To win in F1, every ingredient has to be right Endless effort and millions of dollars are routinely spent on technological details which may, or may not, shave a fiftieth of a second from a lap time. In every pit, computers whirl through a score of different race stiategies, projecting every permutation of consumption, tyre wear and fuel weight, and trying to second guess the other teams’ guesswork.
Down the years, each element of the racing car has been subjected to this relentless focus. Time was when a tyre was just a tyre, but soon producing the right rubber for different weathers, temperatures and surfaces became a rapidly moving science. Aerodynamics was stuck at what is now seen to be a childishly primitive level until well into the 1970s: now it is a major discipline on its own, employing in each top team a string of specialists and the most expensive single piece of equipment of all, the wind tunnel. Gearboxes, brakes, and now of course electronics have each come under the same focus, and huge technological leaps have resulted.
But one part of the F1 package apparently remains, in some teams anyway, almost unexploited : the human element The physical side is well understood, of course, with drivers locked into a ruthless year-round regimen of fitness programmes and monitored diet. But common sense motivational psychology sometimes seems to be conspicuously absent.
Any management textbook will tell you that, however good your product, your marketing, your pricing and your service, you will still be beaten by your competitors if you don’t know how to make your own people feel good about doing their job. The curious world of Fl is a long way from real life, but the same rule applies.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis, minutes after the end of the Spanish GP, and before he’d had a chance to talk to his current top points-scorer David Coulthard, publicly accused him of “brain fade”. Coulthard’s McLaren had stalled at the start of the formation lap, condemning him to start the race from the back of the grid. Then at the first corner he was hit from behind and needed a stop for a new nose. After all that, he drove determinedly up the field from dead last to fifth, salvaging two championship points — which turned out to be the only points McLaren earned that day. Moments later, again in a public interview, Coulthard was told what Dennis had said, and was visibly irritated.
Dennis later retracted, stating that the McLaren had stalled because of a software failure — presumably connected with the much vaunted and perhaps still unreliable electronic launch control. But this small incident speaks volumes. When Mika Hakkinen stalled on the grid in Brazil — and was out of the race for good, again apparently because of a technical failure — there is no record of Ron accusing the Finn of brain fade.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that, however equal their equipment, there is a real, even if unintentional, human difference between how Hakkinen and Coulthard sit within the team. The relationship between Ron and Mika is a special one, and it was very good to see the Finn displaying all his old speed and flair in Spain before that cruel clutch failure on the final lap. He has spent most of his F1 life at McLaren — he’s now in his ninth season with the team — and earned all his 18 wins and his two world titles there. His 1995 Adelaide accident only strengthened the bond, and Hakkinen has been central to McLaren’s return from the doldrums of the mid-1990s. That relationship is simply something that Coulthard has to accept, work around and rise above. But it doesn’t make his goal of winning the championship any easier.
In the 1950s, relationships between team managers and drivers were often stormy. Enzo Ferrari delighted in setting his drivers off one against another: he believed this increased his own authority, on the basis of divide and rule, and also made them drive faster, because they felt their position in the team was not secure. It wasn’t a happy team, and the consequences were occasionally tragic. But Niki Lauda was strong enough to stand up to him for 1977, Ferrari, believing the Austrian to be no longer a top driver after his accident, tried to demote Nild to team manager, both to sideline him and to prevent him from driving for anyone else.
Niki insisted on driving, won the championship, and meanwhile secretly signed for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team so that, once his title was secure, he was able to tell Enzo where to put his 1978 contract. Patrick Head has never made it a secret that the Williams team devotes little effort to modem cuddling skills, preferring to give its drivers the equipment and tell them to get on with it. Nigel Mansell certainly did get on with it, winning 28 grands prix and a championship for Williams, but he was always given short shrift when he went into whinge mode. Damon Hill, another Williams title-winner, felt unappreciated there; and they soon gave up on Alessandro Zanardi in 1999. Yet Jenson Button, and now Juan Pablo Montoya, instantly found themselves at home. In a team that grew up with the no-nonsense style of Aussie Alan Jones, you can see the sort of driver Frank and Patrick like to work with.
In long-distance sportscar racing a tough team boss is vital, for cockpit egos do not sit well with mechanical endurance. In the 1950s and ’60s, sportscar races were won by hard managers like John Wyer (Aston Martin, Ford GT40, Gulf Porsche) and Lofty England (jaguar) because their discipline was total. Wyer was known in the team as ‘Death Ray’, because one glare from his piercing eyes would pull the most recalcitrant driver into line. Lofty famously fired Duncan Hamilton for disobedience when Duncan won the 1956 Reims 12 Hours. The D -types were running an unchallenged 1-2-3-4, with Havythom/Frere leading from Hamilton/Bueb. The 12 Hours ran from Saturday midnight to Sunday midday, and Mike Hawthorn had to drive for Vanwall in the French GP on Sunday afternoon, so he handed over to Paul Frere for the last stint and went back to his hotel for a bath.
In the closing stages, Hamilton ignored Lofty’s ‘Hold Position’ signals and went faster and faster, breaking the lap record and storming past Frere to win. As Hamilton levered his bulky frame out of the car, Lofty stormed up to him and sacked him on the spot. Hamilton promptly signed for the Ferrari sportscar team, and sent Lofty a parcel containing a mortar board and a cane addressed To Teacher, with love from Duncan.’ In these days of bulky legal contracts involving team, driver and sponsors, such things are less likely to happen — although we’ve just had a rare game of mid-season musical chairs at Jaguar when Pedro de la Rosa replaced Luciano Burti, who promptly moved to Prost to displace Gaston Mazzacane. But that, on the surface, was all done amicably, amid a flurry of optimistic press releases from all concerned, although there were threats of litigation beneath the surface.
Surely no-one could teach the Ford Motor Company any lessons in management, but one does wonder at the psychology of drafting Bobby Ftahal and Nilti Lauda into the unfortunate Jaguar F1 team. The personable Rahal may not have a powerful F1 curriculum vitae, but his record as driver, team owner and businessman is impressive: clearly, he is Detroit’s man. Lauda, of course, has impeccable Fl credentials, and also possesses fierce intelligence, uncompromising toughness and the business acumen to build a commercially successful airline: clearly, he is Wolfgang Reitzle’s man. Quite how these two powerful characters can mutually harness their abilities to help drag Jaguar away from failure isn’t yet clear: there is budget in profusion, and no lack of talent, yet after five rounds in 2001, the team still hasn’t come near to scoring a single point. Again, one can’t help thinking that it’s all a matter of psychology.
At Ferrari the psychology seems to be working well — in marked contrast to the dramatic Italian opera of days gone by. In 1966, John Surtees had the last of several flaming rows with the Ferrari team manager, Eugenio Dragoni, in the Le Mans paddock, pulled out of the 24 Hours and drove his 330GT straight to Maranello to hand in his notice to Enzo. Michael Schumacher, by contrast, goes on showing his extraordinary ability to gather a team around him and unite their purpose — even if Rubens Barrichello gets a bit lost in the wash. Now, after brother Ralfs Imola win for Williams, BMW and Michelin, the season is shaping up nicely. So, if David Coulthard is to be McLaren’s best chance of beating Ferrari, Ron Dennis and the team must be totally behind him — in the little psychological things, as well.