Ford's corporate approach at Jaguar 'like a virus that spread' says Herbert


Ford is staying out of team management in its latest F1 partnership with Red Bull and AlphaTauri, potentially still shuddering at its attempt to run Jaguar "the Ford way", witnessed first-hand by Johnny Herbert and others

Johnny Herbert sits on front wheel of Jaguar F1 car during 2000 launch

Johnny Herbert with Eddie Irvine at the launch of the first Jaguar F1 car

Sinead Lynch/AFP via Getty Images

Former Jaguar driver Johnny Herbert has said the negative corporate attitude in its previous F1 involvement “was like a virus that spread”, as the Blue Oval tries to forget the painful memory of its last venture into grand prix racing.

The launch tomorrow of the 2023 AlphaTauri livery, and re-confirmation of Ford’s technical commitment to the two Red Bull teams from 2026, has put into sharp focus the company’s previous efforts in F1, particularly its last involvement with ‘Team Milton Keynes’, from 2000 to 2004 as Jaguar Racing.

The car giant’s input famously turned a promising young team which had just taken its first GP win into rudderless outfit –  eventually leading Ford to pull out and sell to Red Bull for £1.

F1 legend Jackie Stewart and son Paul had masterminded Stewart Grand Prix’s entry into the world championship from 1997 – helped by huge backing from Ford, which had earlier success with the Cosworth DFV engine, and then powering Michael Schumacher‘s Benetton to the 1994 title.

The team ultimately progressed to take a famous win with Herbert at the 1999 European GP, with Ford encouraged enough by promising performances earlier that year to take over the team completely and rebrand it as Jaguar Racing.

From the archive

“The Stewart team had a family atmosphere, and though everything went ‘Jag’ and became green for 2000, the corporate shift didn’t happen until as I was leaving,” Herbert explains.

However, smaller problems which set in early had begun to manifest themselves as serious issues later on.

“The 1999 car was good, and the 2000 car was better,” says Herbert. “But the problem was the other teams’ [cars] were much better.

“Every test we went to we had problems in the sump with the oil. We had suspension issues throughout the year – [test driver] Luciano Burti had a big crash at Silverstone then I had a huge one at Malaysia.

“We managed a good result at Monaco with Eddie [Irvine, fourth], and from there [performance] expectations from the corporate side began to creep in.”

Eddie Irvine on podium with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at 2001 Monaco Grand Prix

Irvine brought Jaguar its first podium at Monaco in 2001

Clive Mason /Allsport via Getty Images

For those at the management level, things were a bit more uncomfortable. The team’s technical director Gary Anderson explained to Simon Taylor in 2016 how this manifested itself on track.

“The 2000 Stewart – as it was to have been – was the last F1 car that was entirely my own design,” he said.

“The team was taken over by Ford and badged as Jaguar – all of Jackie’s way of running things was gone, switched off like a light.

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“In charge was a Ford company man from Detroit called Neil Ressler, who had no understanding of how racing worked. He’d call a meeting of 30 team people and say, ‘If you guys won’t do this the Ford way, we’ll get some guys who will.’”

“I had to manage groups of people who were doing my job, without being allowed to get involved myself. Aerodynamic development had to be done in a wind tunnel in California, and Ressler banned me from going. When an aero problem on the car emerged and they couldn’t solve it, I was sure I knew what was wrong. So I went to California anyway. We identified the problem, and the car was instantly better.

“I stood it as long as I could, fighting a system that was never going to work. It was a great shame, because the car was potentially very good. In the little Stewart team we were all racers; Ford threw heaps of people at it, but none of them were racers. They didn’t realise that, rather than trying to manage, they should let the people with experience do their jobs.”

Anderson and Ressler almost came to blows at Malaysia, but with the team finishing ninth in the 2000 constructors’ championship, both were moved on at the end of the season. Ford then installed IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal to head it up, but things didn’t go much better for him either.

Neil Ressler with Bobby Rahal

Rahal (right) joined Jaguar when Ressler (left) departed at the end of 2000

Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images

“People were very critical of Jaguar F1, but they had some good people,” the 1986 Indy 500 champion recalled to Motor Sport.

