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AS I talk to for­mer Aer Lin­gus tech­ni­cian turned Toy­ota For­mula One man­ager and now busi­ness­man Richard Cre­gan — a Kil­dare na­tive who now is based in Abu Dhabi — ev­ery few min­utes we’re al­most drowned out by roar­ing en­gine noise from cars zoom­ing by on the track be­low us.

We’re meet­ing at a fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing ho­tel, above Abu Dhabi’s Yas Ma­rina F1 race cir­cuit, around which Jaguars, Mercedes and Fer­raris are blast­ing by at speeds of up to 150mph, and from where Cre­gan runs a For­mula 4 team with three young driv­ers. His events man­age­ment and mo­tor­sport con­sul­tancy, Ras Gaira, a fam­ily busi­ness run by he, his wife Pa­tri­cia, daugh­ter Jen­nifer and one of their sons, also has an of­fice in the city nearby.

Son of a house­wife and black­smith-turned-brick­layer, 56-year-old Cre­gan took an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree in Dublin’s Bolton Street, where his lec­turer “used to bark his phi­los­o­phy, ‘light­ness com­bined with strength and dura­bil­ity’.” Cre­gan said this “stuck with me – they’re the fun­da­men­tals of air­craft and mo­tor­sport de­sign”.

He grew up around cars. “My very good friend Gerry Mc­don­nell and I did ral­ly­ing for years. We helped each other through dif­fer­ent lev­els of mo­tor­sport, and loved ev­ery minute of it.”

Af­ter ap­ply­ing for an ap­pren­tice­ship with Aer Lin­gus as a tech­ni­cian, he spent nine years there, get­ting a “fan­tas­tic ground­ing in the en­gi­neer­ing and tech­ni­cal side of the work, and in get­ting on with, and work­ing with, peo­ple. The train­ing and ground­ing I got there has stood to me un­til this day. The big­gest el­e­ment of that was safety. It was con­stantly em­pha­sised.”

Hav­ing risen through a num­ber of ranks there, he spent a year as a con­sul­tant, work­ing for Toy­ota as it com­peted in ral­lies in Africa and Europe, be­fore mov­ing in 1985 to its base in Cologne in Ger­many, where he worked for them full-time, man­ag­ing its mo­tor­sport di­vi­sions that com­peted in ral­ly­ing, then Le Mans and F1 un­til 2008.

“I learned so much at Toy­ota and en­joyed ev­ery minute there, par­tic­u­larly ‘the Toy­ota Way’ phi­los­o­phy it­self [which has 14 prin­ci­ples, based around con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment, tak­ing in lean man­u­fac­tur­ing, or­gan­i­sa­tional learn­ing and con­tin­ual staff de­vel­op­ment, but with var­i­ous lay­ers of man­age­ment and de­ci­sions by con­sen­sus].”

His 23-year stint saw him start with a staff of just 25, and it ex­panded to 900 — of whom he man­aged about 450 — and shar­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for a bud­get in the hun­dreds of mil­lions in lat­ter years.

The rally team had the most suc­cess, work­ing along­side Swedish for­mer rally driver Ove An­der­s­son, win­ning four World Rally Cham­pi­onship driv­ers’ titles and three con­struc­tors’ titles, beat­ing the likes of Ford and Lan­cia. Le Mans was more of a chal­lenge, and the team twice failed to win the gru­elling 24-hour race; in 1999 “heart­break­ingly” so. Ja­panese driver Ukyo Katayama looked set to win, but suf­fered a tyre blowout in the last hour, in­stead fin­ish­ing sec­ond. F1 was a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge, Cre­gan says. The team had its best years in 2006, with 35 points for the team’s driv­ers and rank­ing sixth place in the con­struc­tors’ stand­ings; and 2008, with 56 points and in fifth place.

Hav­ing to man­age ‘the Toy­ota Way,’ “by com­mit­tee” and con­sen­sus in­creas­ingly be­came a prob­lem, com­ing to a head in 2008. “We re­ported to dif­fer­ent peo­ple in Ja­pan. We tried to sta­bilise the re­port­ing struc­ture to min­imise dis­rup­tion when there were man­age­ment changes there. We had the bud­get, the re­sources and a great team of peo­ple. I’d found some­one I wanted to bring in.

“If you look at other F1 teams that are very suc­cess­ful, we needed a Ross Brawn type [the ex-benet­ton and Fer­rari tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor]. If some­one of that cal­i­bre had led us, with the re­sources we had in Cologne, I be­lieve we could’ve cre­ated a sus­tain­able, win­ning fu­ture.”

