The Turkish Grand Prix reaffirmed Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull’s dominance of the season so far, it was an exciting race, but there seems to be some developing unease about the impact of the Drag Reduction System or DRS and the effect it is having on overtaking. The Guardian’s Richard Williams seemed to capture this perfectly with the following tweet: Another hectic GP. But does your heart sing to hear (for example) that Alonso has used his wing flap to pass Rosberg? Mine doesn’t”. Part of the problem is that the DRS provides a differential advantage to one car over another, which means the overtake often looks (as was the case in Turkey) more like someone passing a back-marker than a fight for a place in the race, we certainly did get a lot of overtaking, but perhaps not enough racing.

The other main area of speculation related to Michael Schumacher, who seems to be still struggling to assert himself both as the lead driver in Mercedes and as a serious contender with the current crop of drivers. I was recently going through some old tapes of interviews with some of the senior technical people in F1, and came across one from one of Ferrari’s former technical chiefs, he made some interesting comments on Schumacher: “From a Ferrari point of view I don’t believe Schumacher is so good as a test driver. He is good at setting up the car for himself, but I tell you he is not so good as a test driver because in three years with Benetton the car was not one of the best chassis.” The suggestion being that Michael is great when you develop a good chassis for him to work with and get his own set-up, but if you want to develop the car that is a different story, however given the general absence of testing today perhaps this is a non-issue.

The news that the popular Sam Michael is leaving Williams at the end of the year, along with aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson, has also had quite a bit of coverage. If you look at Williams’ performance, it really drops off from 2005 after Sam Michael took over as Technical Director, but these things are never as straightforward as that. They also, of course, lost the manufacturer support of BMW in 2005. However, given the focus on aerodynamics I also wonder how much is due to them never having really got to grips with their 60% wind tunnel which came on stream during 2004, they say it’s all about aerodynamics and perhaps Williams have struggled to get their new facility to work as well as some of the other teams. It’s interesting to note that Mike Coughlan, their new chief engineer, is not an aerodynamicist.

Away from the track we have the possibility of a bidder for the commercial rights business of F1 from News Corp. and the Agnelli family’ Exor SpA. This appears to have produced some interesting reactions from Bernie Ecclestone (standard response – it’s not for sale, unless they make a really silly offer) and Max Mosley (News Corp. would not be the right buyer for F1 – something to do with them owning the News of the World). The other interesting issue is the view of the FIA and more particularly Jean Todt (who some believe is supportive), and also the teams – what is their take on a Ferrari connection to F1 ownership (perhaps it just makes their implicit influence more explicit!), and is there a place for the teams as part of the consortia? – historically they have always avoided such commitments. Either way it looks like this has a way to go before it plays out, and throws another interesting variable into the Concorde Agreement discussions.

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Leadership Styles and the FIA

February 22, 2011

It was interesting to see the very negative way in which the FIA’s approach to the Bahrain decision was viewed by a number of UK journalists who have been tweeting on the subject. There can be no doubt that had Max Mosley been President of the FIA the style would have been very different with pronouncements and impromptu press conferences on the developing situation. Jean Todt has a very different style and one which recognises that the FIA had effectively outsourced such decisions back in 2001 when it leased the commercial rights to FOM for ninety nine years, in response to an EU investigation into competition which required them to separate the governance and commercial aspects of the sport. In this sense the decision whether or not to hold a particular race is down to CVC Partners’ Formula One Management run by Bernie Ecclestone, and not the FIA (unless it is done on safety grounds). It is for this reason that the FIA has taken very much a backseat, although there has probably been a lot of background diplomacy involved. In essence this is far more about leadership style than substance, Max leading from the front, although not always being followed by everyone, and Jean Todt working behind the scenes and standing back from the spotlight. Both can be effective, but get results in very different ways.

The fog appears to be lifting and a resolution emerging that may secure the future of F1, at least until 2012. Max Mosley has reiterated his intention to stand down at the end of October and more significantly has come out in support of Jean Todt, former CEO of Ferrari, replacing him. Although FOTA have made noises about the need for an independent chairman (ie with no history in a current F1 team) the real power base in FOTA is Ferrari and they would be far more positive about Todt’s appointment than some of the other teams. Former World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen has also indicated his intention to stand, whether Mosley’s support for Todt means Ron Dennis may emerge as an alternative contender remains to be seen. Although Todt is well regarded at Ferrari it would be a mistake to regard him as partisan should he become President of FIA, Todt’s track record suggests that whatever role he has taken on, he has done so with total commitment and dedication to his new organisation and I see no reason why this should be different should he become President of the FIA, the problem is more likely to be one of perception from the other teams.

 The other matter which needs resolution is the signing of the commercial agreement, which Flavio Briatore had hoped was a matter of a few days back on 25 June (see blog 2 July). As it now involves 13 teams (including the three new entrants) this is more complex, but progress is apparently being made and the hope is that this will be concluded by the Hungarian Grand Prix on 26 July (clearly a few days for Flavio equals one month for the rest of us). The other interesting question is the future of Bernie Ecclestone whose recent comments regarding Adolf Hitler has led to some strong feedback from the majority shareholder in Formula One Group – CVC Capital, with fellow Director Sir Martin Sorrell being particularly forthright. While Max’s departure may (I emphasise may) now be inevitable, the likelihood of Bernie stepping down is a different matter altogether.

A great deal of copy is being written about the nature of Max Mosley’s tenure as President of the FIA, much of it negative. I have had dealings with Mr Mosley regarding the second edition of our business oriented book on F1 – Performance at the Limit: Business Lessons from Formula 1 Motor Racing. He was always very supportive, co-operative and responded to our requests with alacrity – not something I could say of all the F1 people we approached.

He will probably be most positively remembered for the stance he took on safety following on from the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994 when both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives. This was followed by the Monaco Grand Prix when German driver Karl Wendlinger suffered a serious head injury during Thursday practice. The following day Mosley announced the formation of an Expert Advisory Group to review all aspects of safety and to have wide ranging powers to make changes as needed. He also announced that the Chair of the Committee would be Professor Sid Watkins, an eminent neurosurgeon who had been the on-track surgeon for F1 since 1978. Watkins himself only found out about his new post after the public announcement on the Friday afternoon, Mosley having decided that he had to act quickly and was confident that Watkins would agree to the role, which he did. This example demonstrates the underlying approach that has been both Mosley’s success and his downfall. He sees the big picture at times when others may not, he also is prepared to act decisively and unilaterally to address the longer term issues.

There has been much talk from the teams that Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) has been a waste of time and (a great deal of) money, which is quite ironic given the focus on the need to cut costs. The blame for its unilateral introduction has been largely laid at Max Mosley’s door. But the concept behind KERS – the idea that F1 teams should be moving beyond the internal combustion engine and looking at ways of storing and transforming waste energy is absolutely right, similarly the notion of cost reduction and greater technical freedom – to let the outstanding engineers do what they do best, do more with less is also absolutely right. These are also not mutually exclusive strategies, F1 has to become more environmentally relevant and must also remove the huge expenditures that deliver nothing in terms of the spectacle and technological spin-offs. Mosley had both recognised these issues and formulated strategies to address them. The problem is that they are exactly that, his strategies with his solutions.  There is no question in my mind that Max Mosley is a great strategic thinker, but like many strategists in many organisations ultimately you have to make sure that those who will actually deliver the strategy buy into it too.