Lead, follow or… become irrelevant

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Canadian Grand Prix – Race Day – Montreal, Canada

The Team Principal position seems to be out of fashion in Formula 1. McLaren has a Racing Director (Eric Boullier). Mercedes has two Executive Directors (Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe). Gone are the days when Il Commendatore Enzo Ferrari ruled his team (and the sport) with an iron fist. What happened to the authority of the Team Principals in Formula 1?

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Limited political influence

Martin Whitmarsh’s firing from the TP position at McLaren was the last nail in the coffin of the Formula One Teams Association. Whitmarsh had served as the head of the association but vacated the position after leaving McLaren. Soon after, the organisation was officially disbanded.

FOTA was formed in 2008 in an effort to boost the bargaining power of the teams. In its best days in 2009, it even threatened the powers to be in the sport with the creation of a rival formula – the FOTA championship. The FIA-FOTA dispute from the 2009 season was resolved in accordance with the wishes of the teams as the FIA dropped its plans to enforce budget caps in Formula 1 (and pretty much-spelt doom for newcomers Hispania (later HRT), Lotus (now Caterham) and Virgin (now Manor)).

Il Commendatore would have hardly taken Webber and Vettel’s behaviour lightly if he was the one managing RBR.

The joy was short-lived, however, as the teams failed to agree on a clear vision for the future of the association and it was powerless in the latest round of Concorde negotiations. Bernie Ecclestone had little issues reining in the individual team principals and getting the best deals for the commercial rights holders.

No respect from the drivers

Open disrespect for one’s boss seems to be all the rage in Formula 1 recently. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber repeatedly disregarded team orders and quite often would take internal team issues to the media, rather than to Christian Horner.

The situation is pretty much the same in Mercedes this year. Lewis Hamilton questioned the team’s handling of the pit stops during the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix and gave his teammate the cold treatment during the podium celebrations at the end of that race. It is believed both drivers have used an engine setting that is too stressful for the engines and was not supposed to be used for internal fights.

Neither Horner nor Wolff and Lowe have managed to prevent their drivers from acting out. No driver has recently been fired over internal disagreements. Soon after Vettel’s “Multi 21” shenanigans, the German was awarded the Director of Performance position at Infiniti, while Horner’s authority at Infiniti Red Bull Racing was put in doubt.

Managers, not owners

Il Commendatore would have hardly taken Webber and Vettel’s behaviour lightly if he was the one managing RBR. Somebody would have gotten the boot (even Nikki Lauda could not escape the wrath of the Italian) back in 2010, long before Multi 21. What is the difference between Horner and Ferrari? The latter owned his team, while the former is only a manager.

Yes, Horner is among the most successful Team Principals in history (and he certainly has many seasons in the sport ahead of him), but he does not own Red Bull Racing. Dietrich Mateschitz is the owner and it is believed his support for Webber kept the Australian in the team, even when the ageing driver openly questioned Horner’s authority over Vettel.

Effective leadership is about holding on to one’s vision even when other members of the organisation are openly questioning the leader’s judgment. The Team Principals that do not have full control over the team (i.e. they are not the primary shareholders) do not have the resources at their disposal that would allow them to assert their authority over highly successful drivers.

Is it really a bad thing?

Red Bull Racing reigned supreme in the sport for consecutive seasons. Mercedes are not too shabby this season either. Maybe having professional managers and a little teammate drama is not such a bad thing after all. Vettel and Webber’s rivalry pushed them to improve. Hamilton and Rosberg’s conflict is also not detrimental to the title chances of Mercedes (yet?)

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