GIL DE FERRAN
Mclaren’s sporting director on the huge task ahead
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