THE LOWE I KNOW
Mercedes technical boss Paddy Lowe and Peter Windsor go way back – back to when they both worked together at Williams in the late 1980s. Here Peter reflects on a career devoted to a fascination with creative engineering
Altitude, ironically, was on his side: he was used to running around at 6,000ft. He’d been doing it all his life in the Kenyan highlands. Hockey. Football. Out into the bush with his brother, Mike (pictured with Paddy, above left), bicycles pushed to the limit, their only directive to be home before dark. He loved the cars, too. Every year they’d blast past his house, raising dust and scattering birds. The East African Safari Rally. Nothing bigger. The whole school stood still as the rally thrashed its way across the land; and then, in the months that followed, plans would be drawn for the school’s own version.
Here he was, then: 12 years of age and at the start of the Great Adventure. The course seemed to stretch for miles – rst through the grounds of the college, then out into the bush and back in a big, dusty loop to the football pitch. He’d tested as much as possible, checking that the Dinky was more adaptable than the Corgi. And he’d made his selection. It had to be something exotic and it had to be low and wide.
The Dinky DeTomaso Mangusta – but it wasn’t just any old Mangusta. He’d never liked the bobbing effect created by the “real” suspension highlighted on the packaging. And so, delicately and with patience, he had removed the front springs and set up the car to run almost at to the road. Then it was a simple matter of connecting the two elasticated wires to the nose of the Mangusta and making sure that everything was set at the right height and length.
The event was self-regulating. Hundreds of boys ran the course, pulling and directing their little cars while the rest of the school cheered and acted as marshals. It would be decided by time versus points deducted for the car ipping over or in some other way having to be rescued.
He nished second. He should have won it – could have won it – but he crashed the Mangusta once too often. The suspension, though, was perfect. His mod soon became the East African norm.
Shortly afterwards, Patrick Lowe’s parents received notice from the Church of Ireland that their mission in Kenya had come to an end. The family would return to a new parish in Sevenoaks, Kent. Patrick would bring with him his independence, a burning desire to win… and an urge to create the things that could facilitate that independence and desire.
When you were born a Lowe, you had the choice of being either an engineer or a vicar, although one of Patrick’s uncles had nicely taken a middle road by designing and creating church pipe organs. Patrick – Paddy, as he was known at Cambridge University, where he studied at Sidney Sussex College – denitely felt there was more to life than what we see or touch; he knew, though, that a prescribed religious doctrine was not for him: he was drawn to engineering like a magnet. He earned his place at Cambridge through his blazing results at Sevenoaks School – A grades in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry – and at university he went on smoothly to receive his MA in Engineering.
What next? So many engineers – so many people out there, all wanting to be a part of F1. In order to earn a living, he applied to a tech company in Grove, Oxfordshire (Metal Box – close to the current Williams factory) and was quickly hired. He worked there for six years, establishing himself as a rst-rate systems engineer. His condence growing, he then wrote to every F1 team, enquiring about openings. The only person to reply was Williams’ Frank Dernie. It was late 1986, and Williams were developing a new active-ride car for the 1987 season. They were winning races with Honda; technology was moving quickly. Without even having to switch homes, Paddy slotted in seamlessly.
These were golden times. The Williams active-ride department was basically three people – Paddy, Steve Wise and Philip Farrand. “Looking back,” says Paddy today, “we were right at the beginning of it all, although of course, even by then, we were using computer memory far in excess of anything they’d seen on, say, the Apollo missions.”
In other words, creative engineers will always create, regardless of the circumstances.
Paddy’s output (rst at Williams, and then, from mid-1993, at McLaren) was thereafter spectacular. The Williams FW14B was a masterpiece that combined Patrick Head’s overall engineering management with Adrian Newey’s aerodynamics and Paddy’s active-ride and traction control. We’ll never see its like again.
That success, though, had a further impact. As much as Paddy enjoyed creating and contributing he also liked managing his little team within a team – he liked the problem-solving, liked motivating the people around him, steering the team through the internal politics of the company and
the external forces of the sport. Paddy wanted more of this. He wanted greater responsibility. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen at Williams.
I remember chatting to Ron Dennis about Paddy late in 1992. Ron was vaguely aware of him but unsure. I said something about Paddy being a salt-of-the-earth kind of engineer who was capable of much more than mere design. “Is that so?” replied Ron…
By this stage I knew Paddy well. We had joined Williams at about the same time and quickly became water-cooler close, bonded, I think, by Paddy’s total respect for Nigel Mansell. Paddy, to me, was also very different from the engineering norm: he was a person with whom you could talk rather than an engineer you were obliged to try to understand. We came back once from a pub lunch and as we climbed from my car I looked up at the big cooling towers of the Didcot Power Station and said, “Do you think all that steam is harmful in the medium-term?”
“Not really,” said Paddy. “Besides, I like those towers. People are always moaning about them, but did you know that Didcot Power Station is one of the most efcient coal-to-electricity units in the country? I think it’s quite inspiring to have it right by our factory…” And so Paddy joined McLaren, heading up the R&D department there. Obviously Ron’s plan was to develop the best possible active-ride system in the shortest possible time… but then active ride was suddenly banned by the FIA. Paddy, at this point, could have disappeared into engineering obscurity, having made the wrong move at decidedly the wrong time.
