Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How to go Motor Racing

Peter Sauber's old boys are doing rather well aren't they. There's little doubt that, after the first 3 races, Ferrari and Mclaren are some way out in front of the field, but contrary to what might have been expected, it is BMW which is leading the chasing pack. Renault, Williams, Toyota, Honda and Red Bull would certainly be happy to swap their position with that of the Swiss/German team.

I have to confess that when BMW took over the Sauber team, I didn't think any good would ever come of it. I wasn't alone on this, either - Mike Lawrence confidently predicted that they would never win a race - save in the kind of circumstances which led to Giancarlo Fisichella's shock win for Jordan at Interlagos in 2003. The doubters had good reason to be pessimistic. After all, Mario Thiessen had spent six years trying and failing to win the world championship with Williams - a real racer's team which had won multiple titles with Renault, Honda and Cosworth. One got the impression that both parties were more interested in apportioning blame for failure than in seeking success. Certainly, there appeared to be a degree of resentment from Frank's men at what they saw as inappropriate meddling on the chassis side of things. The odds seemed against Thiessen achieving anything with the solid and respectable, but hardly front-running Sauber team. It looked for all the world that BMW's board had sanctioned a colossal ego-trip on the part of their motor-racing chief.

And yet it hasn't worked out that way. Maybe Thiessen was simply capable of much more when given complete control. Maybe Frank Williams and Patrick Head are simply out of touch these days. Maybe the shared Germanic culture of Sauber and BMW has smoothed working relations, but BMW have emerged as the front running full manufacturer team in just their second season of F1.

This begs an interesting question. If, for example, Volkswagen's board was looking at putting together an F1 programme, what lessons are there to be learned about how to go about it. More importantly, perhaps, what traps should definitely be avoided. Here are 6 useful pointers:

Resist the temptation to start from scratch

Formula 1 is a seriously complicated business these days. The balance of power between the teams may shift from one year to the next, but all are relying on a vast bank of knowledge and past experience. Toyota have spent perhaps more than any other team in establishing their Formula 1 team over the past five years, and yet still it has not paid off. BMW and Renault, on the other hand, have done well out of buying up a midfield team and injecting fresh capital. Chassis manufacture, in particular, remains something of a black art even now, and its better to buy in the experience of an existing privateer team. Going further back, Renault did everything in house first time around, and while they came close to winning the title in 1983, there is little doubt that they squandered a huge early advantage with their turbo engines because they didn't know enough about chassis building. Michiel Mol, and perhaps even Dietrich Mateschitz or Frank Williams could probably be persuaded to sell at the right price.

Leave the job to the racing people

I may not be Mario Theissen's greatest fan, but he has been around motor racing for a long time and he understands how the business works. Likewise, Renault have taken a very hands-off approach to the running of their race team. They have left the Enstone team in the guiding hands of Flavio Briatore, a man who may not understand what makes a car fast, but certainly knows how to manage racing people. By contrast, Toyota have always more directly involved their company's senior management, and recently, it appears Honda have begun to head down the same track. The task of building two fast racing cars is very different from that of building hundreds of thousands of reliable cars that people want to buy. Don't assume the skills are interchangeable.

Don't hire and fire

Surely nobody made a bigger mess of running their works Formula 1 team than Ford/Jaguar did. In the five years they were in F1, they got through countless team principals and managers - Neil Ressler, Niki Lauda, Bobby Rahal, Tony Purnell and Dave Pitchforth. Nobody was in the job long enough, or was given enough freedom, to turn things around. It's worth remembering, too, that top F1 people tend to come with massive egos and an unshakeable belief that they are right and senior management are wrong. Let them think that. When it comes to F1, they're probably right. Toyota and Honda are widely rumoured to have sacked Geoff Willis and Mike Gascoygne because they showed insufficient respect for company bigwigs, and look where that got them. Renault and BMW, on the other hand, have tended to be able to keep hold of their technical people.

Don't think an F1 team is just another corporate department

I've pointed out before in a piece about Toyota that running an F1 team as if it is a department in a large corporation is unlikely to work out. Recent anonymous articles from a Honda insider at Pitpass indicate that the same problem is infecting them now. I think it was Jackie Stewart who said that an F1 team should have a "corner shop" rather than a "big store" mentality. This means a degree of flexibility and a distrust of strict hierarchies that is uncommon in any large commercial organisation. Renault, in particular, seem to have done a very good job of maintaining this feel to their race team, and the result is that the best people want to work for them, even though they are not thought to offer the same kind of financial incentives as, say, Toyota or Mclaren.

Making sure that the parent company doesnt interfere with the operational decisions of the team for non-racing reasons is equally important. When Jaguar came into F1, they had a much greater budget than in their later years but it was squandered on things like ensuring that the computer systems were in line with Ford company procurement policy. Toyota's switch to Bridgestone tyres in 2006, long after the team had begun designing their 06 car around Michelin rubber was rumoured to be similarly motivated by corporate, rather than racing reasons (Toyota road cars come with Bridgestone, rather than Michelin tyres, apparently). The long and the short of it is that F1 is too cut-throat a business to allow for these kind of compromises.

Sort out the drivers

Getting the right drivers is a notoriously tricky business. As Patrick Head once said, the problem is that its always a bit of a shot in the dark. There are, however, some obvious mistakes to avoid. Don't pay over the odds for a driver who is clearly not from the very top drawer. There is really very little reason to pay more than, say £2m to any driver who is not Raikkonen, Alonso or (it would now seem) Hamilton. In particular, there really is no earthly explanation for why Toyota have made Ralf Schumacher the second highest paid driver in the F1 paddock. He's not necessarily a bad choice of driver for Toyota. He's competent and fast, if not quite from the very top drawer, and he arguably makes more sense than an unproven youngster, but there is no way he is worth what he is paid. Jaguar Racing, who made pretty much every mistake in the book, made an arguably even greater error in paying a vast fortune to Eddie Irvine to tool around in a series of awful Jaguars for 3 years.

Ask whether its really worth it...

I don't have the definitive answer to the question of whether "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" really holds true. I think that various marques have enhanced their image by their involvement in F1. This may have helped them to sell cars. It may not have done. It is entirely possible that advertising/branding itself is a great swindle perpetrated on the industrial classes by cunning arts and media studies graduates. That's for another time. What I do know is that Mercedes stick to building engines, and leave the racing car manufacturing to Mclaren. It saves them an awful lot of work, and right now, I'm not sure they're getting any less positive publicity than they would if the car was simply a 'Mercedes'. In fact, by being directly associated with a famous racing name like Mclaren, they might even benefit more. Did winning the world title as 'Renault' really do Renault any more for their image than winning it as the engine supplier to Williams or Benetton? Perhaps Toyota should sell the racing team and jump into bed with Williams...


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3 Comments:

Anonymous Clive said...

And one more thing about Mercedes - in the thirties and fifties, they walked into GP racing and won everything in sight through sheer brute force. If they had come into F1 this time with their own team, everyone would have expected them to do the same - and, as you so ably point out, that's not possible anymore. Using McLaren, they have the excuse of the chassis when they don't win and still get the glory when they do.

3:30 AM  
Anonymous firstsuperspeedway.com said...

picking a right driver is really tricky..

2:38 AM  
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2:01 AM  

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