Design Principles and the Value of Experimentation

I have been watching Chris Harris’ Youtube channel while on the treadmill and yesterday I caught this fantastic segment on the legendary 1987 Porsche 962 that dominated Le Mans.

There were 3 distinct parts of the video that are worth highlighting. Le Mans is a unique motorsport event, a 24 hour event that features a wide range of classes racing together on the same track and combining the technical prowess of manufacturer sponsored teams as well as the innovation of privateer teams. The race was held this weekend and Audi won in their class, again.

1) Norbert Singer, the Porsche engineer who had a strong hand in every one of Porsche’s 16 victories at Le Mans, talks about Porsche’s reliability, a hallmark of the Porsche customer racing car program (you could actually walk in and buy a 962, hand over some money and get a set of keys… imagine that, a race car with a keyed ignition!). At about 1:30 in the video Singer is talking about reliability and how everyone in the Porsche racing program oriented their worldview around Le Mans because of the demands the race presented. Running a high performance vehicle for flat out for 24 hours and crossing the finish line is no small feat, and as Singer highlights it “first you have to finish the race and then you see where you are”.

This is a great commentary on design principles and everything in life and work has attributes that can be isolated to drive this degree of clarity. Now, if the car isn’t fast, handles poorly, or any one of a thousand other factors you won’t win but if the car isn’t reliable you won’t finish, much less win.

2) The 962 had for it’s time some pretty revolutionary ground effects, which also reduced drag as well as generating downforce that contributed to the extraordinary handling of the car. Following the successful 917 program, Singer sought to create ground effects by mimicking what Formula One cars were doing at the time and dramatically increasing downforce irrespective of the consequences on drag because with 1,000 horsepower they had plenty of power they could tap into to overcome deficiencies in aerodynamics.

Through experimentation the engineers learned that controlling the airflow over AND under the car improved the downforce while at the same time improving the slipperiness of the car itself. Conventional wisdom held that the two goals were in conflict, Singer developed the science of design based on his observations of air flow and continued testing to learn the science. Testing and experimentation can always be relied upon to overcome the power of repeated anecdote.

At around 11:40 Harris asked Singer some interesting questions about the handling of the car and Singer went into some detail about how the increase of ground effects on the rear of the car, with the extended tail, has the effect of improving the force on the front axle. This is really surprising and again points to the value of experimentation because what Singer and the Porsche team were learning is how the air moving over and under the car can be shaped to deliver specific forces with outcomes that are very desirable in a race car.

3) Finally, Singer is asked about the dramatic performance gains that were created in just a few short years. As is the case with new technologies, the biggest gains come in the beginning and after the big steps are taken everything is incremental. I am struck by this because I think we, as an industry, adhere to the notion of disruption but far too often deliver incremental. Therefore, if we more finely tune our appreciation for big steps we will then seek to upend the balance with new invention rather than fine tuning the status quo… as Audi did when they introduced diesel powered cars that were not only more durable than competitors but also more fuel efficient which resulted in fewer pit stops.

I would encourage you to watch this video because the lessons that are revealed extend well beyond racing.

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