Instead, he created. Industriously. First there was a power brakes project. Then electronic power steering. Then an active differential. Then the famous brake-steer device that Mika Häkkinen used so well. Then various ongoing simulator programmes. Then mechanical power steering. Then the ‘electronic-shift’ power shift. Then the ‘F-duct’. Along the way, Paddy was also of course at the cutting-edge of electronic programming and development, which meant his work laid the foundation for today’s standard ECU. Equally, he was the engineer who developed the code base for its software, using high-level graphic tools that at the time were considered too risky for the establishment.
By the end of it all – the end of 2012 – Paddy had climbed to the position of technical director at McLaren. Races and titles had been won. And the feelings were familiar: if he could run a 200-strong engineering department at McLaren, and could feel that perhaps he would have made a different decision here (so far as driver choice goes) or another move there (so far as an FIA ruling went), then denitely he should be pushing himself harder. Easy to say; more difcult to enunciate. What was really happening was that by 2012, Paddy was as much about people – caring about them, thinking about them – as he was about high-level code. He famously came up against Max Mosley in the ‘Spygate’ hearings in Paris in 2007, yet came away not chastened but full of respect. “Max Mosley is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met,” he said at the time. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve always tried to learn from people like him – to look at the things they’ve done well and to wonder if I would have done things differently.”
How, though, to take that next, massive step? He certainly felt ready to run a complete F1 team but the jump from engineering to the other side of the Formula 1 spectrum still seemed discouragingly vast. “I’m sure you feel this way at every level at which you grow in your career,” he says. “It took me a number of years to arm-wrestle McLaren into giving me a title that reected my position there, even though I effectively took the responsibility of technical director when Adrian [Newey] left. As time goes on, your horizons expand. In my last two years at McLaren I had a sufciently good team around me to enable me to look at some of the decisions being taken above me and to begin wondering if I would have done things that way or not. For me this was a good sign. It was a sign that it was time for me to try something different.
“And in the context of what I’ve just said, I don’t mean any discredit to Martin Whitmarsh. I learned a lot from him in the 20 years I worked for him and if, in the end, I needed to grow beyond that, it’s a sign, I think, that he was a good teacher.”
As if by magic – but in reality because of connected events – Paddy was approached by Toto Wolff. Toto, by then, was at Williams, working around his minority shareholding. Toto saw in Paddy a quality that probably no other person of F1 inuence had seen or would allow themselves to see.
The Williams talks went a fair way; then, in the late summer of 2012, Toto received his Mercedes offer. His considered response was that Paddy should be a non-negotiable part of the new package. To his credit, Niki Lauda was quickly convinced.
And so we have it: this amazing combo. Team orders on the pitwall? Paddy’s call (but it’ll be a logical call, you can be sure, based on all those years of hard work and a feel for what is right for the cars, the team and the drivers). Team structure and factory organisation? Paddy again.
Over a cup of tea a couple of weeks ago, Paddy was telling me that he had just spent the morning getting to know the most recent nine employees to join the team; none of them were in engineering. All of them welcomed the chance to sit and chat with the man who makes decisions. Few are the
middle-management layers – or interminable, leaderless meetings – at today’s Mercedes AMG Petronas.
Paddy lives a quiet life. A new apartment in Oxford. A drive along the M40 through the trafc for an 8.30am start. A Hitchcock movie or two and a beer when there’s time for that in the evenings. A trip to Edinburgh to see his daughter on stage. Chats with his brother, who is an engineer at Imperial College, London. Meetings with Toto at least three times a week. Less time, perhaps, for innovative technical thinking, but more time for ensuring he has the right people with him and thus the right environment for the propagation of creativity.
You talk to Paddy about the new engine regs, the fuel-ow meters, the engine note, the world TV feed, and you come away thinking this: ‘I love his F1. I love the technology. Now I understand this. I understand the energy storage stuff. I appreciate fuel-ow. Lewis versus Nico. Nico versus Lewis. I understand Nico’s engineering team. I understand Lewis’s engineering team.’
I asked him, over that cup of tea, what the closing moments of this year’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne were like. How were his nails, in other words? “Actually it wasn’t too bad,” he said with his familiar sparkle. “We just came up with lots of devices to distract us from thinking about all the things that could go wrong. First we all had a laugh about how we had to avoid the Christian Horner foot-tapping moments. Then I had the pleasure of calling Andy Cowell (who we’ll hear from on page 84) to say that he should be ready for the podium. That took a bit of time, so that was another couple of laps gone. Then we had a laugh about something else and then Nico crossed the line. It was only when he was half-way round his slow- down lap that I remembered I had to get on the radio to congratulate him…” He could have been talking about a Dinky DeTomaso Mangusta and the way you improve its performance by removing the front suspension. He could have been discussing the way contemporary vacuum systems actually make it harder to cut the grass evenly.
Such is life for Paddy Lowe: detail. Persistence. And always a balance between engineering it and putting it into play.
Lowe’s creative genius at work in the 2014 Mercedes W05 (above left); the 2005 McLaren MP4-20 (above right) and the 1992 Williams FW14B (below)
People-person Paddy with new team-mates: Lewis Hamilton, Toto Wolff, and Nico Rosberg