Pat Symonds on Senna, Schumacher, Alonso

The veteran engineer’s departure from Williams concludes one of the modern age’s most durable F1 careers. Here he looks back at key phases of his time at the sport’s summit, working with three of racing’s all-time greats

Pat Symonds is not retiring and we almost certainly haven’t seen the last of him in Formula 1. But his engineering directorship of Williams – which came to an end in December – probably marks his last position working directly for a team. Now is therefore a good time to review with him what has been a truly remarkable three-decades-plus career at the top level of the sport. 

From standing on the bank of his local track Snetterton on Good Friday 1967 as a wide-eyed 13-year-old, knowing that he wanted to be an automotive engineer, he went on to oversee two sets of back-to-back world championships and 48 grand prix victories. He worked on the original turbo era cars, through the naturally-aspirated V10 and V8 eras - taking in active ride, traction control, tyre and refuelling stops along the way - into the current turbo hybrid age. There’s very little he hasn’t seen and in that time he has worked with Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, with roughly a decade between each.

His chapters with each of those three outstanding drivers are as good a way as any to tell his story.

Toleman and Ayrton Senna

Senna’s rookie season of 1984 with Toleman was the team’s fourth in F1, and Symonds had joined as employee number 20 in 1981. That team would over the years morph into Benetton and subsequently Renault, with Symonds remaining on board for 28 years even as the labels, ownership and factory sites changed. The partnership sprang from a chat with Toleman’s Alex Hawkridge in a Brands Hatch car park at the tail end of 1980. Symonds was by that time a successful designer of Formula Ford cars, firstly for Hawke and subsequently Royale, where he replaced Rory Byrne when the South African left to design Toleman’s F2 car. Symonds’ first design, the 1976 Hawke DL17, had taken the top two places at the 1976 Formula Ford Festival. He smiles at the memory: “I thought, ‘this is relatively easy’. Everything since hasn’t been.” That said, his first car for Royale, the RP26, locked out the top three places on its debut in 1979 at Hockenheim. 

“But it was time for a change,” as he recalls. “It was already year four of what I’d reckoned was a three-year project and I felt it was probably time I got a proper job.” By this he meant a position in the road car industry. As an undergraduate in mechanical engineering he’d been sponsored by Ford and had particularly enjoyed his time at the R&D centre in Dunton, specialising in vehicle dynamics and working on the original Fiesta. After graduating, the company had allowed him to take time out to get a masters degree at Cranfield where a classmate was a young Adrian Reynard. “Adrian dropped out after year one, telling me he was off to race his Ford 2000 car that he’d designed and that he had an idea he would go into business in racing. I told him he was mad, that he’d never make a career out of that. But his success told me that maybe you could have a career in racing.” Which led to the Hawke and Royale experiences.

Rory Byrne had been instrumental in selecting Symonds as his replacement at Royale and now the man who Pat would come to consider his mentor was instrumental in his move to F1. Formula 2 champion in 1980, Toleman was stepping up to the big time in 1981 and Byrne wanted Symonds there to assist him. “Alex Hawkridge told me all about their plans and said they wanted me to be part of it. I wasn’t totally sure but the clincher came when he said the deal included a brand-new Golf GTI. I said ‘See you there on Monday.’ 

“Our ambition outweighed our naïveté by such a huge amount. Going into F1 in the era of the DFV, why would you not do that while you learned? But no, we said we don’t want to do that, turbos are the way forward. We were even toying with doing a carbon-fibre chassis that first year. On top of that, because Toleman had been so successful with Pirelli in F2, they thought we might as well use their tyres as well. The idea that 13-inch wheels were right? No, no, we’ll do 16s. Wow, did we take on something. Meanwhile Brian Hart was doing a turbo engine on about a fiver a week. Just madness.”

It took until the final race of the season before the car even qualified, but over the next couple of years the new boys progressed. Symonds effectively ran the race team from early in ’82 while Byrne got on with a new car. “We introduced our first carbon-fibre car at Monza in ’82. We had a tweak to the underside of the monocque that was so good we decided not to put it on the car for the last two races, because we didn’t want anyone else to see it. We felt come 1983 it was going to be amazing, but then F1 went flat-bottomed. But we applied some wonderful lateral thinking to that flat-bottomed car and this team that still hadn’t scored any points, and didn’t qualify for every race, went to Rio for the first test in ’83 and was fastest. The reason was we just had loads more downforce than anyone else. But the downforce was incredibly sensitive, a really difficult car to set up. But if you had two weeks of testing you could do it and it would just fly. Everyone was suddenly looking at us and a lot of the little tweaks we’d done – like going out to the full 140cm wing width forward of axle centre line – was copied by the next race. Which is the way it was in those days. You didn’t get protested, you got copied. I loved it like that. That car was actually semi-competitive but remained very, very difficult to set up because it had a front radiator and huge underwings beneath the radiator on a full width nose, making it very ride height-sensitive.”

