Formula One success rides on the synergy of driver and engineer
The relationship between a driver and a race engineer has often been likened to a marriage. Over the course of the Formula One season, the pair will spend an inordinate amount of time in each others company and, during the 20-race odyssey that is the 2012 campaign, there will be both ups and downs.
Mistakes will inevitably be made in the highly pressurised, high-intensity world of F1, but the partnership between driver and engineer is arguably the most vital cog in any team.
The engineer is the mouthpiece of the team at the track and back at the factory and, at the same time, the sounding board of the driver.
Tom McCullough is one of the 24 race engineers on the grid for the coming season, working with new Williams recruit Bruno Senna, nephew of the legendary F1 driver Ayrton Senna.
"Being the link between the driver and the team is a good way of looking at it, the link between the driver and the factory," says McCullough. "You have 500 people working to support you and give you the best possible package, and you're trying to feed that information in the best way to the person driving the car."
With 500 pairs of Williams-employed eyes on him at the season-opener Australian Grand Prix this weekend - in fact, every race weekend of 2012 - the pressure is obviously monumental.
But so calm a presence is McCullough that it is difficult to see that pressure ever really manifesting itself, a feature he sees as a key to being a good race engineer.
"There are pressures of making a mistake, but all I can do is make the best decision with the best information in front of me," he adds. "Sometimes that's wrong but there's no point panicking. My job is to instil confidence into the driver. It's really no good if I start to panic or at least give that impression as an engineer." The relationship between McCullough and Brazilian Senna is very much in its infancy. Last season, McCullough worked with Rubens Barrichello, who was replaced by Senna at the team for this season.
To date, the new Williams pairing have had just six testing days to work together and get an understanding of how each others' minds and emotions tick over.
Of the relationship, Senna says somewhat ominously at first: "Tom is the kind of guy you get on with or you don't," without any further explanation, before adding, "Thankfully we've started on very good terms. It's very good and we're getting on well".
McCullough is so affable that it's hard to imagine not getting on with him. As he says, "I just try to get on with people in life". The burgeoning relationship with driver and engineer started as a simple sit-down chat over a drink at the team's headquarters in England's Oxfordshire countryside, close to Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix.
From there, the pairing had repeated meetings at Williams HQ to talk over mechanical aspects of the FW34 as well as the sporting side of the season ahead.
Senna talks in highly favourable terms of McCullough, who joined the team in 2002 in favour of another offer from Jaguar.
"We have great mutual respect for each other," says the Brazilian. "I really believe we have good potential together. He believes in me, too, and we're trying to achieve the maximum in the car. We've got a great capacity to learn."
For Senna, this season is a case of starting all over again for a third straight year. In 2010, he made his F1 debut with the Hispania Racing Team, last year he drove the second half of the season for Renault and now he is with a third team.
While McCullough has had the stability of having had just one employer during that time, he, too, has endured change, working with three different drivers, firstly Nico Hulkenberg, then Barrichello and now Senna.
Of the chopping and changing, McCullough says: "You obviously want to have that continuity as it helps any relationship but, at the same time, having a new driver adds something fresh."
McCullough admits that all engineers basically want to be drivers but, despite that, he draws the line at telling Senna exactly how to drive the car. As he points out, "I don't drive the car, Bruno does, and we both know what to expect of each other".
As likeable personalities as both McCullough and Senna are, inevitably over the duration of the season there will be cracks in the relationship in such a high-pressured environment.
South American drivers have been renowned for being temperamental and emotional in the past, perhaps a charge that could be levelled at most F1 drivers at some point during their careers.
But McCullough doesn't predict any slanging matches between engineer and driver. "I'm lucky that I've had a very good relationship with drivers in my career to date," he says. "OK, you have to bite your tongue sometimes, but so does the driver."
Every engineer has a different approach to the task at hand. As mentioned before, the ethos of McCullough, whose father was a club racer in his youth and who later did some racing himself in a Formula Ford 2000 Crosslé, is to "just get on with people". But he adds, "it's all about working on getting mutual respect - that's the key".
McCullough uses an element of sports psychology to get that done. Psychologists have been employed in other sports for years but, in F1, it's a relatively new phenomenon.
"I have a personal interest in it and read a lot of stuff about it," he explains. "I've also done some human factors training, as it's important that driver and engineer get on as human beings first and foremost. And because it's a new relationship, we're probably working harder than normal to establish a relationship. There's a real intensity."
The trick is for the duo to form an unbreakable bond that, in essence, says it's them against everyone else, and their targets then become one. "Bruno wants to be the best driver he can be and, as an engineer, I want to be the best I can be," he says.
How they fare under the rigours of their first race together remains to be seen.
"If I make mistakes, he won't be happy, but everyone makes mistakes and, if you make a mistake you move forward," says McCullough. "A mistake at a test is perhaps not quite as keenly felt as in a race.
"At a test, you have a set programme and a number of objectives you have to achieve; in some ways like ticking boxes. At a race weekend, you're delivering for the team more in a sporting way. As a race engineer at a test, you're a lot more analytical and there's less time on track; in some ways it's easier. At both, the key is communication."
Williams endured a tough year in 2011 but there is the promise of improvement this season, particularly through the fledgling partnership between McCullough and Senna. As McCullough says, "there's a good team atmosphere at Williams and a lot of people working hard to push us forward. It's up to us to deliver".
Updated: March 16, 2012 04:00 AM