THE LONG INTERVIEW
THIS IS PADDY LOWE
Paddy Lowe’s switch from the Mercedes team he’d helped mould into worldbeaters, to a re-tooling Williams, was the talk of the Formula 1 off-season. Here, for the first time, he opens up about coming ‘home’ to the place where his F1 career began, and offers a glimpse of the future for this proud band of racers
Atwinkle in the eye. That subtle signifier of mischief within. It gives Paddy Lowe away as one of the good guys, even as he carries – lightly – the mantle of technical greatness. The warmth of his greeting at Williams’ Grove HQ, a readiness to chat. It’s disarming in one so accomplished. This, after all, is the man whose technical leadership helped Mercedes to a period of consummate domination from 2014-16 (in tandem, it must be noted, with engine boss Andy Cowell). And one whose CV encompasses years at Williams during their ’90s glory days, then McLaren when they were last frontrunners. Lowe has been at the cutting edge of seven successful world title campaigns, with three different teams, making him one of a tiny elite band of rock-star tech titans active among the F1 tribe. He, along with Adrian Newey, James Allison and Rory Byrne, plus Cowell and – maybe – Ferrari’s emerging Mattia Binotto, are those considered sufficiently eminent to be able to make a difference by virtue of their presence, nous and method.
None would entertain for a moment the notion that they alone are responsible for creating machines that can outperform those of their rivals. But employing one of these starry individuals is the nearest thing there is to an F1 silver bullet. Bag one and you’re probably in the game – because they know what it takes to win.
Which is why his signing by Williams, in a directorial position that makes him part-owner as well as ‘just’ their technical leader, is a massive coup for this once-great team still brim-full of ambition to rise above their ‘best of the rest’ status behind mighty Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
It’s also why his departure from Merc at the end of last season is a sensitive topic shrouded in secrecy, and one that is, alas, deemed off-topic for this engagement. The true nature of his split with the reigning champions has yet to be publicly established, although, tellingly, Mercedes have subsequently adopted a more hierarchical structure between team boss Toto Wolff and newly arrived technical director Allison, to replace the ‘twin-number-one’ set up that existed with Lowe and Wolff, both of whom were ‘executive directors’.
Regardless, Lowe, 55, has alighted at his F1 alma mater as chief technical officer, a role that gives him great scope to shape its destiny. All the more surprising, then, to nd him so devoid of ego and still endearingly enthused by the eld in which he operates. Eminent F1 engineers don’t really ‘do’ small talk; their minds are constantly a-whirr with the subtleties of aerodynamic ow over, under and through the bodywork of their latest creation; with L over D ratios and nuances of CAD-realised vortices to be interrogated and resolved. Their mental space is not to be invaded with paddock babble; the only hot air they’re interested in is the superheated ow that exits the rear diffuser.
Today, however, Lowe is positively bubbling about his return to the team he left in 1993. And it is here that we begin.
F1 Racing: So you’ve been back at Williams for a few weeks now. How does it feel to come home?
Paddy Lowe: It’s very exciting, actually. I’ve had a great welcome from everybody and it’s good to see some old friends. There are many people here who don’t travel to the races, so I literally haven’t seen them since I left, which was 24 years ago when we were in a different site – the old factory in Didcot near the cooling towers. There’s only one guy, Carl Gaden, who was still with the race team when I was last here in 1993. I need to nd out exactly who… I have a list…
Lowe pauses to pick up a spreadsheet from the desk in his large, but so far un-ornamented office. He counts columns and rows, before a split-second mental calculation…
PL: Sixty-four. There are 64 people still here at the team who were here in 1993.
F1R: So do Williams still feel like the team you left, or have things changed?
PL: It does feel different, because it’s a different place and everything is arranged differently. Most of the people are different, too. But what doesn’t feel different is when you go to meet the people who were here before and it feels like you know them well already, so you’re just kind of carrying on from where you left off.
F1R: The sport is full of Williams graduates who have gone on to other things – you being one, of course, Ross Brawn another. It’s a long list...
FRANK AND PATRICK SET A VERY DISTINCT CULTURE THAT HAS REALLY SET THE TONE FOR ME, FOR MY WHOLE CAREER IN THE SPORT. THEY’RE REAL RACERS
All students of Patrick [Lowe grins at the recollection of his famously demanding – and combustible – former boss, Patrick Head]. And many of them have been very successful.
