Some pits vibrate to loud music and friendly jokes, and some to corporate brand-pushing. But it’s the internal sense of purpose which really matters
Back in 1983 when Alain Prost lost the world championship at the final round to Brabham’s Nelson Piquet, Renault was the corporate racing team among a field of wildcat independents. The two teams were garaged next to each other in the Kyalami pits and the contrast could not have been greater. “They had a load of media with them, like it was just a formality they were going to win,” recalls Brabham’s then chief designer Gordon Murray.
“They had dozens of people in there — managers from the parent company, media, all in the Renault corporate colours. We just had our usual handful of people, nine of us in total, in shorts and t-shirts — and we had music playing at full blast.” It all played to the image of Renault being the big factory team, with lots of resource but fatally slow reaction times and an overly cautious racing approach.
This year, when Renault clinched the title in the final round of Brazil, their garage was the one with the loud music and the gung-ho mentality. In the flesh, the modern day Renault F1 team is not a corporate entity at all. Sure, just like any F1 team today they bring around 100 people to the track. But the ambience of the team is purely racing. Flavio Briatore stalks around the place with a sort of absent-minded detachment in the exact same way he did when this was Benetton, or as Bernie Ecclestone did when he owned Brabham. Briatore attends to business, as they say — puts the pieces in place that allow the team to go racing. But directing operations at the track just as surely as Murray ever did at Brabham is Pat Symonds.
There’s an engineering-led structure to this team in operation, and within that is a hardworking, hard-playing bunch of blokes. The Renault mechanics always seem to be having more fun than any others. It’s a place with a friendly informality, where everyone, including their champion driver Fernando Alonso, is a legitimate target for mickey-taking. But underlying all that is a totally serious mentality, one that reacts to challenges in the intense and instant way of any well-honed racing team.
Move along to Ferrari and it’s a similar story. Instead of British blokey humour there’s lots of Latin gesticulation, but it’s underwritten by the same seriousness of purpose. There’s a much stronger protective media department barrier keeping the team from external scrutiny than at Renault — but then you’d kind of expect that given how much interest Ferrari generates just through being Ferrari. Penetrate that barrier, and you see that it too is a pure racing team.
It’s reassuring that the 2006 world title was fought out between these two. There are other teams where the whole thing is much more marketing-led, where structures and departments have taken on a self-justifying life of their own — where the racing core and personality inside is so invisible that you can’t help wondering if it’s really still there.