To a kid growing up in 1970s Middlesbrough, Formula 1 might as well have been a parallel universe. “I come from a working-class background and motor racing wasn’t the most obvious thing to follow,” Rob Smedley says. “My whole family was into football, massive Middlesbrough fans, but during the 1980s my dad started getting into F1. I’d noticed it in the background on TV, but thought it looked incredibly dull. And then in 1987, he asked whether I fancied going to the British Grand Prix. I said, ‘OK, so long as we take a transistor radio to listen to the football scores.’”
To hear how Smedley, 45, morphed from uninterested teen to one of the most prominent Formula 1 race engineers of his generation, we meet at Branca, Oxford, where he selects char-grilled sea bream with spinach and new potatoes. “It’s part of my bid to stay healthy,” he says, before pausing momentarily and adding, “Actually, I’ll have a half of lager, too…”
That Silverstone weekend had an unexpected effect. “It was like a switch,” he says. “The noise, speed, colour… I’d never known anything like it and was immediately hooked. There were no electronic passes for the F1 paddock in those days, but there was a bloke on the gate so it was still hard to get in. We ended up clambering over the fence near Copse and then sneaked through a gate into the pits – all part of my very first taste of motor racing. Somebody eventually spotted us and we were just being challenged when one of the Leyton House March mechanics came out and said, ‘Hang on, they’re my guests’ at which point security walked off. The mechanic took pity on us, then showed us around the garage and I decided there and then that I wanted to work with F1 cars. I see F1 as the pinnacle of a marriage between art and engineering. It’s functional, it’s about performance – but the cars’ intricacy makes them things of great beauty. Even today I can see art in them.”
He took the first steps towards his future by hanging out at RS Karting, a shop in the centre of Middlesbrough. “I went along to discover how the karts worked and that progressed to helping out at race weekends, as a result of which I got the chance to assist other drivers – and I was getting paid for it. I’d been doing paper rounds and all sorts, then found I could work as a kart mechanic and earn £80 per weekend, probably five times what I’d been making before. This looked like a career worth pursuing…”
Having obtained A-levels in maths, physics and computer science, he moved on to study mechanical engineering at Loughborough and spent his summers working 12-week shifts at Reynard Racing Cars in Bicester. “I’m sure I got that chance because of the stuff I’d done previously,” he says, “I wasn’t exactly involved in the key decisions, but I was gaining experience.”
So much so that company chairman Adrian Reynard offered him a full-time role upon graduation, though Smedley opted instead for a position with Pilbeam Racing Designs, where he worked on various projects – including Peugeot’s 406 touring car, the Pilbeam MP84 sports-prototype and one of the final Ford Escort RS Cosworth rally cars, for M-Sport. “Mike Pilbeam asked me to do quite a lot of work on the Escort,” he says. “Front and rear suspension, stress calculations, engine installation… I’d been attuned to single-seaters and touring cars, then I was taken to a rally test in Kielder Forest with Juha Kankkunen. As I was going to be doing calculations for the structural elements, Mike said, ‘I think it would be an idea for you to get a first-hand idea of the loads involved.’ So I sat alongside Juha in an older Group A car and soon realised I needed a bit of a rethink about how strong the car had to be.”
Towards the end of 1998, Smedley spotted an F1 opportunity – an advertisement for a job with Stewart GP. “I was hired,” he says, “but things didn’t go terribly well. I was working on Johnny Herbert’s car, which seemed to be the second-string effort. The race engineer and I were both new to our roles, but he had less track experience than I did and we just didn’t get on, so I left quite quickly.
“Then a job came up with Williams Touring Car Engineering, to work on Jason Plato’s Renault Laguna as design and data engineer. But it’s like anything. If you go along and get stuck in, you start doing one job and end up doing about 10 others. After I’d been there a month, the team manager said, ‘We’ve been trying to sort out this sequential gearbox, but can’t get our heads around it – would you take a look?’ I did some calculations and worked out that the timing on the shift mechanism was all wrong, so I redesigned it and that was a great project because it gave me a proper understanding of how gearboxes worked. It turned out to be a fun year, but then Renault decided to quit the BTCC and we were all laid off. Such is motor racing…”
Smedley found refuge in Heist-op-den-Berg, Belgium, as a race engineer for Team Astromega in the FIA Formula 3000 Championship. “Our technical team was led by Chris Murphy, the former Lotus F1 designer, who was going to look after Fabrice Walfisch, notionally the number one driver. Chris asked me to look after our second signing, whoever it might be, but that was fine – I was just happy to have a job. We went to a pre-season test in Barcelona, where I was supposed to look after Robert Lechner, a promising Austrian, but that fell through and I was told I’d be looking after some Spanish kid who had just arrived – that was my introduction to Fernando Alonso.”
