In the paddock: Edd Straw
The Mclaren sporting director’s otherwise hugely impressive CV doesn’t include success in Formula 1. Will he be able to rectify that?
“WE CAN’T ACCUSE MCLAREN OF FAILING TO ACCEPT IT HAS SERIOUS WEAKNESSES”
Few get three shots at Formula 1; the surprise about Daniil Kvyat getting a third stint at Toro Rosso in 2019 is evidence of that. But there’s another, surprisingly low-profile, figure who has made it a hat-trick of opportunities with a comeback of his own this season – and he’s among the most successful drivers in the grand prix paddock.
What’s more, he’s got a big challenge on his hands.“solving a puzzle”is how this sometime Williams and Footwork test driver describes the challenge he faces. And it’s not a straightforward one – it’s one of the most complicated in F1.
But this France-born Brazilian knows how to achieve motorsport success better than most. Both as a racing driver – he won two Indycar titles and the Indianapolis 500 – and as a team owner in sportscars, Gil de Ferran is used to winning.
Since being appointed Mclaren’s sporting director two months ago, the 50-year-old has kept a deliberately low profile as part of the team’s policy of keeping its head down. This is a natural reaction to its bombast turning to bust when the 2018 season got under way and its Renault rebirth was exposed as a false dawn. That’s fine by de Ferran, an erudite, intelligent man not known for self-aggrandisement. His first‘chance’in F1 came with the aforementioned test outings during his final seasons in Europe. The second was a stint as sporting director at the works Honda team from 2005-07. The Brackley-based squad, which went on to become today’s Mercedes squad via a year as Brawn, was not an easy place to work at. From April ’05 to June ’07, de Ferran was just one of a number who struggled during a period characterised by some involved as a quagmire of internal politics in the pre-ross Brawn days. He walked away, but on good terms.
Does that mean things will go the same way at Mclaren, especially given there are still mutterings of disgruntlement in the ranks about the leadership? It’s only fair to judge him and his management-team cohorts by whether or not Mclaren makes good on its promises to rebuild. One thing we can’t accuse Mclaren of is failing to accept that there are serious weaknesses that have been laid bare by the Renault engine panacea proving to be nothing of the sort. De Ferran should not be underestimated. He’s characterised very much as Zak Brown’s man, and it’s true that the duo had a pre-existing relationship. De Ferran’s initial involvement with Mclaren was at last year’s Indianapolis 500 as Fernando Alonso’s driver coach, before growing to a consultancy role and then his current job. He forms one of the key triumvirate at the centre of Mclaren along with Brown and Simon Roberts, who has overall technical responsibility for the car.
“Between Zak, Simon and myself, with great input from Jonathan Neale [Mclaren Group chief operations officer], we’re working through this puzzle together,”says de Ferran.
“It’s a complete cliche, but it’s about people and process, and a great deal about culture as well. It’s about how you bring the people together, communicate with clarity, how you ensure the processes between all of these people work.”
Mclaren senior personnel frequently talk up the talent within the team, and justifiably so. The question is how you harness that, and how you eliminate the barriers to doing so. Culture is the keyword, and in recent years murmurings suggest that part of the problem at Mclaren is that self-interest has trumped self-analysis when it comes to tackling – or not, as it may be – problems. Perhaps this is what de Ferran is alluding to?
De Ferran is just part of what is going to be a long process of recovery, but he’s nothing if not pragmatic and recognises the scale of the challenge. He showed that when, after that first brush with F1, his attention turned to Indycars rather than missing that chance to chase the grand prix dream.
Given that F1 shunned him, you can forgive de Ferran for enjoying another opportunity to make an impact in grand prix racing. But it’s not about righting past wrongs.
“I was quite busy outside of motorsports, but when an opportunity like this comes up, it touches something deep inside your heart that I’m very passionate about,”he says.
“Is it the same thing [as driving]? Completely different!
The thrill that I had as a driver, that was then and this is now, it’s a completely different feeling. There are some similarities, the feeling of competition, the feel of trying to bring everyone together and meeting the challenge head on. But the thrill of driving is unique, of sliding a car at 200mph, 230mph or even higher. That was a great part of my youth; I’m now an old man.”
How de Ferran fares with Mclaren in his – in racing-driver years – ‘old age’will define how he’s seen in F1. Mclaren makes much of its legend, playing on the fact that it is more than a racing team. What it needs to do now is live up to it. If de Ferran can be part of this, he will justify his place in the legend. If not, he’ll just end up as another casualty of Mclaren’s struggles.