of Red Bull Racing when they were a seventh place team and winning a race looked a long way off,” he said.
“Now, to see how far we’ve come from winning the first race in 2009 to the three consecutive double world championships has just been fantastic. It’s really beyond my wildest dreams; it’s better than I could have ever imagined.”
Although many on the outside see his life as charmed, the reality of travelling the world in F1 means almost constant jetlag, long hours, not lots of sleep, and often anything but glamour.
While the travel schedule is a shock to the system at first, Ward said most people adapt to the itinerant life in short order. While the physical challenges get easier over time, the psychological stresses on a race weekend can be demanding, even for seasoned veterans.
“It’s difficult to see from the outside, but a big part of it is dealing with the emotional highs and lows that racing brings around,” he said.
“You have to get yourself on a level keel to deal with that because you can put your car on pole and it will be the biggest thing ever and then the next day you can be out in the first corner. Or you can have a horrible qualifying and then the race comes to you. But we also have adrenalin for all of that.”
The downsides notwithstanding, there are also huge benefits to being in F1, especially if you’re an engineer. Easily the most technologically advanced racing series on the planet, working as an F1 engineer grants access to some of the most sophisticated equipment this side of a NASA space launch.
“When I toured around [the Red Bull Racing factory] in my job interview, I was just blown away by the level of detail,” he said.
“I still think all the time how lucky it is to have so much resource and opportunity to do interesting things and look at things in such detail where normally you wouldn’t be able to acquire the data to really try to understand stuff. You just do things on such a different level and it’s very enjoyable.”
While the Toronto kid who hoped to get to F1 one day is content to be a performance engineer for now, he has started to think about moving his career to the next level. While change may be a few years away, Webber also thinks Ward has potential to go far in F1.
“He has a very refreshing blend of competitive spirit and technical nous, which don’t always fit together,” the Australian said.
“If Gav stays motivated and hungry for the sport over the next 10 years, the sky is the limit.”
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