F1R: What would you attribute that to? Is it the culture here? A lot of people say Williams were always the hardest of the hardcore in terms of being an engineering-driven team. Do you think that’s true?
PL: Frank and Patrick set a very distinct culture that has really set the tone, for me, for my whole career in the sport. They’re real racers; they always want to win; they’re obsessed with the sport, but they’ve also got the humility to understand that there’s no kind of ‘right’ to win – and if you don’t win, there’s respect for the competition who have been better than you. It’s your failing, and you have to go and address that failing and meet that competition, rather than just sort of assuming that you should win and anything else is wrong. Patrick and Frank have been very strong in creating that culture within this team and I still feel it today.
F1R: Damon Hill came up with a fantastic line about Patrick Head being the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Formula 1…
PL: Yeah, that was really nice. I’m a fan of these big, historic engineers and, actually, I love photography as well and there are some fantastic photos of them. One of my favourites is the photograph of Brunel standing in front of all these chains [on the SS Great Eastern]. The other photo I really love is [rocket scientist] Wernher Von Braun standing in front of the Saturn V rocket on its side. I think it’s one of my favourite pictures ever – there are so many great elements to it. I actually thought it would be nice to collect some of these pictures together at some point, of the great engineers in great photos.
F1R: I read a book recently called Empire of the Clouds. It’s about the aviation cottage industry spawned in Britain by World War II. It’s a lot like the UK Formula 1 industry now – lots of little independent manufacturers doing insanely brilliant things, just by applying their brains to problems.
PL: There’s something about that, because we seem to be particularly good at motorsport in the UK, and Formula 1 in particular. There must be something about the nature and the culture and the approach taken by British engineers that works for Formula 1.
F1R: When you were rst at Williams [1987-93], they were a front-running team, but they haven’t won a championship since 1997. So what experience can you bring back here from your time with teams that have been dominant in that period?
PL: To be clear, Williams continued to be very successful and dominant after I left, up until the late 1990s. But, to answer your question, I think I have a lot of experience and I’ve been very fortunate to work with teams who have been successful
in the intervening years, so I can bring back that belief. Because that’s what’s been missing here, inevitably, without many race wins over the past decade-and-a-half.
I suspect people start to lose the belief that they can do it. And I hope I can inspire the team to come back to the front and give them the confidence to do the right things and realise that, actually, they are winners. Those 64 people and many more in the team are winners – they know what it’s like to win, they know what it takes to win, and I can help bring back the confidence and the belief that we can do it again.
We have the ingredients to do it, and while it’s difficult to win in this sport, because it’s so competitive, it is possible and I hope I can help bring back that feeling and put the right things together, the right programmes that get us back there.
F1R: Is it a case of taking what you saw and implemented at Mercedes and transposing it onto what you have here? Or is it much more complicated than that?
PL: No, and it’s really not about that, actually. There may be a perception – understandably – that people can move from team to team and bring ideas that should then just be copied or whatever, but it’s really not about that. The teams already operate at a very professional standard – the standard of engineering in Formula 1 teams in general is exceedingly high. It would be presumptive and, in fact, inappropriate to come in and say ‘right, we’re all going to do it this way because I know that works’. For me, it’s very much about seeing what people are doing, what are the solutions they’ve already arrived at – many of which are already better than I may have seen elsewhere. But maybe you can migrate the focus here and there and get the right people doing the right things together. So it’s very much about tweaking what you have, rather than imposing some totally new structure or set of systems or set of designs. That’s the process I’m starting now.
F1R: Do you think there’s a limit to what you can achieve when teams like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull bring such vast resources to their F1 programmes? [ This power trio each spend in the region of half a billion dollars per season on F1; Williams’ budget is approximately one-third of that.]
PL: Well, Williams are a team who have always prided themselves on getting a better job done with low resource, and that was true back in the early ’90s – remember at that time McLaren were the big team with their years of dominance with Honda and it felt like they were the Romans, to put it that way. It was a case of: ‘When will we ever beat the Romans?’ But, actually, we did it, starting in ’91 with a strong season [Williams nished a close second in that year’s constructors’ championship] and then beating them in ’92. And we were extremely proud because at that point we’d done it with far lower resources.
