The spotlight this month has been on the technical team changes in Formula One. In a world where drivers are almost always the center of attraction on and off the track, it is ironic now that the people who design the cars they drive are getting their fair share of attention. It is a pretty obvious fact that no matter how excellent the driver is, they need a good car (complemented by a good design) to end up on top. And for that, a robust technical team is the key.
A good tech designer can not only design a car around a driver’s requirements but also – most importantly – find areas in the regulations that can be exploited for maximum performance. Such innovations are invaluable in getting a head start over the competition in a sport where finding a tenth of a second advantage is the difference between pole and sixth place. Take Brawn GP for instance; born from the ashes of Honda’s F1 campaign, the car design was inherited from Honda and they even had trouble fitting the Mercedes power plant into the rear of the car ( since it had been designed for a Honda engine) However, it had one nifty innovation which defined the next three years in the sport : The double diffuser. Brawn had rarely any significant updates for the rest of the season owing to financial constraints, but the boost they got at the beginning of the season with that brilliant innovation was enough to keep a lead that the others couldn’t catch up to.
Any astute F1 observer would tell you that the recent spree by teams to snap up tech designers this year is purely with 2014 in mind. The rationale behind this is that the 2014 regulations offer the teams a chance to start afresh, a blank canvas if you will. The last time this happened was during 2009 and we all know that Adrian Newey and Red Bull were the team to exploit those regulations the most. Come 2014 and the team with the smartest design and the best driver combination is going to walk away with the accolades.The dust has settled over all important driver announcements, so which tech design shuffle are we going to see this year?
Newey is safely ensconced at Red Bull and there seems to be no way other teams can take him away from there. For the rest of the teams however, attempts are being made to poach from each other. Mercedes are reportedly in talks with Paddy Lowe to lure him away from Mclaren. And if Paddy were to move, then Lotus’s James Allison has been linked to a move to the Woking-based team. Both these men are highly talented and going by last year’s Mclaren and Lotus cars, hiring them would always be in a team’s best interests. However, there are other factors to consider as well.
In F1 circles, a technical designer does not just quit a team and start working for a rival. There is a particular “gardening period” involved before you join a rival team and therein lies the problem. Even if Lowe or Allison were to depart to other teams, they would be contractually obligated to go on gardening leave for an undisclosed period before reporting for work at the other team. This might be acceptable last year or the year before, but is certainly not an option now. I feel most teams are focusing their efforts on the 2014 cars and time cannot be wasted at this point. So even if they were to hire a new tech designer/director, he wouldn’t be able to significantly contribute to either the current car or the 2014 car. Therein lies the dilemma with teams. Ross Brawn’s future in Formula One might be the key here. If he were to depart, then Lowe might be pulled in to take his place at Mercedes; and Mclaren would like to have a Plan B in Allison. If these events pan out, where will Lotus go for a new technical director? James Key anyone?
For everyone to stay where they are would be in the best interests of their respective teams.
But is that what is going to happen? In the micro world of F1, one can rarely predict what is going on under the surface.