Technical Musical Chairs: since the chequered flag dropped in Abu Dhabi bringing to a close one of the most predictable seasons in recent Formula 1 history, the world of the sport seems to be making every effort to make up for the monotony of Silver Arrows domination. If Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement wasn’t enough, almost every top team on the grid appears to be getting in on the act by hiring and firing some of the most critical members of a team.
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Earlier this week Williams Martini Racing confirmed that Chief Technical Officer Pat Symonds will leave the team at the end of 2016. Deputy Team Principle Claire Williams commented: “Pat has been a tremendous asset to this team over the past three years. Pat’s appointment was the start of a major restructuring exercise, and he has been pivotal in reshaping Williams into what is a much stronger racing team today. I would like to thank him for all of his hard work and commitment during that time. We now look to the future and will be announcing details regarding the team’s technical leadership in due course”.
After a season in which, for the second year in succession, Williams have failed to capitalise on having the dominant power unit at their disposal, changes within the technical team were perhaps inevitable and if the rumour mill is to be believed these changes are likely to take the form of Mercedes AMG Petronas Executive Director (Technical) taking a leading role with the Grove-based team. On the face of it Paddy Lowe moving to a customer team may seem somewhat illogical, but after three back to back World Constructors Championships he and other senior members of the Mercedes Grand Prix management may be wondering what else they can achieve in their current roles. Coupled with this, much of Mercedes success has been attributed to a dominant power unit, with the relevance of technical direction somewhat marginalised or overshadowed. Paddy Lowe originally joined Mercedes from McLaren on the understanding he would be taking the top role within the team, it quickly became clear he would be sharing this role with Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda. Paddy may feel moving to another team will give him the opportunity to step out from under the Mercedes shadow and enhance his own reputation in the sport.
From a bodywork and suspension and tyre point of view, this is the biggest change that I’ve personally experienced in almost 19 years in Formula 1.
Whilst Mercedes have refuted rumours of Paddy Lowe’s departure, it is understood former Scuderia Ferrari technical director James Allison, returning to the sport following a period of “gardening leave” will join the Brackley-based team at some point during the 2017 season. With the board member ousting of Ron Dennis and subsequent relieving of duties from recently appointed Jost Capito, McLaren Honda have not gone unscathed in the mass technical reshuffling in Formula 1.
So what does this all mean? No doubt most if not all the names already mentioned, with the exception of Ron Dennis will find new homes within the sport, and under static regulations term their change in teams will have very little immediate impact on the performance of their former employers. The 2017 regulation changes however will be far from static. Toro Rosso Technical director James Key recently remarked: “From a bodywork and suspension and tyre point of view, this is the biggest one [regulation change] that I’ve personally experienced in almost 19 years in Formula 1. From a chassis point of view, it’s the biggest change of the past two decades, even bigger than 2009 and certainly bigger than 2014”.
Further to the extensive changes in design of 2017 Formula 1 machinery, the other significant change is in freedom to develop. Sky F1 pundit and former Formula 1 driver Martin Brundle recently commented that he expects the rate of development seen in 2017 will be unlike anything seen in the history of the sport.
If that proves to be the case, Mercedes, Williams, McLaren and Ferrari are heading into the 2017 season with a design philosophy engineered by a technical lead who is no longer with or soon to be leaving the team. Of course each team will state the direction of a team is not centred around the view of a single individual, but personnel changes are not made for the sake of it. If Paddy Lowe joined Williams and did not overhaul the team’s approach to a design performance, he would be seen to be underperforming. Change is to be expected.
With this in mind, as Formula 1 teams set about the in-season development plans with new technical leads in place, a change in direction will inevitably impact overall performance.
If Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement wasn’t enough, almost every top team on the grid appears to be getting in on the act by hiring and firing some of the most critical members of a team.
The one front running team to have achieved team personnel continuity in throughout this period has been Red Bull Racing. The team which, alongside McLaren Honda, championed the 2017 technical regulations change seeking to shift performance focus away from the power unit and back towards aerodynamics. Red Bull Racing have been developing their 2017 contender since mid way through 2015 and with every other leading team’s technical management now in a state of flux the Adrian Newey Wings have an opportunity to capitalise.
Red Bull Racing head into 2017 with arguably the strongest driver line up and continuity throughout their management team. With Power Unit performance convergence also coming into play in the season ahead. The runner’s up in the 2016 Constructors Championship are emerging as clear favourites to not only challenge Mercedes dominance but actually move ahead.