From Auto #10: First principals

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Three of motor sport’s most successful team bosses define just what it takes in the 21st century to build an outfit capable of winning racing’s glittering prizes.

Motor racing has moved on from the days when team principals were wheeler-dealers who owned outright the teams they ran. The modern generation of super-managers are more accountable than ever before; with hundreds of jobs and millions of euros at stake, winning has never been more important.

That’s because manufacturers now wield immense power in motor racing, and racing teams are more likely to be wholly owned subsidiaries of larger empires. This suits our panel of motor racing’s most successful senior managers, whose teams won 45 out of 55 world championship races in 2014, just fine.

“You need the background of a manufacturer to become successful,” says Jost Capito, head of Volkswagen Motorsport’s World Rally Championship team, winner of 12 out of 13 WRC events in 2014. “We work very closely with the engineers at Volkswagen AG, and without that sort of close relationship it would not be possible to make such a competitive car. We need the resources, knowledge and expertise – whether that’s in materials science or engine development.”

Rallying has always been manufacturer-dominated but this phenomenon is relatively new to Formula One, where only Sir Frank Williams remains from the old guard of owner-principals. But there have been several recent examples of manufacturers failing to win in spite of investing heavily; the most successful ones, such as Mercedes, have demonstrated the benefits of observing the subtle distinction between ownership and control.

“Today’s teams are more like high-performing companies,” says Toto Wolff, head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, which won 16 out of 19 grands prix last year and which is enjoying similar success in 2015. “It’s not a 100-person organisation like it was many years ago, where you would have the founder and team principal controlling everything. That’s not possible any more.

“Mercedes recognises that in this sport a team is more like a mid-size company, and it doesn’t function if you try to impose a corporate structure like a multinational giant. But at the same time we know we represent the brand. I like the analogy that they leave us a very long leash – we never feel it as a tension around our necks but we know it’s there.”

Even when teams have a healthy degree of autonomy, championship-level organisations are now at such a scale that people management is one of the major challenges. As Wolff alluded, the days of the team principal and all the engineers driving to the track in one car are long gone. Managing the scale of a team is more than a matter of funding.

“The main thing for me is the people,” says Yves Matton, team principal for Citroën Racing in both the WRC and World Touring Car Championship (17 wins from 23 races in 2014). “When you don’t have the budget it’s difficult but if you don’t have the people then you have no chance to reach the target. I was fortunate that when I joined Citroën Racing as team principal it had been winning for a long time [in the WRC]. Guy Fréquelin had set it up very much like Jean Todt did at Peugeot. It was just a matter of assembling the right management team to move on, now that we are involved in two championships.”

A group effort

Creating the most competitive car possible within the constraints of budget and the regulations is fundamental to the process of winning. In F1 the cars have grown so complex that no one person can exert an authorial hand over every part of the design, but all the engineering disciplines – particularly the aerodynamics – are interdependent.

That still requires a technically minded leader, communicating and delegating and making informed decisions about the necessary compromises. This person is not necessarily the team principal.

Mercedes now has three individuals in senior engineering roles (Paddy Lowe, Engineering Director Aldo Costa and Technology Director Geoff Willis), who have previously worked as technical directors of other teams; without the right reporting lines that could make for a top-heavy top table.

“I would say my role is to structure a group of individuals to create a team that is best in class – to give guidance, to be a sparring partner, without interfering in the detail of the business. They are world-class engineers and you have to let them get on with the job,” says Wolff of his part in the equation.

“I need to provide them with the right environment, the right resources – I need to give them a set-up that enables them to focus on doing what they do best.”

Managing conflict

Technical and marketing pressures have a huge influence on sporting politics, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to team principal’s working for their team’s best interests F1 is a more politically charged environment than rallying or touring cars.

Matton points to the new TC1 rules as a major contributor to the WTCC’s stability, while the financial collapse of the WRC’s previous promoter has promoted peace among the world rally teams. “When we need to talk to each other we can get all the team principals together inside 30 minutes and we meet at every rally,” says Capito. “All the manufacturers are completely aligned on what the future should be and where the regulations should go.” 

That’s a scenario Wolff can but dream about in F1. “The political environment is always a minefield,” he says. “Each of the teams will try to lobby in a way they believe will suit them. You need to understand where the particular assets of your team lie and then you can try to anticipate where the regulations might go or how the sport develops. That’s not to be underestimated, because while we’re a team, we’re also part of a global entertainment business. So we can’t be totally focused on ourselves and take a hardline view against all opposition, because the sport has to be able to grow and satisfy our audiences.”

Perhaps the team principal’s most publicly conspicuous role is in managing the often rancorous relationships between their prize human assets: the drivers. Wolff took a notably hard line over the course of 2014 as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg clashed both on and off the track. Matton, meanwhile, found his multiple world touring car champion, Yvan Muller, growing increasingly irate at being beaten by newcomer José María López, while WRC convert Sébastien Loeb struggled to get to grips with some elements of circuit racing discipline. Capito had to juggle the fast but mercurial Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and young hopeful Andreas Mikkelsen.

“The main difference in touring cars is the fact they’re fighting door-to-door,” says Matton. “You’re close to the battle – and they’re quick to come back to the pits and, let’s say, make contact! But I have been following what Toto was doing last year because he also had a great challenge. Communication is important between the drivers and we have to address it straight away when things happen.”

Ultimately, while the team principal’s status has changed over the years and the organograms they appear on have sprawled outwards, people management has remained fundamental to the role. Identifying, recruiting, developing and retaining the best talent is the key to winning – that, and a little humility.

“I’m lucky enough that I’ve been involved in motor racing for 20 years,” says Wolff, “so I understand the basics of the sport and how a car drives in a competitive environment. The reason for [Mercedes] performing as it is at the moment, and winning titles, is not that there’s one individual who thinks he’s clever but many individuals who are clever.”

This is a shortened version of a feature from the latest FIA AUTO magazine, which is distributed to senior figures in the motoring and motor sport industries.

Read Auto #10