Among a team's array of equipment, bikes get all the glory as the machines that float riders to the tops of mountains, plummet them safely back to the valleys and rocket across the line in the final sprints. But a rather larger vehicle is also vitally important in the team's effort. The team car is the organisational HQ on the road, source of food, water and mechanical assistance and – if disaster strikes – the rider's transport to the finish.
"We see the car as ground control for the race, where all the decisions are taken."
British car manufacturer Jaguar supplies Team Sky's cars. For the last three years the team has used Jaguar's X-type estate car ('station wagon' for American and Australian readers) but that car is long out of production. In fact when Jaguar came on board with Team Sky, the team's ten X-types were “virtually the last ones off the production line,” according to Andrew Whyman, Jaguar's Chief Programme Engineer XF.
The old X-Type is about to be replaced in Jaguar's line-up and the Team Sky fleet with the new XF Sportbrake. Jaguar and Team Sky unveiled the new vehicle recently and we sat down with Team Sky's Head of Technical Operations Carsten Jeppesen and three of the Jaguar engineers behind the XF Sportbrake to uncover the collaboration between team and vehicle sponsor.
Jaguar had Team Sky's first two XF Sportbrakes at the launch. They'll be handed over to the team in June, ready for the Tour de France, with more to come in September when the car enters full production.
The launch of the XF saloon and the connection between Jaguar and Team Sky happened at about the same time. “When we started out three years ago David Brailsford and I went to Jaguar to look at the XF,” says Carsten. “We really liked the car but there wasn't space for the cool box of bidons and all the spare wheels that we needed. We simply couldn't squeeze it in.” As an interim measure, Team Sky went with the X-Type, plus XFs and XJs as VIP cars.
As the XF Sportbrake got close to launch, Jaguar and the team began to talk estate cars again.
Carsten explains that the team is looking for “a really quality reliable car, but you have to be able to set it up for the environment. Roubaix is one set up where the suspension has to be as high as possible. We have a steel plate under the [X-Type] to protect the sump. There are cars dying on that race.”
The new car's self-levelling air-sprung rear suspension will help in that department, says Andy Whyman, as well as having other advantages. “We have been talking about how we optimise the air suspension so that when you're following the Tour up the mountains the car behaves the way these guys need it to behave. For Team Sky we will find a way for these guys to adjust the ride height themselves.”
The new Team Sky cars will be customised and tuned for their role in race operations. “We see the car as ground control for the race, where all the decisions are taken,” says Carsten. “The sport directors have a radio system to talk to the riders, they have another to talk to the staff at the feed zones and a third one, a closed-channel to listen to the commissaires. They have a TV system as well. It's key that they can stay informed about what's going on so they can direct the riders.
“We've also talked about GPS and altitude. You like to know exactly where you're at on the map. They want to know wind direction, is it supposed to change, is there bad weather coming in, where is it? We are buying into weather forecasts that are more precise than what you see on your laptop.”
All of this has to be integrated into the cars, but Jaguar's engineers see working with Team Sky as a challenge, not a chore. Paul Alcock, the project manager for the XF Sportbrake, says: “It's been a commercial partnership so far but now it's more of a technical partnership. We were just talking about tyre development – there's a lot of concentration on rolling resistance, but what about grip? Grip inspires confidence coming downhill and that's very, very important to the team.”
Whyman, Alcock and XF product manager Neil Hughes are visibly enthusiastic about working with Team Sky, and not just because of what they give the team.
“It's great for the engineering team because the specific work for the usage that Carsten and his team need is only going to help us, says Paul Alcock. “These guys are going to advance our testing cycle. For us to do the mileage they do (80-100,000km per year) through a third-party like MIRA or our own engineers, there's a lot of cost.”
The Tour de France will be the first big test for Team Sky's brace of XF Sportbrakes. “We'll get direct feedback during the Tour,” says Paul. “We'll have a technician keeping the car going, every morning, every night, and as we get [information] back, we've got time to build on it for the next cars that come through and to take that through to the production spec for the 2013 car.”
This is a real partnership; Jaguar has already had an engineer on the ground with the team, at Paris-Nice. “He's already got some great input by immersing himself in the team,” says Neil Hughes. “Carsten said 'you need to come and see it' because there are details we'll spot that the team might not tell us because they are focused on doing their job. It might be sunny, it might be a tarmac surface. You get tunnel vision in anything you do and this is about us stepping out of each other's tunnels.”
Carsten chips in with a great real-world example. “They were surprised that we cared about the horn, saying 'you're hardly allowed to use it'. But for us it's really important for security. We're racing on open roads with all the kids and so on at the side of the road. We're looking for it to be loud and to have a certain sound that's nice because you hear it all the time.”
Someone says “Dukes of Hazzard”. Laughter. It's unlikely we'll hear Dixie chimes from Team Sky Jaguars.
“The car is a tool for the sport directors,” says Carsten. “If we can give them a competitive advantage – as we think we are with this fantastic new car – then they have a better working environment, they will be fresher at the end. Think about sitting there in the sun, the heat, all types of weather for six or seven hours, they have to be really fresh to take fast decisions at the end of the race. The better environment you are in, the better a job you can do.”
As Carsten mentions the heat something remarkable happens. Paul Alcock and Neil Hughes go into a little huddle and start discussing refinements to the cars. Team Sky car development is going on right there in a Surrey hotel bar.
“We're looking at 0.1 percent of improvement, of doing something specific for Team Sky which may or may not feed back into our development,” says Neil. “For China at the moment we have a rear seat comfort package. They are more about the rear seat environment, they have a lot of chauffeured use. As much as we are talking about the race director in the front, there will be technicians in the back and they have to be comfortable.”
Not too comfortable though. Carsten responds, “We don't want them falling asleep please!”
But it's obvious Carsten is pleased with the collaboration between Jaguar and Team Sky. “Team Sky has a reputation among our cycling industry partners that we are always pushing them to the limit, but I think these guys are more used to that,” he says.
Andy Whyman sums it up. “If you're going to be world class or world beating, it's the attention to detail [that counts]. If you're a micron faster or slicker than your competitors then you're going to have an advantage. That attention to detail makes Team Sky so successful and to engineer a phenomenally successful product like XF you've got to have that same attention to detail, so the kind of demands we're already getting from Team Sky are the sort of demands we'd want to make of ourselves anyway. If we need to change this by 2 percent or 1 percent or 3 millimetres then we'll change it.”
It's not just Carsten and the engineers who are excited about getting the new wheels on the road. Later in the afternoon we talk to team rider Juan Antonio Flecha, who appreciates the value of a great support vehicle too. “We use it as transport sometimes so it's good to have a safe performance car,” he says.
For Flecha, the advanced suspension design has other advantages, like making it easier for the car to keep up with a rider speeding down an Alpine pass. “The air suspension [means] it doesn't matter how much you load the car it stays at the same level so you have more grip and it's safer coming down the mountain.”
Flecha is looking forward to seeing the new car's distinctive front coming into view when he has a problem. “It'll be easy to spot with the new lights that will make it easy to tell it's your car, he says. “Sometimes if you need assistance and the car is far behind it's really important to have a safe performance car that allows the [support] guys to get up to the riders as quickly as possible.”
Want to find out more about the XF Sportbrake? Take a look here.