A great example of that is the department we had in Williams that did all the electronic and control systems and all the software, which Steve Wise and I had built up – Steve Wise is still here and it’s great to be working with him again. We had no more than around ten people, and when I went to McLaren in 1993 they had an entire company for electronics, something like 50-100 people doing what we’d been doing in that small department. They did it in a far more sophisticated way, but we had got the job done and got the result we needed. I think that’s a typical illustration of the culture within Williams, which I still detect: ‘How can we get the results we need in the most cost-effective manner?’
F1R: Knowing what you know about Mercedes, would you say that it’s intimidating to take them on, given their nancial and technical repower?
PL: Quite the reverse: it’s an exciting challenge actually. It is exactly equivalent to when I was last here. We knew McLaren had a lot of money, so it was a great point of pride here to beat a team who were spending far more than us.
F1R: But why would you leave a team like Mercedes to come back to Williams?
PL: It’s a very exciting challenge. I had a good innings at Mercedes; I really enjoyed my time there [2013-17] and I really loved working with some fantastic colleagues. But I could see the opportunity to move my own career to a different place. It’s a different paradigm, to come in as an owner, and I’ve been fortunate enough to nd a way to take a shareholding in the team, having been an employee all my career. In itself that’s very exciting.
Then there’s the aspect of coming to Williams – a great team where I loved working in the past. I’m a big admirer
of Frank and Patrick and what they set up. To take on this challenge was very much the no-brainer option from that point of view, because the team have such an amazing history. And if we can create a new chapter in that history, building on what’s gone before, taking the place of my original boss in the sport, that’s a very exciting prospect. It’s quite special.
Many a conspiracy theory has swirled around Lowe since he left Mercedes last January, but there, for the record, is his answer to those who question the motivation for his transfer.
F1R: What was it like to sign the bit of paper that made you a Williams shareholder?
PL: I didn’t make any great ceremony of it, actually – I guess I could have done. I wouldn’t say I didn’t focus on that particular moment itself, it was just the process of getting here… [long pause]… I can’t think of the words. I haven’t got a good answer for that, to be honest.
F1R: Will you take on some of the team principal-esque responsibilities, such as meeting the media at races?
PL: Some things will get shared around as needs be. Claire [Williams] won’t be attending all the races, so there will be races when I’ll cover for her, or Mike [O’Driscoll, CEO]. For the moment, I will go to all the races because I need to stay on top of that. We will take it step by step.
F1R: You started to make a name for yourself in F1 circles as something of an electronics guru. Did you ever imagine that you’d end up here, in this position?
PL: No – and it’s surreal, but in a really nice way. I don’t feel like I’m going backwards, there’s no sense of that – it’s going forwards, but with some familiar landmarks.
F1R: You’re in a unique position now, in F1 terms, being a technical leader but also a part-owner. There’s no one else in that position currently – is that correct?
PL: No. I guess we had Ross [Brawn] owning Brawn GP at one point, and then, before that, Patrick here at Williams. But I think that’s probably it.
F1R: That’s got to be a good thing for any team or organisation with engineering at their heart?
PL: Formula 1 is a fantastic environment for engineering, and while it’s a sport and the sporting elements are a crucial part of the spectacle, underneath it there’s a very strong engineering element that marks out Formula 1, in particular, as unique and special in the world of motorsport.
We see it all the time, that it’s the car that very largely makes the difference, and therefore the engineering behind the car that makes the difference. So I’m a big supporter of
“I HOPE I CAN GIVE THE TEAM THE CONFIDENCE TO DO THE RIGHT THINGS AND REALISE THAT, ACTUALLY, THEY ARE WINNERS”
engineering in general and using Formula 1 as a platform to support and to encourage more people to understand what engineering means and to go into it. Engineers build the world – there was a great quote from Prince Phillip last year: “Everything not invented by God is invented by an engineer.”
Engineers will solve the problems of the world, actually, I’m greatly optimistic about that. There are a lot of depressing signs around the sustainability of our planet – global warming, pollution or whatever – but I think that man is so ingenious and creative, particularly when cornered, and it will be the engineers who solve those problems and keep us alive in the centuries ahead. We need more engineers making the key decisions in industry. I’m a big fan of Formula 1 engineers, basically! So that’s a really nice element.
F1R: Are you encouraged, then, by the position Ross has now, as technical and sporting boss of the new Formula 1 Group?
