GIL DE FER­RAN

Mclaren’s sport­ing di­rec­tor on the huge task ahead

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - PIC­TURES WORDS AN­THONY ROWL­IN­SON

Achuckle from the driver’s seat. Gil de Fer­ran has just flexed a big toe on the throt­tle pedal of the Mclaren 720S he’s pilot­ing and it has surged. Very pow­er­fully. He glances at F1 Rac­ing, seated along­side. “Watch this.”

A click on the right pad­dle shift. An­other. In a flash, we are re­ally mov­ing, curv­ing through the very Ar­dennes roads on which, in 1968, Bruce Mclaren him­self took the first grand prix win for the For­mula 1 team that car­ries his name to­day. Co­cooned in this car­bon-fi­bre hy­per­car – 720bhp and a base price of £208,600 – along­side Mclaren’s new sport­ing di­rec­tor, briefly care­free as we en­joy the speed and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the ma­chine, it’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore how far Mclaren have come th­ese past 50 years.

Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive, the di­vi­sion that pro­duces cars such as the 720S, is boom­ing; Mclaren Ap­plied Tech­nolo­gies, the company’s own skunkworks, has clients across the mo­tor­sport, au­to­mo­tive, pub­lic trans­port and health sec­tors. And then there’s HQ: the breath­tak­ing Mclaren Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre – a build­ing that con­tin­ues to en­shrine the vi­sion nur­tured by EX-CEO Ron Den­nis. There is so much, then, about Mclaren, to im­press.

But the race team? The once all-con­quer­ing foun­da­tion upon which th­ese ed­i­fices are con­structed? Ay ay ay… let’s look else­where, shall we? Ex­cept, alas, when a rac­ing di­vi­sion op­er­ates in such a pub­lic arena as F1, its suc­cesses and fail­ures are laid bare for scru­tiny 21 week­ends a year.

And lately, those suc­cesses have been neg­li­gi­ble. A brief re­cap of Mclaren’s race card is in­struc­tive. Their last con­struc­tors’ ti­tle came in 1998; their last drivers’ crown: 2008. Last win: 2012; last podium: Mel­bourne 2014.

Since then, Honda have come (amid fan­fare) and gone (amid ac­ri­mony), Den­nis has been shown the door, Jen­son But­ton has re­tired, Fer­nando Alonso has an­nounced his de­par­ture from F1 and, lat­terly, the axe has swung within the tech­ni­cal and sport­ing de­part­ments. Yet there re­mains a mood of op­ti­mism around this fa­bled team. And after a few sig­nif­i­cant re­cent ap­point­ments, some ‘green shoots of recovery’ are be­com­ing vis­i­ble.

James Key, poached from Toro Rosso, is due to ar­rive as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor in spring 2019 and there’s an all-new driver line-up to an­tic­i­pate: Car­los Sainz and Lando Nor­ris will lack noth­ing in youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance and com­mit­ment, even if sharp-end F1 ex­pe­ri­ence is glar­ingly ab­sent from their CVS. Still, needs must, and a driver salary bill mea­sured in the tens of mil­lions is a thing of the past at Mclaren, for now.

A more in­trigu­ing ap­point­ment than any of th­ese is de Fer­ran’s and, as a pure-bred racer – Champ Car Champion in 2000 and 2001 and the 2003 Indy 500 win­ner – per­haps he’ll bring the kind of track-fo­cused per­spec­tive an ever more cor­po­rate Mclaren have been lack­ing. His sport­ing di­rec­tor role, he tells us, starts where the com­mer­cial en­deav­ours of CEO Zak Brown end, and ends more or less where the role of Key will be­gin. He’s re­spon­si­ble, then, for mak­ing Mclaren’s whole rac­ing func­tion func­tion.

“I’ve found the team to have a lot of very smart peo­ple,” says de Fer­ran, 51, “and this is a team that is dis­ci­plined and or­gan­ised. Some­times I have to pinch my­self walk­ing around the MTC be­cause it’s such an iconic place and this is such an iconic company. It’s in­cred­i­ble.”

This isn’t de Fer­ran’s first se­nior F1 role, of course. From 2005-07 he held a sim­i­lar po­si­tion at the Honda F1 team, though his Mclaren job, he says, car­ries far more heft. “There’s no ques­tion about that,” he notes with a chuckle. “This role in­volves more re­spon­si­bil­ity than I had at Honda 12 years ago. The po­si­tions are dif­fer­ent be­cause ev­ery team is or­gan­ised dif­fer­ently. At Honda I was in charge of rac­ing op­er­a­tions; I had very lit­tle tech­ni­cal in­put, so es­sen­tially I ran just a race team. This time that’s not the case. I’m in­volved in de­ci­sions that span the whole or­gan­i­sa­tion within rac­ing – even on the de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing side. Not just track­side.”

