A High Octane Sport

I managed to let the start of the Formula 1 season, in Australia a couple of weeks ago, pass without mention but with the second race in Bahrain now just a few days away, it is time to pitch in.

For a long time, I have been a fan of F1 and have been two races, both at Silverstone. In my twenties, I was invited to one by Geraldine, the marketing manager of McLaren who was then my girlfriend. That contact gave me access to drivers and the after-race parties. The second time was when I was working for ICI, then sponsors of the Williams team, and additionally that gave me pit access. I still remember standing next to Sir Frank Williams during the race, an unheard of privilege in today’s pit access rules.

Both these experiences were exceptional giving me everything you get on television plus a lot more. We had the television pictures, race timing boards, all around access and a great live view on the corner just before the start-finish line.

I haven’t gone to a race since. The involvement will never be the same, but it is a sport I always want to watch.

F1 is a fascinating sport. It has more data than any other. It is almost literally a high-octane sport. We will never know if Fangio was a faster driver than Hamilton or even if Lewis is faster than Seb. How much is the car and how much is the driver? There have been thousands of journalist’s column inches on that topic.

From the outside, we only see the culmination of all the effort on a race weekend and only imagine what has been necessary to get a car to the chequered flag. It is a sport of tiny margins, often small factions of a second and if ever the phrase ‘marginal improvements’ meant anything it is here.

In my way, I have wondered what it would be like to be in the heart of an F1 team and once spent a very happy weekend in my own imagination having a conversation with an F1 team principal. Someday I may document it.

The driver wants to win the Driver’s Championship but when you hear the team principal talk they are more concerned about the Constructor’s Championship. For them, the effort of the team is more important and properly recognised.

But while we may see the improvement on the track, I have always wondered if there are the same opportunities in the way the business is managed and run because all my experience says there must be opportunities. Just like a car, nothing is perfect.

While I was thinking about this I found an article on the BBC website by Andrew Benson, written last year talking about Ferrari’s resurgence, at least in the first three races of 2017.

From a relative failure over 2015 and 2016 they had won two of the first three races, were second in the other and leading the early championship table.

How Ferrari gave Sebastian Vettel the chance to beat Lewis Hamilton. What has happened behind the scenes? Andrew Benson; BBC Chief F1 Writer (Benson, 2017)

Hard work is one thing. But all F1 teams work hard. Ferrari were working hard last year – and in 2014, when they also failed to win a race.

The explanation for the turnaround is more complex than that, and it starts a year or so ago, in the first difficult months of Ferrari’s 2016.

Ferrari were confident heading into last year that they had further closed the gap on Mercedes after a 2015 in which Vettel won three races. The team bosses told president Sergio Marchionne as much, and he came out before the season started and said he expected Ferrari to be absolutely competitive from the off.

The problems started when they were not. Marchionne is an uncompromising Italian-Canadian businessman with a reputation as a hard man with colourful language. His nickname is “the jumpered assassin”. He was not happy, and he wanted to know why performance was not what had been promised.

He began a full investigation into how things worked at Ferrari’s Maranello factory. He personally interviewed many staff, not just the bosses, wanted to know their thoughts on why Ferrari could not compete with the best British-based teams, and asked for an explanation about why they had a reputation for lack of imagination and innovation in F1 design.

Marchionne decided the design department needed to be restructured, to free up some of the more creative minds and make a less top-down structure.

He identified, he has said, about 20 key “high-potential individuals” to promote and harness. Management was reorganised; the format of meetings, too.

The idea was to make design more flexible, to ensure all ideas were discussed and make the group more open to suggestions. And to encourage a greater sense of ownership and responsibility among a much wider array of people, to avoid the usual Ferrari problem of people keeping their heads down so they could not be blamed for failure.

At the same time, Ferrari undertook an analysis of their weaknesses and concluded three main issues – aerodynamics, especially on circuits that require efficiency, such as Barcelona and Silverstone; tyre management; and gearbox fragility.

That done, they had a redefined baseline focus for 2017.

Ferrari was leading for much of the season. The team was working at its very best, but then both Vittel and the team started to make mistakes. The team imploded, and Hamilton went on to win the championship.

That is sport. You can train, practice, rehearse and still, not everything goes to plan. That is why this weekend in Bahrain I will again be watching for which of Lewis, Seb, Kimi or Max comes out on top.