But that TG183 gained Toleman its first points and put it on an upward trajectory that made it an attractive berth for Senna in his F1 rookie season, especially as the Pirellis had been exchanged for Michelins. “With Ayrton, it was the first time I saw that there was something different in a real elite sportsman. Obviously he had ability by the bucketful but it was more than that. It was the first time I’d met a driver that didn’t need to use his entire brain to drive the car and had plenty of capacity left to think about what was going on. This was enormously valuable in an era before data recording. He could tell you what the water temperature was, what the revs were in each corner. Most drivers simply couldn’t do that and it was difficult enough to get them to figure out what the revs were at the end of the straight. He wasn’t perfect; he was staggeringly unfit when he first came in and couldn’t initially drive a full Grand Prix distance at maximum ability. Without the data, we didn’t gain as much knowledge about the driver’s performance, how it was derived, as in later days. But I do recall his amazing precision. He retired from Dallas after hitting the wall and said it was because someone had moved the wall! He took me out there after the race and yes, someone had nudged it, it had pivoted about its centre and the end was sticking out maybe 5mm – and that extra 5mm had caught him out.”

Senna’s ‘almost-win’ at Monaco plus further podiums at Brands and Estoril confirmed Toleman as a contender. Even after Senna moved on its progress continued, despite initially having to miss races because it had no tyre deal following Michelin’s withdrawal. The TG185 Toleman was probably the best chassis of 1985.

Benetton and Michael Schumacher

Toleman became Benetton in 1986 and Symonds continued to lead the engineering at both factory and track, a role that would subsequently expand also into research and development. The management changed with the ownership, eventually leading to the Benetton family installing the colourful Flavio Briatore to run its investment. “At first you think ‘what the hell does he know about anything?’” says Symonds about first impressions of his new boss.
“But boy, what a lateral thinker. He didn’t run the team in the usual way but he trusted key people and allowed you to get on with it. He wasn’t there every single day, knowing every detail, but he knew the targets and when he felt things were going wrong wasn’t afraid to step in.

“Benetton was by then established as a team regularly finishing third or fourth in the championship for constructors and that’s all it was ever going to do. And Flavio felt it needed a step-change. He felt that hiring John Barnard would do that. Rory, myself and 11 others decided we didn’t want to be part of that and went off to Reynard to try to start a new team. Flavio said he understood and wanted to part on good terms because we might work together again. 

“Just before Barnard joined I’d actually done Benetton’s first active car. I didn’t get on particularly well with John and when he wanted to know about it I more or less said, ‘Find out for yourself.’ We spent a year at Reynard without the pressure of racing, designing the car, developing the active suspension, even made a start on four-wheel steering. It was a lovely experience because, as an engineer, you’re constantly asking yourself questions but you never have time to answer them. But in ’91 we did. And we spent a total of just £750,000. We also found an old quarry in Enstone and got planning permission to build a factory. But designing the car was one thing, racing it would have been another. We needed someone to pay for the engine and even then it would’ve been a struggle. But just as we were arriving at the point where we were having to fold it, Flavio and Barnard had fallen out.”

The Barnard interlude had physically split Benetton’s infrastructure, some of it Barnard’s, some the team’s. While that was disentangled, Byrne, Symonds and their group – having been re-hired by Briatore – set up temporary base at Tom Walkinshaw’s nearby TWR factory to turn the aborted Reynard into the 1992 Benetton. This link resulted in Walkinshaw becoming a Benetton director. It was this that brought the step-change Briatore had been seeking with Barnard, changing the dynamic of the team fundamentally, injecting into it not only his notoriously hard-nosed approach to finding ways around regulations, but also the talents of his designer Ross Brawn. At the design-engineering level it meshed beautifully, with a Brawn-Byrne-Symonds combination adding up to at least the sum of its parts. Critically, Walkinshaw and Brawn also had first-hand experience of just how very special the young sports car ace Michael Schumacher was. This was central to his – highly controversial – recruitment to Benetton.

“It was immediately apparent how special he was,” says Pat. “But beyond his skills as a driver, I just grew to love the guy in every respect. We developed together. We moved into that electronic age together and both knew how to exploit it. I think we had complete trust in each other and on top of that, in my mind he was one of the nicest guys
I ever worked with.”

Symonds’ specialisation, going right back to the Ford days, was vehicle dynamics. Ever since working on that quick but peaky 1983 Toleman, he’d played a key part at conception and development stages in making Byrne’s designs all about accessible performance, benign aerodynamics and driveability. Symonds quickly came to realise that Schumacher’s skills opened up new possibilities. “Michael was able to drive a car much closer to the stability limit than any of his peers. Whether it’s a car or a jet fighter, if you can drive near the stability limit you get great response and performance. That was his strength. We didn’t design the car around Michael; we weren’t that clever. But we did set it up around him. So the car was really quite oversteery and no one else could drive it like that.”

