THE RACER’S EDGE
WHY AN F1 CAR IS MORE THAN JUST A MACHINE
Racing cars have souls; of course they do. Just ask Lewis Hamilton. He’ll talk to his baby in the closing laps of any given race, urging her on, exhorting her not to break and patting her on the nose afterwards in parc fermé. Or ask Sebastian Vettel. He names his cars as you or I would name a Labrador. He has feelings for them and they, I suspect, have feelings for him.
So let’s have none of that stuff about objects or animals being soul-less because they feel no sense of right or wrong. Somehow we’re all connected. Mineral-animal-human. The growth of the soul is an onward-going thing in both this life and the next. That’s the purpose of existence. Which brings me back to Formula 1 cars. Just look at them: they’re living, sweating, smoking, screaming, groaning personifications of the people who build them. Some are fast; others are faster still. And it isn’t just by chance.
To wit, take the current Ferrari SF70H, a car born of a regrouped team of engineers eager to prove that a harmonious, joint effort is more than equal to the presence of an overseas star designer. element analysis and data-driven development are the hardware; the true software is the people who use these tools, and the people who organise the people. This is Binotto: he may or may not be an engineering genius. What we do know is that he is a real person who listens, recognises his weaknesses and isn’t afraid to delegate. Thus the SF70H. The Mercedes W08, by contrast, is a bit edgy, which is no surprise because Paddy Lowe was replaced last autumn, for no reason, by James Allison. Paddy is a sort of English Binotto: a quietly spoken racer who likes to encourage the right people to focus on the right job at the right time. The consistent speed and success of the Mercedes W05/06/07, and its engine, told us all we needed to know about Paddy’s system. Now that the technical team has been changed fundamentally, however, the car is more of a ‘diva’, as Toto Wolff recently described her. Should we be surprised? Swapping Paddy for James Allison is a bit like buying a Cartier when you already own a Rolex. It’s one thing to need something; it’s another to want something merely because it’s new, or different, or better for the ego. If something or someone is doing their duty, then replacing it or them for no reason is contrary to natural order. It doesn’t matter if James is the equal of – or is superior to – Paddy Lowe. It was the act that was the problem, not the people it involved.
Red Bull. Here’s an interesting one. You’d think that a planetful of money spent by a drinks magnate would probably be bad for karma. So let’s clear up that point: this isn’t about karma or any of that happy-clappy stuff. This is about the natural progression and order of things, about rights and duties, about discipline. Red Bull are a tightly run race team financed by one man with a passion and that can only be a good thing. Dietrich Mateschitz’s ownership also embraces longterm, undying commitment, which is another hugely important element. Thus the Red Bull chassis, year-in, year-out, is quick and drivable: it’s only the engines that in recent times have been a problem.
Similarly, superficial criticism could be made of Vijay Mallya, but the same responses apply. Sahara Force India are a mini-red Bull, and it shows in the character of the Mattia Binotto wasn’t exactly headline news when he was running the engine department in Maranello, and many were the doomsayers when he was appointed as technical director for the Scuderia’s 2017 project and beyond.
Clearly, though, someone high up at Ferrari – and I suspect it was probably Maurizio Arrivabene – was following their gut instincts when they gave promotion to a man who, by the usual standards of Formula 1, runs a low ego combined with a surprising propensity to listen to others. The result is the SF70H: probably the year’s best F1 car, given the obvious superiority of the Mercedes engine in terms of outright power.
Within an F1 world coloured by instant results, rival technical departments, a baying media and relentless schedules, it’s almost impossible to remain human, let alone constructive, within a huge group of people pressured into creating next year’s winning car. Computer Aided Design, finite
F1 CARS ARE LIVING, SWEATING, SMOKING, SCREAMING, GROANING PERSONIFICATIONS OF THE PEOPLE WHO BUILD THEM. SOME ARE FAST; OTHERS ARE FASTER STILL
car. Everything in that team happens for the right, logical reason; everyone pushes in the same direction. The car is a gem, within the confines of the budget within which the team operates, and they silently accept the powertrain package from Mercedes. There is no need for worry about PUS. The soul of the team is fine.
Williams, by contrast, are a team punching and pushing in about five different directions. Paddy Lowe is there now, which means that the long-term future should be bright, provided he is given a reasonable amount of space, but in the short term the situation is complex. Just like the car. Williams in their championship years were as simple as Frank and Patrick. Nothing more, nothing less. The soul of the team then was lit in neon; now, under layers of distractions, egos and fears, that same soul lies dormant, awaiting rebirth.
Then we have Mclaren, a team who have tried to design a super-soul with money and superficial structure but forgot that true progress is actually created by people. Instead of the big lake by the boulevard, for example, Mclaren should have built a better windtunnel and created an engine facility for Honda. Nor should they have let go of engineers such as Paddy Lowe and Phil Prew. Mclaren’s future path won’t be defined only by new engine deals with Renault or perhaps Cosworth. It will be defined by the new management team’s ability to make up for what was lost.
It goes on. Haas are an off-the-peg team tweaked by a decent tailor. The soul of the team is young and lacks vital ingredients: the car flashes pace, then takes two steps backwards. Sauber, potentially a Swiss Williams, changed forever when Peter Sauber cashed in at BMW. As Saubers reborn, the cars have never been the same (although I suspect Frédéric Vasseur will change all of that). Despite the uni-directional commitment of Franz Tost, Toro Rosso have been a team without a real cause, and it has shown in their cars, which are beautifully designed but curiously ineffective. Honda, though, will give them some direction.
Renault, the antithesis of Mclaren, are making progress thanks to many of the people who have remained loyal over the years and are doing so without spending Mercedes money. The cars, as a result, are proving to be increasingly competitive.
It’s because they have souls, you see. Real souls.
Lewis Hamilton pats his trusty steed in parc fermé in Shanghai. He understands that cars have souls
Arrivabene put his faith in Binotto, a man skilled at pulling a team together, and the harmonious result is the Ferrari SF70H, the best car of 2017