There are a few people in Milton Keynes who can remember a time when an entire F1 team could fit into a minibus – drivers included. Those days are long gone; the modern F1 team is a small (or not so small) army of specialists with the all-rounders banished to the margins. Except, perhaps the office of team principal. Every specialty within the team will claim to have the toughest, most responsible or complex job in the organisation – but everyone will agree that the team principal has the strangest.
After the drivers, the team principal is the most visible member of an F1 team and, from the days when they were often also team owners, the public perception of the team tended to be indelibly intertwined with the personality of the principle – be that a desire for order, a thirst for knowledge or just a thirst. It’s less the case now, when team principals are almost exclusively hired hands – but through fly-on-the-wall documentaries like Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, more and more of the team principal’s experience is being laid bare.
It’s difficult to pin down what a team principal does because every one of them past and present has done the job in a slightly different way. They all share a responsibility for the legal and safe operation of the team but beyond that, it’s all rather more nebulous.
This, perhaps, is because there isn’t a clear route to the big chair: in the past, F1 has had team principals that were engineers or mechanics, aristocrats, former drivers, marketeers, business leaders and – in one ineradicably bizarre grand prix – the insolvency accountant brought in to manage a team through administration. The job is different for a team owner than it is for a hired employee, and different at a manufacturer than it is at a privateer. It is, in every instance, however, the job of an all-rounder.
In the past you might have found the team principal designing the car (Chapman), driving the truck (Tyrrell), race engineering (Williams) or holding the lollipop (Dennis). Today’s team principals are perhaps not quite so hands-on but the rest of the job is similarly eclectic.
At the Track
At the track, in the majority of cases, the team principal is the outward-looking face of the team (the chief cheerleader, as one of our opponents sometimes calls it – but one would hope without the pom-poms and the chanting). A large chunk of the weekend (at least in a normal season) is taken up with media sessions: there are frequent visits to the FIA Friday Press Conference and the less formal huddles outside the garage and in the TV square, plus TV interviews in the paddock, post-race sit-downs with the written press after the race, and a variety of one-to-one interviews.
The team principal’s job is to present the team in the best-possible light; often being a lightning rod for criticism, but at the other end of the scale, making sure the praise is shared around.
The other side of this particular coin is a marketing role. Part of the team principal’s job is being the public face of the team to sponsors, and that often means really diving into the marketing and hospitality activities that the team provides for its guests. From speaking engagements in the Paddock Club, to dinner engagements in the Energy Station. It isn’t a job for an introvert: while not everyone is Eddie Jordan, whatever walk of life they come from, team principals tend to be born raconteurs.
Beyond this, there’s an awful lot of informal jobs on the weekend checklist designed simply to keep the wheels turning. They’re often spotted disappearing in and out of the FIA’s bus or F1’s tent, or gathering in groups to take the temperature of the paddock on various matters of state.
Given the other responsibilities on a race weekend, it is not surprising that team principals, particularly in the larger teams, tend to be one removed from the day-to-day operation of the garage and the running of the car, the former being the responsibility of the team manager/sporting director and the latter devolved to the senior engineers and/or racing director. However, while the team principal may not be actively involved, they’re always keeping a watching brief.
When things aren’t working – or aren’t working as well as they might – it’s the team principal’s job to set it right. That might be moving around staff, investing in equipment, changing a particular regime. This is why you’ll often see a team principal deep in discussion somewhere in the garage. While the decisions may be made back at the factory, it’s the ear to the ground at the track that provides the insight.
During the sessions, particularly the sessions at the sharp end of the weekend, the team principal will usually be seated on the pit wall. They’ll be listening to general channels but also have their own pit wall channel, over which the big decisions are frequently discussed.
On TV, the only time you hear team principal comms during a race are at the very end, delivering praise, or the very rare intervention when they have to tell a driver something they don’t want to be received via their race engineer, which is usually the only voice a driver will hear while on track.
Those are the oddities. More common is the team principal making the decisions that need to be made at the top of the chain – or at least with the acquiescence of the person at the top of the chain. One such area is strategy. Occasionally this can be dramatic – making the crucial call that will benefit one driver over the other with a pit stop – usually it’s rather more mundane: listening to the race engineers, the sporting director, the strategist and then either approving the plan or… not.
Will Courtenay is Red Bull Racing Honda’s head of strategy and is frequently on the pit wall, sitting adjacent to team principal Christian Horner. “Through the race I’m talking to Christian,” says Will. “I’ll give my recommendation as to when we should open a safety car window and Christian will usually say, ‘OK, fine’. If it’s a grey area though, we’ll discuss it, maybe get some feedback from the race engineers. It might be that whether we pit or not under a safety car will depend on how we think the tyres are holding up, so we’ll get feedback from the engineers and drivers which will feed into our decision. It’s up to me to make the recommendation to Christian – and hopefully he signs that off and the decision is actioned. It’s his decision to make.”
Back at Base
The same tasks have to be performed once the race team is back from the track, albeit with a reduction in the amount of outward-facing activity and a greater concentration on the business of running what is now a medium-sized, heavily performance-oriented engineering business.
Our factory is filled with over 700 specialists, and the team principal’s specialty is having meetings with most of them. Sometimes that involves the whole team gathered in one place, but for most of the working week, it’s done in bitesize chunks.
There are debriefs with each trackside department head after a race weekend which segue almost seamlessly into briefings for the next, as well as meetings with the factory-based departments. Communication is the key skill, and often the team principal is the conduit between the departments that enables it to happen – but equally part of the job is recruiting or promoting the right people into the right positions, and then enabling them to do the job without intervention.
The perennial elephant in the room is the budget. Every department wants more than it has, and every department has an entirely justifiable reason why an increase will deliver more performance. The team principal’s job involves taking the long view: looking not so much at where the team is right now, but where it needs to be in a few years. Hence why the direction of travel is set in the team principal’s office. With the onset of the cost-cap, this is more the case than ever.
The cost-cap is F1’s latest innovation, more than a decade in the making, it seeks to transform the future of the sport into something contested on a more level playing field and, it is to be hoped, providing more entertainment as it does it.
Unsurprisingly, the negotiations reach a point where all of F1’s stakeholders could accept a brave new world, which is complex. This is the final aspect of the team principal’s job – and often the most visible: not dealing with the team, its fans, partners or the media, but with the other organisations that have a vested interest in the future of the sport. While a technical director or his representative will work within the various (largely convivial) technical working groups on the mechanics of going racing, the strategic vision is reserved for the team principals – adding ‘talented diplomat’, ‘smooth politician’ and ‘cut-throat negotiator’ to the list of skills the team principal is expected to possess.
There’s nothing specifically on that list that marks a team principal out as unique. Many of those skills are must-haves in other arenas of elite sports management, or technology businesses, or lobbying professions. What is unusual, is requiring all of them to be combined into one person. It is, as we say, a strange job.