Sports Pundit caught up with Xevi Pujolar, the Head of Trackside Engineering with the Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN F1 team, to talk about his journey into Formula 1 and all things motorsports.
Born on 3 January 1973 in Madremanya, Girona, a city in northern Catalonia, Spain, Francisco Javier Pujolar has gone on to become one of the most successful engineers that Spain has ever produced.
The Spaniard has a distinguished 19-year Formula One career under his belt to date, working for several Formula One teams over the years, race engineering the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Max Verstappen, or Charles Leclerc.
In an extended interview, he gives a unique insight into his role within the team, discusses the new regulations to be introduced in 2022, including the Pirelli prototype 18-inch tires, and reflects on the changes Formula One has been through since he first joined the series in 2002.
Alongside this, he also spoke about the team’s targets for 2021, projects outside Formula One, and much more.
Like many of his colleagues, Pujolar passion for motorsports began at an early age.
“I wanted to participate in the top motorsport category. Initially, my attention was captured more by the two-wheeled vehicles like MotoGP or 500cc.”
The Spaniard got the opportunity to put into good use all he had learned at the Girona University, working in go-karting setting up the engines while developing the chassis.
“From this moment on, I followed the four-wheel vehicles and wanted to reach the pinnacle of motorsport, which is Formula One. A dream I had since I was a child.”
But what does a Head of Trackside Engineering do?
“Generally speaking, to try to achieve the best performance as a team,” he explains.
“When we are track-side, the objective is to extract the maximum performance out of both cars and from the drivers as well.”
In order for that to happen, he counts on the support of the team that is on-site, which encompasses all engineers, mechanics “considering the given track layout as well as given conditions.”
“Besides this, I am also the connection between the HQ-based team and the race team.”
In addition, the 48-year-old explains how his day-to-day work focus shifts from when he is at the track, on race weekends, or testing.
“When we are back at the factory, the main work consists of analyzing all the data gathered during the race weekend, so-called post-race analysis.
“Simultaneously, we also do the pre-event analysis since most races take place one after the other.
“We also have to feedback the different departments back at the factory, such as design vehicle as well as aero performance, who support us on a race weekend in order to make sure everybody is aligned, counting with the same information for the development of the car.
“This is also crucial for the team performance improvement.”
The introduction of the technical regulations changes will impact the sport from 2022 onwards.
In that regard, Pujolar highlights that the objective of the new regulations is “to have more competition among all teams, which means to have in general a shorter difference between one team to the other, a much closer midfield.”
Furthermore, he elaborates on the main changes to the Formula One aerodynamics package.
“The aim of the new regulations is to reduce a lot the aero loads as well as to restrict the areas of development of the car. In this way, it should be easier to follow a car they should have less load, and therefore all the competitors will be much closer together. So, we can talk about a real competition rather than having huge gaps among the top teams, midfield, and the tail light.
“On top of this, there will also apply a new regulation for the tires, the 18-inch tires.
“When you have a change in compounds, it will take the teams some time to learn about the new tires, also giving the teams an opportunity to be more competitive whoever understands quicker the new tires.”
Alfa Romeo recently tested the 2022 Pirelli prototype 18-inch tires at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Spain, with Robert Kubica at the wheel.
“We have been testing the 18-inch tires in Barcelona beginning of May, where we got the result on track, but we do not have feedback from Pirelli about what we have been actually testing; it has been a blind test.
“Anyhow, it is still valuable for us since we receive the feedback of the driver. He shares with us his feelings, and we get the data from the car.
“We cannot yet mention any pros or cons [compared to the 13-inch tire predecessor] since we are still in the adaptation phase. It represents an engineering challenge that is very interesting for me.”
Kubica and Pujolar met in junior karting; their paths crossed in Formula One when the Polish driver joined the Swiss-based team in 2020 as the squad’s reserve and test driver.
“Robert is a fundamental asset for the team; in his role as reserve [driver], he gets to drive the car in several practice sessions. His technical expertise, his great feedback, and his experience complement his immense talent.
“This gives the team a significant advantage when it comes to development and has played an important role in Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN being the team making the biggest progression between 2020 and 2021.”
“In addition, his work in the simulator is precious to help us develop this important tool, which is crucial for this season and beyond.”
In a fast-paced environment of motor racing where competition is at its highest level, the pressure becomes synonymous with Formula One.
From the outside, one may wonder how the genius-level minds working in the series learn how to keep themselves calm under pressure, particularly the engineers.