Did he feel he was out of his depth in his own role? “I wouldn’t say that. It was a very frus­trat­ing time. Re­mem­ber, we had come into this from Le Mans. We all un­der­es­ti­mated the chal­lenge of com­pet­ing in F1. That was the ma­jor is­sue in the be­gin­ning. We re­alised we had a hugely dif­fi­cult task and hadn’t been re­al­is­tic about the difficulty of the chal­lenge. F1 is very dif­fer­ent to Le Mans. It’s about tech­nol­ogy, light­ness, power-to-weight ra­tio and so on, more sig­nif­i­cantly so than in any other mo­tor­sport.

“We scored a point in our first race in Mel­bourne, but it gave us a false as­sur­ance that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to work. Then came the re­al­i­sa­tion that we weren’t ready for the pace of de­vel­op­ment in F1. It de­manded a strong, more ex­pe­ri­enced tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor to di­rect the team. But our or­ders from man­agers above us were to do it dif­fer­ently.

“In the end, we didn’t have that. That was where we failed. I had to make a de­ci­sion in 2008 to move on, hav­ing tried for a long time to change things, and con­trib­uted as much as I pos­si­bly could.

“You can’t run an F1 team by com­mit­tee and con­sen­sus. They come down to be­ing run by one per­son; they need to be very strong, tal­ented and team-ori­ented. F1 hap­pens ev­ery two weeks. You have to keep im­prov­ing: the car, the en­gine, and ev­ery el­e­ment of it. If you’re not do­ing that, it’s not that you’re even stand­ing still. You’re ac­tu­ally go­ing back­wards, be­cause it’s just so hugely com­pet­i­tive when you see what the other teams are do­ing, test­ing, adapt­ing and in­no­vat­ing and test­ing again and again.

“From the first race on­wards you’ve got to de­velop at that pace as well. Oth­er­wise, by the fifth or sixth race, you’re just not go­ing to be there, hav­ing adapted as your com­peti­tors will have, let alone by the end of the year. There are tough de­ci­sions to be made at the same time: do you stop de­vel­op­ing your cur­rent car and start work on the new one? Do you trans­fer re­sources and bud­gets into that?

“You can liken that to the pace of a tech startup. Tech­nol­ogy is mov­ing for­ward at such a rapid pace. If you stall for what­ever rea­son, there’s that risk you’re go­ing back­wards be­cause the in­dus­try is ad­vanc­ing so rapidly.”

Many el­e­ments of man­age­ment can’t be learned from those thousands of books that have been writ­ten about it. Cre­gan’s time at Toy­ota pro­vided plenty of chances to work on F1 pit stops, get­ting peo­ple to work in that close prox­im­ity, un­der pres­sure and very quickly, look­ing closely at the dy­nam­ics of how and why peo­ple re­act and in­ter­act.

“I can look at a team, in a small or medium-size busi­ness, or how I look at F1, and see where there might be some easy wins that can be achieved to im­prove the whole dy­namic. You look at how peo­ple process tasks and in­for­ma­tion and see ways to im­prove how they work to­gether. It doesn’t re­quire a lot of money or re­sources.

“We worked on that so much in Toy­ota. You can train and train for pit stops, but it’s in­ter­est­ing that a lot of that goes out the win­dow, be­cause the hu­man fac­tor takes over — the en­vi­ron­ment, the stress, the noise. It’s al­most like chore­og­ra­phy in get­ting them to re­act against their in­stincts and in har­mony, and also how to adapt in a split sec­ond when some­thing doesn’t go to plan.

“We also learned that you need peo­ple with dif­fer­ent skillsets dur­ing dif­fer­ent stages of a busi­ness. The tough part is recog­nis­ing when they’re no longer needed, whether they can fol­low the needs of the busi­ness or not.”

The grow­ing trend for vir­tual teams and short­term projects shouldn’t pre­clude face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion when pos­si­ble. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion — even with­out nu­ances of be­ing in a room to­gether — be­comes key, he adds.

He prefers man­ag­ing multi­na­tional teams. “You get dif­fer­ent views on ev­ery­thing. I’ve al­ways en­joyed work­ing with peo­ple, though I’m very tough, but very fair. Give peo­ple the re­sources to do their job, the di­rec­tion in terms of strat­egy, help them achieve that and help them if they have a prob­lem. That’s what suc­cess is about.” Af­ter Toy­ota, leg­endary now for­mer F1 supremo Bernie

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