PL: Absolutely. It’s another great example of exactly what I was talking about. It’s fantastic, and to see the great support and acclaim he’s had – there’s not a person who isn’t full of praise and support for that appointment.
F1R: How do you think Ross will work that one out? He has a very clear technical ‘map’ but that side of things has traditionally been the FIA’s job. Never before has someone from FOM sat down and said: “This is going to be the technical landscape.”
PL: Well you could look at it negatively and say we’re squaring up for a ght here between the FIA and FOM – obviously the FIA owns the rules and that’s a very important role for them. But then we’re all in it together, so actually we should all be setting ourselves up for fantastic collaboration, and I hope that’s how everybody sees it.
What’s fantastic about what Ross is proposing is that they will also bring resource to the table – the ability to research ideas. Of course they have a slightly different perspective to the FIA, but they are a stakeholder nevertheless – we’re all stakeholders. So it’s great that we now have everybody chipping in to the R&D effort that’s required to keep developing these regulations to be better and better in the future.
“YOU COULD SAY WE’RE SQUARING UP FOR A FIGHT BETWEEN THE FIA AND FOM, BUT WE SHOULD ALL BE SETTING OURSELVES UP FOR FANTASTIC COLLABORATION”
F1R: Do you and any of the technical heads from other teams ever just go out for a drink? That would be a great gathering to eavesdrop on…
PL: We don’t actually, but that would be a really nice idea. We did have a great meeting a couple of years ago of a smallish group like that, which was organised just to brainstorm where the rules were and what we thought was wrong with them and where we should take it. That was really very interesting. The key thing is to get people thinking long enough into the future so that self-interest isn’t coming into play. But I think it would be interesting to see if we could organise some sort of social get-together like that in the future.
F1R: Going back to Williams, what sort of mental timescale do you have for doing everything you need to do? Do you have a clear set of goals?
PL: I haven’t really captured it in that way. I’ve only been here a few weeks and at the moment it’s about incremental improvement from where we are.
F1R: Is there an overarching goal? Is it to make Williams a world championship-winning team again?
PL: Absolutely. That is, without question, the objective. That’s absolutely where we want to get to.
F1R: One last question, relating to Mercedes. Abu Dhabi last year, the closing stages of the race, Lewis backing Nico up into Sebastian Vettel… and you get on the team radio to order Lewis to speed up. It was incredible to watch but what was it like on the pitwall?
PL: It was interesting. I don’t know whether we should get into this or not, but the interesting thing is that there was a degree of panic, let’s say, around the idea that we might actually lose the win. So there was a lot of ‘incoming’ in my direction about telling Lewis to go quicker! But it was pretty clear to me that as soon as he saw a red car in his mirrors, he was going to speed up. But that didn’t seem to be obvious to some people. Seb Vettel was coming through because he had a newer set of tyres, so clearly it would have been nice for Lewis to start early to create the gap, create a buffer – but he wasn’t going to do that until he really needed to. So Lewis was playing it very cleverly, and I could see that he knew what he was doing, he had it all under control – if the win was ever under any threat he would have been responding because he had lots of pace in hand. If Seb had overtaken Nico, Lewis would have been gone. That was obvious to me, but not to everyone else. So there were some interesting discussions.
I gave Lewis the instruction because it was absolutely the right position for the team to take. Bear in mind – which people often forget – that Nico had let Lewis past immediately in Monaco last year when we asked him to, because we’d given him a one-lap warning that time – ‘you need to speed up, otherwise we’ll call Lewis past you’. He didn’t respond on that lap but pulled over immediately on request. So it was the only other time we’ve given a team order. In fairness to Nico and the team and our objectives and the championship it was the right thing to tell Lewis that what he was doing was not in the team’s interests. But I knew he would ignore it – probably he knew I knew he’d ignore it! That’s the right position for the team to take – but I wasn’t going to say it twice. We laugh about it now, but Toto [Wolff] was giving me a hard time – “Tell him again, he hasn’t done it!’ I said: “No, I’ll look like a complete prat if I say it again.”
It was an interesting race, wasn’t it?
Williams racer Felipe Massa presents Lowe with a cake to celebrate his 55th birthday, at the Chinese Grand Prix
Deputy team principal Claire Williams won’t be at all the races this year, so as befits his new role as a shareholder, Paddy Lowe will stand in as necessary
Lowe made his first appearance on the pitwall in his new role with Williams at the Australian GP