On the pit­wall that places him along­side per­for­mance di­rec­tor An­drea Stella, while in­side the MTC he’ll work with COO Simon Roberts. Not for de Fer­ran, though, any well-re­hearsed man­age­ment-hand­book pat­ter. No ‘100-day plans’ or ‘goals check­lists’. In­stead: “I want to take a more fluid view and the rea­son for that is sim­ple in a way. In For­mula 1, in rac­ing,

it’s dif­fer­ent than in some other busi­nesses, where suc­cess can be quite sub­jec­tive. F1 is very ob­jec­tive. You get your re­port card ev­ery couple of weeks. And if you have any red blood in your veins, you know that where you want to get to is to be fight­ing for race wins and cham­pi­onships.”

To any­one who has lis­tened, with po­lite baf­fle­ment, to some of the more tor­tured procla­ma­tions from se­nior Mclaren rep­re­sen­ta­tives in re­cent years, as they out­line the ben­e­fits of ‘ma­trix man­age­ment struc­tures’ or ad­um­brate the ad­van­tages of a three-headed tech­ni­cal team, this at­ti­tude is pro­foundly re­fresh­ing be­cause it dis­tils the ethos to ‘we’re in it to win it’. That sin­gu­lar­ity of pur­pose – once so sharply drawn at Mclaren that it made them a team ad­mirable but hard to love, such was their com­pet­i­tive fury – has evap­o­rated over the past decade, re­placed with some­thing cud­dlier, though de­mon­stra­bly less ef­fec­tive in rac­ing terms.

The ap­par­ent calm of the de Fer­ran ap­proach be­lies a more gritty re­al­ity. Those who know him well – as a com­peti­tor who has suc­ceeded at the top level of US rac­ing – speak of an in­tense se­ri­ous­ness in his work ethic and a pro­found ac­knowl­edge­ment of any re­spon­si­bil­ity be­stowed upon him. A man with a light­ness of touch, but not one to be taken lightly.

“I’m very fo­cused on things I can con­trol;” he re­flects, “much less fo­cused on what I can’t. In any ac­tiv­ity there are all sorts of things hap­pen­ing, but a lot of it you can­not con­trol and much less in­flu­ence. And I think you’re well served by keep­ing a re­ally sharp fo­cus on the things you can con­trol.”

Those as­pects, in de Fer­ran’s es­ti­ma­tion, are: how well the race team works; how good the team is; nur­tur­ing talent; be­com­ing more ef­fi­cient; be­com­ing more ef­fec­tive. “Those are the bits I am in­ter­ested in,” he says, and he will work on them “al­most in iso­la­tion.” That soli­tary char­ac­ter­is­tic, he reck­ons, is a legacy of be­ing a racer. “I don’t want to get dis­tracted,” he in­sists. “Maybe I’m dif­fer­ent that way – even when I was a driver I didn’t care about who I needed to beat. It made no dif­fer­ence. My main fo­cus was on me. How can I brake bet­ter, how can I work bet­ter with my engineers? How can I be­come fit­ter? How can I de­velop my craft and re­duce some of my weak­nesses? I guess that’s a theme that’s stayed with me.”

For a team cry­ing out more than any­thing for a sin­gu­lar­ity of pur­pose, th­ese at­tributes will be of im­mea­sur­able ben­e­fit and – that chuckle again – he’s ready for the chal­lenge: “For sev­eral years now I have been a man­ager, a busi­ness­man, an in­vestor, an en­tre­pre­neur and I feel like ev­ery lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve had through­out my life has pre­pared me,” he says.

“It’s a huge amount of re­spon­si­bil­ity, but here I am wear­ing a shirt that was worn before me by some of the peo­ple I ad­mired the most. But what a great po­si­tion to be in. I’m lov­ing ev­ery minute.”

IF YOU HAVE ANY RED BLOOD IN YOUR VEINS, YOU KNOW THAT WHERE YOU WANT TO GET TO IS TO BE FIGHT­ING FOR RACE WINS AND CHAM­PI­ONSHIPS

Once a racer al­ways a racer: Gil de Fer­ran takes the wheel of the Mclaren 720S su­per­car to ex­plain his sim­ple win­ning ethos

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