For most people, a Formula One off-season is just that, a chance to wind down from the pressures of racing but, even though the teams close their doors to the outside world, there is still a lot going on as they focus on next season.

The 2003 season may only have concluded last weekend but, even as the cars raced at Suzuka and Ferrari partied into the night, thoughts at Enstone were fixed firmly on the future.

Next year's R24 has been in the wind-tunnel for many weeks, as the aerodynamicists hone its wind-cheating form, and the engine team at Viry-Ch?tillon is equally hard at work on the forthcoming RS24. The factories are humming with activity as deadlines come and go, the drawing office churns out plans and the machine shops work day and night to produce new parts. Typically, F1 closes its doors to the outside world during the off-season but, behind them, the task of producing the 3000 parts that compose a new car begins.

The technical structure set up at Enstone two years ago is now bearing fruit, and the advantages of the 'twin-shift' system means that every Renault chassis is the product of at least twelve months' work.

The idea behind the system is simple. A as 'team A' develops the chassis of the current year, 'team B' is hard at work on the next year's chassis. This second group then develops the car throughout its life, while 'team A' begins work on the successor.

Tim Densham supervised the design and development of the R23 and, during this time, Mark Smith was co-ordinating work for 2004. In fact, Smith has been working on R24 since 2002. Now, in the coming weeks, Densham will turn his thoughts to 2005.

"We both attend the same technical meetings," Smith explains, "We are both kept informed of the technical direction the design office is taking on each project, and how these projects are evolving. These meetings take two hours a week, and allow us to ensure coherence between the two programmes."

The design of the 2004 car began after Indianapolis. 2002 - some 13 months ago.

"During this period, we kicked off two innovative programmes with a view to next year's championship," Smith continues, "The first of these concerns the transmission, and the second incorporates a new philosophy of suspension design."

The organisation at Enstone afforded the team a hitherto unimaginable luxury.

"The amount of time at our disposal meant that, not only could we design some brand new components, but even produce and test them in full scale. That is the kind of thing you could only dream about five years ago, and it has given us the opportunity to push our ideas to the limit, to study each one and to ensure they work properly and reliably."

Starting afresh is often a hindrance to performance. In F1, the key to success is continuity. The R23 has proved both reliable and competitive, with the Renault team scoring points in 15 of the 16 races this season - and the R24 will be an evolution of this car.

"Today's technology allows us to set very precise targets in terms of how much progress we want to achieve in a given area, and how to do that in sufficient time," Smith reveals, "The design office is hard at work. We have been running a model of next year's car in the windtunnel for some time, and the figures show we are on the right track."

It is not only the new car that is underway, however, as, over in France, Renault's engine designers are well into the design and build programme for the new RS24 engine, which will bring the team into line with its rivals in having a 'conventional' V10, rather than the wide-angle model that possibly held it back in 2002-03.

"Reliability will be our number-one priority for next season," explains L?on Taillieu, project director for the RS24, "The reason behind our choice of this new architecture is that it will be less technically risky than its predecessor. We began working in March 2003, and the project spec focuses not only on the vital 700km reliability target, but also packaging, weight and power. The latter should come quite quickly."

The next engine to be born at Viry-Ch?tillon will use a narrower V-angle than its predecessor.

"The decision was taken well before the outside world knew about it," Smith explains, "We have been able to work closely with out colleagues in France from the very beginning of the project, and we won't suffer at all in terms of packaging or stiffness. We have had enough time to give the car characteristics that are at least as good as the 2003 car in these areas."

A mock-up of the 2004 engine arrived in Enstone a few weeks ago. The chassis designers were thus able to fine-tune the cooling demands of the engine, and take note of the mounting points.

"In addition, we have worked to ensure this engine can use an identical air intake to last year's, in spite of the fact it is taller," reveals Taillieu, "One of our aims was to not disrupt the aerodynamic efficiency of the new car."

Despite it now being the off-season, however, deadlines are coming thick and fast at Viry-Ch?tillon.

"We tested the new cylinder head on an electrical dyno three weeks ago," confirms Taillieu, "This technology allows us to check all the moving parts of the engine without firing it up. The following week, we conducted the first full test of the new cylinder head, although not using the definitive crankcase."

Last week, the RS24A growled into life for the first time on a thermal test bench. It was a major first step. Following this, key dates follow in quick succession.

"Early in November, we will make our decision on the air intakes we will use," Taillieu continues, "Six weeks later, the gearbox and RS24 will run together for the first time on the test bench. We expect to have achieved a solid level of reliability by this stage."

They say there is no rest for the wicked, but Renault design teams on either side of the English Channel are hardly that. If the thought and planning put into the R24 are anything to judge by, however, the 2004 car could well be.

 

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