The abolition of active suspension and other electronic gizmos for 1994 suddenly made Benetton’s benign aerodynamics philosophy a much better fit than the more aggressive aero platforms that active suspension had allowed and which had been pursued by Adrian Newey at Williams. The initial ’94 Williams as driven by Senna was a handful. The B194 Benetton, driven by Schumacher, could run rings around it. Plus the re-introduction to F1 of refuelling meant the team’s TWR-honed race strategy skills left the competition clay-footed and history played out as it did, with the death of Senna and Schumacher’s title amid the controversy of Benetton’s ‘option 13’ traction control. “Because Tom was involved everyone assumed he was cheating. I’m pretty certain we weren’t. I went through the data with the FIA inspector and he accepted that actually the start in question was actually quite mediocre – it was just better than the poor starts of the two cars ahead of it. But there was a political situation between Flavio and Max Mosley. In Spain that year Flavio had come into the motorhome saying, ‘That’s it. That’s the last we’ll be hearing of Max Mosley,’ which was a dangerous statement to make. Whatever that was all about was at the heart of the politics between them. I still scrutinise myself and think, ‘If someone was really clever, could they have been cheating but kept it from me?’ Possibly, but I went through so much data I’m sure I’d have known.

“But the accusations and innuendo made me seriously consider leaving the sport. In the end I resolved to be involved in doing it again in ’95, with no question marks this time. And that was very satisfying.

“Michael wasn’t flawless of course. Some of those incidents he’s infamous for are a reflection of his incredibly competitive nature and the fact that his first reaction is competitive before ethical. But none
of them was premeditated. It was heat-of-the-moment competitive panic. I honestly think he would never do anything premeditated and
I suspect afterwards he was always full of remorse. And that includes when we won the ’94 championship in Adelaide. At the time I didn’t think that was deliberate but after Jerez ’97 and Monaco ’06 you think, ‘Yeah, that was probably one of one of those’. But I’d never criticise him.”

That burst of talent and energy began to dissipate from Benetton as first Schumacher and subsequently Brawn and Byrne headed for Ferrari. Symonds could have gone too. “Michael wanted me to join him at Ferrari as his race engineer. But at the same time Flavio and Ross were convincing me to replace Ross as Benetton’s technical director when he left.” Ultimately it was an easy choice. But the depletions weren’t finished yet. The budget was shrinking, Briatore himself departed in 1997 and Symonds’ job became holding the fort while a manufacturer buyer was sought. 

Renault and Fernando Alonso

Renault bought out Benetton in 2000 and recruited Briatore to run it. They’d fallen a long way back, but a significant part of the rebuild took shape as Symonds logged the laps of a young junior driver, Fernando Alonso. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is something different.’ He was both faster and more consistent than our number one driver of the time [Giancarlo Fisichella] and I phoned Flavio that night, telling him this guy was pretty special.”

Alonso and the rebuilding team progressed together, almost in a repeat of the Schumacher chapter, and won back-to-back titles in 2005 and ’06.   

“Fernando was incredibly competitive, had the same total self-esteem of Ayrton and Michael. They know they are the best. He was a great racer, not quite as outright quick as Michael, maybe, but still very, very quick. At the times I worked with them I’d say Michael was the quickest, then Fernando, then Ayrton. But it was Ayrton’s first year
and I’m sure people that worked with him when he was winning championships would disagree with that assessment. 

“If the car wasn’t quite there Fernando sometimes wouldn’t give quite everything. As a team player he let himself down on occasion and I never formed the bond with him that I did with Michael – no one on the team did. He was a bit of a loner and that’s carried on into other teams. He was well very suited to that era of sprints because he was so relentless. But don’t under-estimate his ability to adapt. In the right car he could still win titles. When he was with us he had a quite distinctive driving style – he’d put in very rapid steering inputs. He doesn’t do that these days and so maybe it was a car or tyre characteristic. He used to wait late before going towards the apex and then very rapidly and aggressively push the car in. That was his way of killing that mid-corner understeer that’s inherent in an F1 car.” 

Unfortunately the parallels with Schumacher extended to Alonso leaving after securing the second title and the fall in the team’s competitiveness that followed – even after Alonso returned in 2008. From that and the car industry downturn came the pressure upon Briatore from Renault and the unfortunate saga of Singapore 2008. An early stop for Alonso followed by a deliberate, orchestrated crash from Nelson Piquet Jr that brought out the safety car, secured Alonso the win. When Piquet went public a year later, Briatore and Symonds were forced to resign. “I will never, ever try to justify Singapore, but some of the pressures were indescribable. Flavio had told me we had to win that year or Renault was out. I regret it bitterly because it changed everything and I was shattered to start with. I’d had a proud career come to nothing because of one incident and that was pretty hard to reconcile.”

* * *

After serving an FIA-imposed two-year ban from F1, Symonds returned first of all as a consultant to the Manor team and latterly – from 2013 – as engineering director of Williams. He found a disheartened team that had lost its competitive will and riven by internal friction. A year later it finished third in the championship for constructors. “Although that was helped by the Mercedes engine,” he says, “in 2013 we’d finished ninth using the same engine as the world champions.

“I had planned to leave at the end of 2016, but then agreed to extend my contract to the end of ’17. But in mid-December it was decided that our futures didn’t belong together. That opens up a new chapter.” Expect a new role soon that incorporates every facet of this remarkable career.