This was a big leap for an 18-year-old with a single season of car racing under his belt – during which, admittedly, he’d won the Formula Nissan title – and Smedley admits he didn’t expect too much. Any notion that this might be a low-key campaign was, however, swiftly dispelled. “We had some data from a previous test,” he says, “and on old tyres Fernando almost immediately went quicker than we’d previously managed on fresh rubber. I thought something must be wrong, but he looked pretty impressive so we sent him out on new Avons and he knocked 2sec off our time from the previous test. I’d never seen such raw talent – and I haven’t since.”
Alonso became ever more effective as the season progressed. He qualified and ran third at Magny-Cours, until sidelined by a broken fuel pump, finished second behind champion Bruno Junqueira in Budapest and then absolutely walloped the field in the seasonal finale at Spa. “Before that race,” Smedley says, “Fernando and I went to Spa because he wanted to take me around a circuit to show how things looked from his perspective, so I could understand. It was a real light-bulb moment. We were in a BMW touring car with a passenger seat and I was able to watch the way he used the brakes and steering to balance the car. It made it easier for me to understand exactly what he wanted when we were looking for a set-up – and ever since then I’ve done that as much as possible. I decided I couldn’t be a truly effective race engineer without an intimate understanding of how somebody drives.”
Within a matter of months, both would be in F1, Alonso with Minardi and Smedley with Jordan. “I was really enjoying F3000 and its camaraderie,” he says, “but when Jordan offered me a data engineering role I thought, ‘It’s F1 and my last foray didn’t go well, so…’ I’d been there eight months when I got the chance to become a race engineer. I did a few grands prix with Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jean Alesi at the end of 2001, then worked with Giancarlo Fisichella from 2002. We had a great relationship from the outset and, at the end of that season, Williams offered me the chance to engineer Juan Pablo Montoya. That was a bit weird, because I’d gone from being made redundant by Williams to being head-hunted by its F1 team, but this business has always been like that. I had a chat with Patrick Head, which was great. He said, ‘I’ve heard good things about you, so I’d like to employ you before you become too expensive!’
“At the same time, Ferrari had been in touch and offered me a role with the race team, but those conversations didn’t last too long because what I really wanted was to join its test team. People thought I was mad, but I hadn’t been in F1 for very long and felt like I was going up the pinball table a bit too quickly. I wanted to step back and learn my craft, which at the time was with a top test team. But I was ready to join Williams… until Eddie Jordan scuppered it. When I told him I was leaving, he did this big, dramatic thing, getting down on one knee, ‘I’m not asking you to stay, I’m begging you for the good of the company…’ I know you look back and regret certain things, but I was still pretty much a child back then so did another year with Jordan.”
The campaign included an unlikely victory in a chaotic, rain-hit Brazilian GP at Interlagos – which the FIA initially failed to recognise, having misinterpreted the timing data – but overall it was clear that Jordan’s best days were behind it. When Ferrari approached again at the season’s end, this time with the offer of a job on the test team, he accepted.
“It was as though I’d walked away from an F1 team and entered a different category – F1-plus. It was a real eye-opener to see how the whole machine operated. The amount I learned, the amount of work we were doing, the level of science… It was the making of me – and an absolute honour.”
It was also an opportunity to work first-hand with Michael Schumacher.
“He was relentless,” Smedley says, “and had so much humility, too. One of the biggest misconceptions about Michael is that he was arrogant, which is a brilliantly bad description. If you actually worked with the guy, you’d have seen a truly humble man. Behind the wheel he was an animal, which is why he has those seven gold medals around his neck. He didn’t achieve that by being the nicest man in western Europe. He’s a machine and made some questionable decisions, but don’t let that define him – allow his brilliance to do that. Within the team he was just one of the lads, a hard-working cog in a huge organisation.
“He’d win a race by a ridiculous margin and 36 hours later he’d be with us at Fiorano, in the truck at 7am for a meeting. He’d make a point of shaking everybody’s hand and thank them for all the effort that had gone into the previous weekend. That’s a side the general public very rarely got to see.”
