Changing of the old guard

Nico Rosberg won’t be the only significant absentee from Mercedes technical briefings in 2017. Paddy Lowe is also poised to move on as part of a major technical shuffle within F1

Paddy Lowe is an exceptionally ambitious man. With three consecutive world championships behind him in his role as Mercedes AMG F1 executive director, he’s set to walk away from that for a new challenge: to return the Williams team at which he started his career to the sort of glory it knew back then. He aims in essence to do at Williams what Adrian Newey did at Red Bull a decade ago. It’s a monumental task. 

Which leaves Mercedes, already bereft of its world champion driver, without its world champion technical chief. In his place is set to come James Allison, late of Ferrari and before that hugely regarded at the Enstone team in its various appellations. 

It’s a fascinating development and an illustration above all of the concept of entropy that always eventually unfolds with even the most devastatingly successful of partnerships. Although Lowe walked into a Mercedes team in which the foundations were all in place for the success that followed, he has brought much to the party. 

Ross Brawn was effectively replaced by both Toto Wolff and Lowe, with Paddy taking on the operational side, Toto the commercial, but with the latter also going beyond the Brawn role in that he became a 30 per cent stakeholder in the team. For the last three years Lowe has run the Brackley factory where the cars are designed, built and prepared and has been meticulous in keeping the departments marching to the same step and engendering co-operation. As Wolff acknowledged in this magazine last year, “Essentially Paddy’s the MD of the factory.” He has led the whole organisation day to day and every senior engineer reports to him and he then liaises with his equivalent number at the Brixworth engine factory, Andy Cowell. Lowe has been able to continue the seamless level of integration between the two entities (Brackley and Brixworth, bases around 20 miles apart) that has been so crucial to their joint success. It was an integration first created between Cowell and Brawn, with each agreeing that simulated lap time could be the only arbiter to any question between chassis and engine – but that was something that had immediate resonance with Lowe, someone who always focused hard on a team approach and who has built up a natural distrust of the lone ‘superstar engineer’. That probably dates back to his time at McLaren in the Adrian Newey days and it’s clear just in general conversation with him that he carries a niggle about Adrian, someone very much in his own individual groove of thought where the quicksilver insights visit him. 

By contrast Paddy is a meticulous scientist, driven by numbers, incredibly analytical and process-driven. He works brilliantly well within a group, methodically piecing everything together with an engineer’s rigour and even when he’s in charge there is no friction. Though that group numbers hundreds of people, Lowe is very effective in not letting it sprawl. He retains an intimate grasp of the car’s technical philosophy, from its mechanical layout to its aerodynamics. Despite the seniority of his position, he has still played a key part in determining the technical direction. He’s calm and mild-mannered, but there is a ruthlessly ambitious streak within him. When Wolff offered the opportunity of joining him at Mercedes for a more senior role than his McLaren technical directorship there was apparently no hesitation – even though the position of Ross Brawn was at that stage far from resolved. 

Now, three consecutive titles in, even his friendship with Wolff has not prevented him from being prepared to leave F1’s dominant team in response to his financial assessment of his contribution not aligning with Wolff’s. It’s tempting to see it as an ego struggle between them, perhaps with Wolff feeling his seniority in the partnership is being challenged and Lowe feeling he contributes more to the success than Wolff credits. Only they can know that, but they are each deeply competitive so it would be no surprise. The challenge for any successful team is always to keep together what has worked while meeting the always evolving demands, to keep that group motivated when there is nowhere within the organisation for anyone to go. Keeping everything in equilibrium within a group staffed with restlessly competitive people after multiple repeated success together is always ultimately impossible. It’s only ever a question of how long it can be maintained and then whether any replacements can slot in without unbalancing everything. 

Wolff said in his interview here last year that he relied upon Lowe for more than just the performing of his official role. “Me and Paddy are opposite sides of personalities. He has a great education, is very precise, analytical, unpolitical, straightforward. He’s sceptical for the purpose of engineering but not the overall situation. I’m the opposite of all those. I’m instinct-driven – which can be very detrimental in F1 if you’re not aware of it. All the decisions you make need to be scientific and data-based. So in a way he is the perfect partner for me in the team.”

So James Allison, understood to be free of his Ferrari gardening leave from April, finds a place at F1’s dominant team. They are different people, so how the existing organisation accommodates those differences will be telling. Although very much his own man, Allison’s professional reputation has elements of both Newey and Lowe. He has been described as an ‘eccentric professor’ and his approach is perhaps sometimes more instinctual than Lowe’s, his heart more on his sleeve. But he has engendered fierce loyalty from those he worked with at Enstone. Can he take the reins with minimal disruption? Will he need to re-organise the structure? Will he be comfortable assuming a role more senior than the technical directorship he had at both Enstone and Maranello? Will he be as naturally attuned to the philosophy of integration between the chassis and engine sides, something that Ferrari has not achieved as well as Mercedes despite the facilities being on the same site at Maranello? Can he be as effective a foil to Wolff’s instinct-driven personality? On the other hand, there will doubtless be other areas where he can improve on what’s there, new insights and methods while taking advantage of the structure that has been built up by Brawn and Lowe. 