“I loved the creativity of F1, and all they needed was some good leadership. I’m not saying we did everything right, but we were making progress. And because of my friendship with Adrian Newey, I persuaded him to leave McLaren and come with us. He actually signed a contract, but then the politics made him change his mind.

“The problem was that Neil was hit by a bad family problem: his daughter became very ill and he was spending less and less time in England. So the programme was passed over to Wolfgang Reitzle.”

Though Irvine scored a podium for the team at Monaco in ’01, overall results were still poor. Ford decided to bring in three-time world champion Niki Lauda to help add some F1 know-how, but the move seemed to create more division than progress – who was in charge, the Austrian or Rahal?

“Under Reitzle, Niki Lauda began to play a bigger and bigger role, and it was clear Niki didn’t want me there,” said Rahal. “We both wanted to win races, but we had different ways of doing things and thinking about things. You can’t have two bosses, and Reitzle wanted Niki, so I left.”

From the archive

Rahal had brought in Steve Nichols, lead designer of the McLaren MP4/4, the most successful F1 car of all time. Unfortunately Rahal’s countryman wasn’t exactly impressed with what he found either.

“I was told they wanted to build a $400m factory at Silverstone, have an unlimited budget and all of that,” he said to Motor Sport, “but then much of [team parent] Ford collapsed and the management wanted to forget about racing and concentrate on making Focuses and Fiestas. The budget was capped at $150 million, but they wanted to reduce it each year and rely on outside sponsorship.

“Of the money we had, about $50m was immediately allocated to Cosworth, then another $15m to Pi Electronics, then another $15m or so on drivers. We were haemorrhaging cash: I didn’t want to know where every last dollar was going, but I was keen to know where every million was going. They wondered why weren’t doing so well, but we had about $60m to spend on the car and needed to compare ourselves with other teams in that position – so Sauber rather than Ferrari.

“We were spending money left, right and centre; Sauber was giving Ferrari $20m or $30m a year and getting the engine, the electronics, the gearbox, the whole rear suspension. That was my kind of deal, to allow scope for chassis development. Nobody seemed to understand. It was a case of, ‘We’re Ford, we should be winning…’”

Niki Lauda Guenther Steiner and Steve Nichols sit at table during 2002 Jaguar F1 car launch

The corporate look: left to right Lauda next to managing director Guenther Steiner, Nichols and chief designer John Russell at 2002 car launch

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Nichols departed in 2002, with Lauda not lasting much longer. Though he might have been at loggerheads with Rahal, he had a similar assessment of the situation.

“Jaguar had potential, but Ford’s approach was too corporate,” he said in 2017. “When I joined, the main accountant told me that this was a Ford company so I had to read the compliance book. I asked what it said, and he told me that if I took a sparkling mineral water from the hotel minibar I had to pay, but if I took a still water I didn’t. He told me to be careful not to make mistakes and insisted I read this book of compliance, but I didn’t. I just decided to pay my own hotel bills because I didn’t want to be bothered by Ford’s stupid rules.

“When they got rid of me – I was told I’d done nothing wrong, but they wanted to install British management – the compliance team asked to check my account. If there had been a single unaccounted bottle of sparkling water they might not have paid off my contract, but as I’d settled my own bills there was no account and they had to pay compensation.”

From the archive

Though Herbert left at the end of 2000, he saw first-hand how the team began to change, and remained close to those within the organisation that were witness to the everyday struggles.

As he puts it today: “While all these management changes were happening, the team was going nowhere.

“All that corporate mess that was going on sort of just filtered into the factory – it’s like a virus that spreads, and from there everything just gets worse.”

“People in the team felt they had to protect their own back because of it. Once that starts, then it’s a bit of downward spiral because everybody’s not actually focusing on what they should be doing – it was an awful situation.”

At the end of 2004 Ford cut its losses and sold to Red Bull. With Sebastian Vettel, it became drivers’ and constructors’ world champion in the same timespan as Ford’s involvement.

The Blue Oval will be hoping it can ride the success of the current operation as a partner, rather than imposing its iron grip on a good team that quickly turned bad.