Early in 2006, Smedley’s role within the team changed. “Technical director Ross Brawn and I often used to catch the same flight from Gatwick to Bologna,” he says, “but when we landed he’d disappear with his driver and leave me to my own devices. Then, one day, he asked whether I’d like a lift to the factory. I thought, ‘This is probably going to be a bad conversation – why would stratospheric Ross want to talk to me?’ Anyway, he began to tell me that he wasn’t happy with the way things were going for Felipe Massa and would I be interested in engineering him. I was good mates with Gabriele Delli Colli, who had been looking after Felipe, so I felt a twinge of disloyalty, but somebody was clearly going to take over and there was never subsequently any issue between the two of us.
“It was already Monday and we were flying to the Nürburgring on Wednesday, so I didn’t have much time. The situation had deteriorated to such an extent that the team wasn’t sure it had made the right decision by signing Felipe – it was my task to find out. It was difficult to see the real Felipe at that point, because he was so nervous. He’d had a few bad results and couldn’t sit still, kept coming out with random comments, ‘I need to win a race, I need to beat Michael’, stuff like that. I told him he just needed to calm down…
“For that first race it was really just a matter of getting him through the weekend, which is all I did. I told him to get back to basics and enjoy himself; he could clearly drive racing cars, but this was just a bigger, better team. I had to learn where his trigger points were, and work out how to use them. The team was obviously very Michael-centric, as it should have been, but once Felipe understood I was on his side, I soon started to see a change and he finished third, behind Michael and Fernando. I remember Ross giving me a hug and whispering in my ear, ‘I knew you’d do it’ – and there’s no better validation than that. Ross has kind of been my F1 dad, someone I respect hugely.
“It was just a matter of building from there. I had to get Felipe back to basics technically and psychologically. He had to forget any lofty ambitions until he had the basics in place – which at that stage he didn’t. He was properly quick, but would struggle to string 10 laps together in a race. You can’t inject talent into a driver, but I knew he had that and we could deal with the other bits.”
Massa scored his maiden F1 victory that summer in Istanbul, helped by Alonso’s Renault splitting the Ferraris during the pitstops and protecting the leader against any imposition of team orders. “Afterwards,” Smedley says, “I went to the debrief and thought there would be euphoria, but the attitude was more, ‘Why didn’t Michael win?’ Everyone was really gracious for Felipe, but the main feeling was that we might be letting Michael’s title chances slip away, because those were points he should have had. The reality is that we should have swapped the two of them around before the stops, but we didn’t. Felipe drove a great race, though, absolutely flawless.”
Schumacher’s retirement at the year’s end brought Kimi Räikkönen into the team – and Massa compared well with the Finn, particularly in 2008 when he established himself as Ferrari’s main title hope. Had Lewis Hamilton not gained one position during the final moments of the season-closing Brazilian GP, indeed, Massa would have been crowned. In reality, the title was lost as a result of several incidents – mistakes in the first two races, engine failure a couple of laps shy of victory in Budapest, a bungled refuelling stop in Singapore – but the last few seconds at Interlagos came to define the season.
“It wasn’t all that emotional from where I was sitting,” Smedley says, “because when you’re at the heart of it all you’re simply doing a job. You can see all this mayhem going on in your peripheral vision, but it’s only when work has finished that it sinks in.
“I think Felipe’s dignified post-race reaction enabled people to see the real him, someone who was a fierce competitor, who had been every inch Lewis’s equal throughout the campaign but knew how to take defeat. He did himself a lot of favours that day. If he had won the title, would he have been held in any higher regard? Would it have changed anything? I don’t think so.”
Massa again appeared the more effective Ferrari driver in 2009, but his season ended brutally in Budapest, when a stray damper spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn struck him squarely on the crash helmet. The Brazilian suffered serious head injuries that sidelined him for the season’s balance.
“I think he hit the radio button when he slumped in the cockpit,” Smedley says, “so we could hear him groaning and that was very distressing. It took a while to fathom out what had happened. I was worried that he’d had a heart attack or something, until we saw images that showed impact damage to his helmet and more information began to come through. Then they put up privacy screens around the car, so you begin to fear the worst. It was one of those moments when you start to question why you’re involved – a question I asked myself for a while after that. I’ve had good relationships with drivers since then, but I vowed I’d never again develop as close a bond with anyone as I had with Felipe. He’s one of my proper mates – an annoying little s**t at times, but also a true friend.
