With Ferrari expected to take a major leap forward at the Spanish Grand Prix, we speak to team race mechanic Rob Smedley.
Massa's right-hand man
Felipe Massa and Ferrari are expected to take a major leap forward at the Spanish Grand Prix tomorrow after a dismal start to the season. And when Massa moves back to the front of the grid - as his team fully anticipate he will in Catalunya - the key figure behind that will be a 35-year-old Briton named Rob Smedley. Smedley is the Brazilian's race engineer - he is the voice you hear over the Ferrari radio during the course of a grand prix - and Massa recently said "I wouldn't swap him for all the money in the world".
Smedley, a diehard fan of Middlesbrough football club, only fell into F1 by default, falling in love with it after being taken by his father to watch the late, great Ayrton Senna win the 1988 British Grand Prix, an event he thought would be "dead boring". But he is now credited with being the key figure in turning Massa from a hotheaded, error-prone driver into a world championship contender, since Smedley first took up his job as his race engineer in 2006.
To a certain extent, Ferrari's recent dip in form has taken the pressure off Smedley. He explained: "At the Bahrain Grand Prix, for example, we qualified eighth. Last year that would have been unforgivable and I would have had my knuckles rapped but not this year because at that stage - with what we were working with - eighth was realistically the best we could hope for." But such results are a far cry from last season when Massa was battling for the world title with Lewis Hamilton until the final corner of the final race of the season in Brazil.
Smedley was understandably one of the few Britons cheering for a Massa world title and the Middlesbrough-born engineer was famously caught on camera weeping in the pits after Massa lost out on the title by one point. Even now, Smedley is full of praise for his star. "In the past, he might have thrown all his toys out of the pram but he took it all like a true gent," he said. "He went up a lot in my estimation that day."
The pair clearly hold each other in high regard. Smedley often refers to Massa as "Sunshine" over the race radio and admits the pair have formed a close bond. "We've become close friends but that often happens when you work closely with someone like that," he said. "I've got a lot of friends like that at Ferrari. I like to think that Felipe and I have got a good friendship but first and foremost it has to be a 100 per cent working relationship."
Smedley, who boasts a degree in mathematics and mechanical engineering, has been in F1 for over a decade. He first started working for the former Stewart F1 team, and also worked for Jordan and Williams before joining Ferrari. And he has worked his way up the ranks to become Massa's race engineer. But what exactly does the job entail? "My job as race engineer in effect is to be the final voice to Felipe," he said. "During the race, for example, as I'm sitting on the pitwall; I'll be receiving information from different members of my team. Basically, it's up to me to take in all that, decide what to do and feed that back to Felipe. It's quite a difficult job in a race as there's so many things going on and there's a lot to manage.
"Away from a race, it's up to me with Felipe to extract the maximum from the car for a race, and that doesn't start once we turn up for a race weekend. The stuff we have in place for Barcelona, for example, would have been put in place four weeks ago. It's a long process and you have to go through the different options and permutations as there are so many different variables at every different circuit."
In the high-pressure field that Smedley and Massa work in, there are moments when they do not always see eye-to-eye, despite the high regard in which they hold each other. "We disagree all the time, well, a lot of the time anyway, but that's a healthy relationship," he said, "as we're both pushing to do the very best we can. We always find the right compromise and I like to have that sort of relationship."
As for who the boss is, Smedley says that is no question. "It's me," he said. "I decide what we end up doing as the technical side of this is my area of expertise. Just as I don't tell Felipe how he should drive the car, he trusts me and leaves me to do my job in terms of the car set-up. It's up to me to make sure I make the right calls for him and hopefully I usually do." Last season had its difficulties, not least at the Brazilian Grand Prix where Massa missed out on the world title by a solitary point.
But the pair also had the addition of two new circuits - the street circuits in Valencia and Singapore - to contend with. With more and more circuits being added to the calendar, including this year's season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, getting to grips with a new track is becoming an increasing issue for engineers. And Smedley explains: "The new circuit in Abu Dhabi, for example, is very challenging to contend with as a race engineer but very enjoyable. We had issues with Valencia and Singapore but we've given ourselves the best head start by doing simulation work at the Fiat Research Centre [in Turin] for Abu Dhabi.
"It [the track] might not be built yet, but we have a rough idea what it will be like and, when it comes to the race weekend, it just means there are a lot more variables to deal with. It's not a problem though, you just have to keep a more open mind." Smedley's life working with Massa is not all glitz and glamour. The pair spend hours each race weekend locked away in technical team briefings ahead of the race and have lengthy driver debriefs afterwards to glean any new information they can from the car. In addition, the duo meet regularly, sometime talking for hours in the evening before a race.
"You have to go through all the minutiae you can," said Smedley. "Everything has to be covered and sometimes you have to go over and over things to ensure you've got them clear in your head. "It's time consuming but it's really important. And the debrief is key as we're already thinking two, three, four races ahead so we're constantly looking forward." As for the secret to being a good race engineer, Smedley insists it is ensuring you "learn something every day".
"Once you think you know it all, then you're in trouble," he said. "I try to learn something every day. For example, today, one of the Ferrari boys taught me some new words in Italian which I can't repeat I'm afraid. I wouldn't want to make your readers blush!" Perhaps surprisingly, Smedley's first love as an engineer is working more closely with the car particularly in developing it for the future.
In particular, he loves working with the test team - when he first joined Ferrari it was as part of the test team - a job that has become somewhat surplus to requirements since testing has now been banned during the course of the season. "It's actually a more rewarding job because you can actually do more," he said. "You can play about a bit more and it feels like you can make a real difference." For what it's worth, Massa may beg to differ.