Well, you will be surprised how staying cool and get things right can turn into a “simple task” to engineers.
“If you want to work in a race team in Formula One, bear in mind that it is an environment of high-level competition. First, you need to like this idea, and if you do this, you will get used to it,” he remarks.
Pujolar started his career in the series in 2002 with Jaguar; asked about how different Formula One has become from his early days, he assesses: “I would say the level of competition in Formula One has always been the same, the highest in motorsports. The difference lies in how the teams operate nowadays. Currently, we have more races in one season but less testing.
“In the past, we had much more testing and fewer races. The teams were smaller, and over the past years, the teams got bigger and bigger, with more specialists for each single task. So, now you must manage bigger groups.
“The teams were smaller but worked a lot as it was more intense since there did not exist any night shifts or curfew but still the same amount of work distributed among fewer people.
“To sum up, nowadays it is better organized with more specialized team members.”
Would you consider working on a different racing series project in the future?
Maybe yes, something that I really have considered at one point in my career was NASCAR and MotoGP. Perhaps, even more, NASCAR, since it is also very intense, anything can happen until the last lap of the race. So, it attracts me very much due to its intensity of racing, which could be an interesting experience.
With the first handful of races done, which aspects does the team need to improve to reach its goals in 2021?
Generally, we need to improve our overall performance in all areas starting from car performance over operational performance.
If you consider how tight the midfield nowadays is, we do not have to do a big step, just small steps but in all areas, to achieve the needed improvement: Be fighting with the midfield and be racing in the points.
THE PATH INTO FORMULA ONE
Pujolar has left his mark on every team he has worked with, achieving success in the world of Formula One, albeit the way into the pinnacle of motorsport was not easy sailing.
After gathering experience in go-karting, he moved to single-seaters with Formula Nissan and transitioned into Formula 3000.
He spent the next three years (1999 to 2001) working for the Red Bull Junior Team, which eventually helped put him on the Formula One radar.
The following year, Pujolar moved up to the Jaguar F1 Team as Performance Engineer to Eddie Irvine during the 2002 season.
The following season, he was promoted to Race Engineer, spending the next six years assisting drivers like Mark Webber and Alex Wurz, continuing to gather invaluable experience in the process.
In 2010, Pujolar was invited to join the all-Spanish team project Hispania F1 as a Senior Race Engineer working alongside Bruno Senna.
Unfortunately, the project did not go as expected, with Pujolar switching back to the Grove-based team ahead of the 2011 season to become Pastor Maldonado’s race engineer.
Alongside the Venezuelan driver, he achieved one of the finest moments in his career when in 2012, the 27-year-old Maldonado led his Williams to a stunning victory at the Spanish Grand Prix, in the courtyard to Pujolar’s home, Barcelona, Catalunya.
The accomplishment marked the team’s first victory since 2004, as well as Maldonado’s maiden win - the first-ever triumph by a Venezuelan driver in the series.
The following year, he was appointed Chief Race Engineer, leaving Williams by the end of the season to join Scuderia Toro Rosso as Senior Race Engineer working with Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne.
When a 17-year-old, Max Verstappen, joined the team, the Spaniard began working side by side with the Dutchman until he switched to Red Bull Racing.
With Verstappen’s exit, the engineer’s departure soon followed.
After two years and a half with the Italian team, taking the next step in the ladder was a natural move in Pujolar’s career, as he joined the Sauber F1 Team in the role of Head of Trackside Engineering.
Formula One has proven vital towards his development as an engineer; his natural curiosity and restless work spirit have open the door to success and expertise.
ALFA ROMEO 2021 F1 CAMPAIGN
Despite making significant progress compared to last season, showcasing a competitive car, displaying solid performances in qualifying, points eluded the team in the first rounds.
But after six races into the 23 planned for the season, the team currently sits eighth in the constructor’s championship, scoring points in the last two races, the Monaco and Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Speaking after the Azerbaijan GP, held last weekend in Baku, Frederic Vasseur, Team Principal Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN, and CEO Sauber Motorsport AG commented: “We can be happy with bringing a point home, especially as we displayed good pace with both cars from start to finish.”
Adding: “To finish in the top ten for the second race running is a reward for clean driving, a strategy that allowed both drivers to be in a fighting position and some good stops.
“We have once again shown the progress we have made and how we are in the position to be fighting for top tens regularly, but there is still work to be done. We are confident, and the last few races have really encouraged us, so we can keep pushing towards our objective.”