“I stayed with him for a couple of days, then came back to Budapest at the end of the week – by which time he was out of his induced coma. We knew he’d be all right, although we obviously didn’t know whether he’d drive an F1 car again. But I didn’t care about that; I just wanted to know that my mate – son, husband, brother, father-to-be – was going to live. When I walked in, he looked at me inquisitively, then a smile spread across his face and he said, ‘Jean!’ He kind of knew who I was. He said, ‘You’re something to do with racing, aren’t you? Right, I need to be ready for the next race, in Valencia, so I must get back in the gym in a few days.’ His head was the size of a beach ball at the time, and dark blue in parts…”
He would be fit to test by October, little more than two months after the incident, and Ferrari prepared a two-year-old car for him to try at Mugello.
“The whole world wanted to see Felipe back,” Smedley says, “but [team principal] Stefano Domenicali had a business to manage. As soon as Felipe had completed his first run I gave Stefano a call to tell him there was no difference – you could see that from the telemetry. We knew he’d need a bit of rehabilitation, but that just required a few days in a racing car.”
One thing that had changed was his team-mate’s identity. The underperforming Räikkönen had been dropped with a year of his contract remaining, to make way for Smedley’s former charge Alonso. Massa returned for the 2010 Bahrain GP and outqualified the Spaniard, but Alonso passed him through the first sequence of corners and a template for the future was defined. “Nothing was explicit for Felipe,” Smedley says. “He didn’t have a contract specifying that he’d be number two, only that he’d have equal treatment. But things can unravel quickly if you have an inkling that the team isn’t completely behind you.
“There were a few times when he wasn’t allowed to win, but mostly he was beaten because he just couldn’t get on terms with Fernando – and that was because he had too much stuff going on in his mind.”
The main flashpoint occurred during the 2010 German GP, when Massa outmanoeuvred Alonso at the start and continued to lead until receiving a radio message that became a seasonal catchphrase: ‘Felipe, Fernando is faster than you – do you understand?’ How uncomfortable did Smedley feel having to deliver it?
“Well he’s a mate and I wanted him to win,” he says, “but there was a clear team plan and my contract – and payslip – had ‘Ferrari’ written on top, nothing else, so I was fine with that, but I became infamous overnight. I appeared on every BBC news bulletin – including Radio 4. I was now this ‘controversial’ British engineer. It was all a bit weird. Most of the negativity was directed at Ferrari, but I was in the middle and wished I wasn’t. Ferrari could have done better that day, ditto Fernando and Felipe. None of us could say, ‘Yes, we all behaved perfectly.’ If we had, there wouldn’t have been so much fuss.”
The Smedley/Massa partnership continued at Ferrari until the end of 2013, when both departed for Williams. “Having been with Ferrari when things were really good,” he says, “I perhaps wasn’t as enamoured as I might have been with its latest engineering direction. Plus, there was a pull to return to England because the kids were at an age when senior school was looming. I’d probably seen the best of Ferrari and could leave, like Ross, as one of the few Englishmen to have worked a long spell there without being sacked.
“Williams seemed an interesting project. I agreed terms before Felipe did, but they needed a driver and I suggested they talk to him because I knew he’d score as many points as the car was capable of getting – and if you look at 2014-15, he did. He brought solid professionalism and a wealth of experience.
“The team clearly needed a lot of work. We instilled lots of new engineering practices, but the next part of the journey was R&D investment and that never happened. If you want to be a true constructor, you have to have that level of investment or you’ll be left behind, regardless of how good your people might be. I don’t want to talk about particular individuals, but it’s clear some bad decisions have been taken for the team to be in its current position. It’s a real shame.”
He left at the end of 2018 and is now doing some consultancy work for Formula One Management while awaiting fresh opportunities. “I wanted some time out with my family, because they’ve been neglected for a long time, but F1 will always be the same burning passion, just as it was when I was a kid. If I find something I want to do on the engineering side, then I’ll go and do it.”
One final question, has he ever fancied putting his accumulated knowledge to the test behind the wheel? He laughs loudly. “I did buy a kart when I was younger,” he says, “but I only raced it a couple of times, once at Langbaurgh, where I think I seized the engine, and once at Felton, where I spun at the same hairpin on every lap.
“I like to understand how drivers operate, from squiggly lines on the telemetry graphs, but that’s about it.”
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