All this of course will be within a team with a quite different dynamic now that Nico Rosberg has retired. If – as looked highly likely at the time of writing – Valtteri Bottas is Rosberg’s replacement, then Hamilton’s sway within the team is potentially greater. He has already gone on record as saying he felt ‘disrespected’ by Lowe and the team for being asked over the radio to speed up in the Abu Dhabi title decider. As Hamilton’s power and status continue to grow, the delineation between superstar driver and team might be a fault line that needs to be shored up. Lowe showed he was quite prepared to get involved in the control and discipline of the drivers in the interests of the team. Will Allison be similarly inclined? How will that dynamic play out? Especially if the Red Bull challenge is intensified under the new regulations.  

Allison played a key part in Fernando Alonso’s two championships with Renault in 2005 and ’06, but when he joined Ferrari was deeply disappointed with the Spaniard’s lack of response to his entreaties to remain with him at the Scuderia. After spending a day talking through his plans with the driver, he felt Alonso was not respectful in the tone of his response. But subsequently he formed a great bond with Alonso’s replacement Sebastian Vettel, whose attitude and work rate he found inspiring. Could Allison yet be decisive in what Mercedes does with its driver line-up after this season, when the contracts of many of the existing field expire? Already Hamilton has threatened to retire (in the wake of the Barcelona collision with Rosberg). Mercedes might feel the need to make the team less reliant upon a driver who, by virtue of his talent and profile, has a lot of influence but who may be feeling the pull of a new life. These are fascinating times in the dynamic of an overwhelmingly successful team. When the victories are playing out, race after race, season after season, it can feel like it’s never going to change. But it always does. The intriguing question is in what way. The playing out of the domino effect of Lowe’s negotiating stance could be one of the main storylines of F1 for the next few seasons.    

Looking at it from the other direction, Lowe’s recruitment to Williams is equally intriguing. The team uncomfortably straddles two models at the moment and is arguably has the worst of both worlds: too big and bulky as an independent compared to Force India/Haas (700 employees compared to 360 at Force India, 200 at Haas). But it hasn’t got the technical horsepower of a big team. Yet with just a bit more investment there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that should lift it way beyond the smaller teams. There is a queue of programmes and initiatives just waiting for the financial green light. CEO Mike O’Driscoll has done an admirable job of pulling the team from the brink of financial ruin in the last five years, while simultaneously its on-track performances improved (the latter largely courtesy of the Mercedes power unit in the hybrid era). But it’s a precarious balancing act he’s pulling off and the team’s defeat by Force India in the 2016 championship for constructors highlights that.      

Williams has rightly played hardball in its negotiations with Mercedes over Bottas. Rumours of a €20 million settlement, if true, would be ample to allow Williams to make the necessary upgrades. With engineering director and board member Pat Symonds announcing his retirement a year earlier than expected, Lowe will be an admirable replacement. He would have a very fine-honed understanding of how the extra budget could be spent for maximum effect and he would also bring intimate cutting-edge knowledge from the best team in the paddock. Even aside from the technical upgrades there is some updating needed in parts of the Williams culture – its production of new parts, for example, is far too slow, limiting car development through the season. An empowered new broom would be the perfect way of achieving the required changes. Even with the return of Felipe Massa after a brief retirement, Williams will have a weakened driver line-up for 2017, but given that will now be a season of transition it’s probably less than crucial. The driver market opens up dramatically one year from now, by which time any improvement curve at Williams might make it a very attractive place for a Carlos Sainz, for example. 

Williams is a team with a glorious history and Lowe was there when much of it was happening. He began his F1 career there as an electronics engineer and was the data engineer sitting in his place in the garage watching a warning sensor from Nigel Mansell’s Williams FW14B flash that hydraulics failure was imminent as Nigel was dominating the 1992 British Grand Prix. Paddy didn’t tell anyone – there was no point in letting anyone know; it would either fail or it wouldn’t. But Lowe’s relief as Mansell victoriously took the chequer can be imagined. He has colleagues from that time who are still at Williams and he will be a very easy fit. 

But arriving as a senior executive with three world championships brings with it the sort of clout that should allow him to push through whatever changes he sees as necessary. That picture of what is necessary, and where the money can best be spent, will be informed by his three years at arguably the most effective F1 team there has ever been.  

From Lowe’s perspective, what better challenge could there be than turning around this once great team and rebuilding it to a race-winning – maybe even title-contending – entity? In many ways it’s the next obvious step for him, potentially far more stimulating and satisfying than simply repeating previous success at a hugely resourced team. Besides, at Mercedes there would always be that nagging suggestion that all he did was inherit the great foundations put down by Brawn and then not mess up. His achievements there were about much more than that, but for someone of his ambition there would be great satisfaction by proving as much through turning Williams around. 

Has Wolff just made a bad mistake? Has Lowe? Have they both allowed their egos to cloud their judgment? Or will they each attain new heights apart?