The Sunday supplement: space race
Two of the fastest men on the planet (or off it) compare lives at the limit
It’s hard for Timo Bernhard to convey what a day at work really feels like. Especially one that involves finding the limiter at over 200mph in the dark down the Mulsanne Straight, wipers pumping, closing fast on an errant back marker. The two-time Le Mans winner leads life at a different pace to almost everyone around him. But not today.
In the relative quiet of Porsche’s LMP1 pit garage, Bernhard stands beside his 919 Hybrid, talking through the open door to a man of similar size who has slotted himself into the unfamiliar surroundings of a 900hp hybrid prototype cockpit. That man is Matthias Maurer, a 47-year-old astronaut who will become the next German in space. Maurer nods attentively as Bernhard explains the myriad steering wheel controls and reveals the potential acceleration of the 919 – 100km/h in 2.2 seconds, 200km/h in four seconds. “We reach speeds of 28,000 km/h in nine minutes,” he says with a smile.
In February, Maurer was introduced as the latest member of the European Astronaut Corps. From the Kazakh Steppe to the stars, strapped to a rocket filled with 200 tonnes of super-volatile fuel, he will soon be heading to the last outpost of humanity – the International Space Station.
How will that feel, Bernhard wonders, to actually see the universe all around you?
Maurer: You try to imagine a few things, of course. To sit in such a rocket, to feel the acceleration as it takes off, to look out of the window, to see the earth below you, very small ... and then, of course, to know: I am now in space. I have been preparing myself for this for years. By my definition, you’re not a real astronaut until you have been into space. A racing driver, who practises in the simulator for ten years, but has never been on the race track, is not ...
Maurer trails off with a slight shrug. His moment is yet to come, and to be honest, until that day it is theory and imagination. Repeating the processes ad infinitum until everything is second nature, instinctive.
Not unlike the prep for LMP1 ...
Bernhard: A race weekend is always the same. Arrival day, day zero, press work, cockpit training. Sit in the car, go over all the buttons and procedures. The race engineer sits next to you and runs through all the switch positions.
Maurer: Is it different from race to race?
Bernhard: Actually, it’s the same. It’s about memory.
Maurer: Muscle memory.
Bernhard: Exactly. We have a total of 26 switches and rotary knobs on the steering wheel. Then we have the dashboard, which is for second-category things that are not used while actually driving. There are 15, 20 different switches. Also pit stop training for the boys and driver changeover training for us. This is always done on day zero. On day one, the driving gets under way.
Maurer: We practice what to do if one of the engines fails when docking on the ISS, for example. If that happens, I have to configure my system differently so that we can still dock.
Bernhard: We also have a procedure in which we practise what to do if something fails. We call this the “misuse test”. We do this in the vehicle prior to the season on the Porsche test track. We take parts that have undergone high mileages and use them for practice: What can I do if the clutch no longer disengages? I enter the pit, flick the rocker switch for the clutch on the steering wheel, but it does not disengage. The car stops, the engine stalls. How do I get going again? These processes have to become second nature. This level of preparation and routine has saved us races, victories and good results.
In Le Mans in June, Bernhard’s team mate, Earl Bamber, was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop after only three and a half hours. The highly complex 919 had developed a fault in its hybrid drive. The car was in the garage for 65 minutes, a loss of track time that seemed insurmountable in the moment, but which proved a decisive part of its eventual victory.
Bernhard: We won with a two-minute lead. If the boys had taken three minutes longer – which in relation to the 24 hours, is not long – we may not have won. Toyota had a similar problem, replaced the electric motor and took 54 minutes longer. Our team attaches great importance to these matters. In motorsport, you look quickly at performance. Who is the fastest? Of course, that is what it’s all about in the end. But there are so many other things to pay attention to that can impact the overall performance.
Maurer: If it all goes wrong, we can’t just roll to the side of the road and say: The mechanics will have it all fixed in a couple of hours. We only have the one attempt, and that has to work. We simulate how the flight works in the Soyuz simulator. The different phases, the sequence, what the instruments show.
Nevertheless there are clear parallels in the complex challenges of these differing careers, and the ways in which these stress-tested professionals cope at the forefront of the man/machine interface.
Maurer has endured years of training, both mental and physical, from 48 hours of survival in a Swedish winter to team building in Sardinian caves.
Maurer: I was sent into a cave for five days with an international team. There was an Italian, two Russians and an American with me. We spent five days in a cave system that was about twenty kilometres long. Some of the chambers are so narrow that you have to think: left arm through first or right leg? You cannot change the situation for 50, 80 metres; you just have to crawl through. Then you enter enormous caverns, and have to abseil 20 metres down into the depths. Mountaineering underground. We are put under pressure, placed in a dangerous situation. You are thrown into extreme situations, taken to the limit, intentionally, and then observed to see when the team falls apart.
These psychological extremes are followed by the detailed assessment and evaluation, a fascinating insight into one’s own psyche.
Maurer: You don’t get a letter that says: Matthias is a zero, he is no good for anything. The psychologists approach me and say: You need to do a little more work here and there because your colleagues believe you should have done something differently there. If you had, it would have all gone quite differently.
Bernhard notices a similarity on the racetrack, where his performance is constantly monitored by the pit down to the minutest detail of throttle input, braking strength or placement on track.
Bernhard: Under the race engineer, there is a performance engineer, who looks at the live data from a different perspective. He doesn’t just look at whether the engine temperature is too high. He looks at the driving lines, at sector times, he looks at where I am losing time. Then the race engineer radios: “Olli (the performance engineer) said: ‘Stay a little more inside on turn two, move earlier, you’re too late.’” That also happens. Then you have to implement the information. As a driver who has trained for years, I feel like a computer that collects data and stores it in my subconscious mind, and when I enter the pit and am asked for feedback, it comes out in the right order at the push of a button. When the car enters the pit in free training, I have maybe twenty seconds in which I can give feedback. And it needs to be organised appropriately.
The best racing driver, says Bernhard, is the one who has the greatest capacity for absorbing external information and orders from outside without allowing it to interfere with his or her driving.
Bernhard: There are moments – especially at night in Le Mans — when you have the feeling of being completely on your own. Tunnel vision. And everything is automated. Your reflexes take over driving the car. I have often had moments – a stone on the road, or someone spins in front of me – and I respond, get the car under control any way I can, and not until seconds later do I think about what could have happened. And only then does your pulse start racing. You don’t drive with your head, it all happens far too fast for that. The fastest is a driver who can switch off his head, so to speak.
So living at a different speed to the rest of the world changes the way you see yourself and your surroundings …
Maurer: You fly once around the earth in 90 minutes. You have 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. It is only a ball, and we all sit on this one ball, sit in the same racing car. All astronauts come back a little bit changed in some way. Much more open, I think.