x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The principal reasons behind the successes in Formula One

The roles of the men running the teams vary, from owner to the go-to man, but the desire to win is still the same.

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, left, with his team’s driver Sebastian Vettel.
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, left, with his team’s driver Sebastian Vettel.

Imagine a sport where, during pre-season training, the man who is expected to oversee the team during the year ahead may opt to stay at home. Imagine a sport where, once the season is underway, the manager might choose to attend only some games. Imagine a sport where the manager is also often the primary investor, the chief go-to man and, ultimately, the team owner.

The role of team principal in Formula One is as varied as it is complicated: McLaren-Mercedes's principal does not do the same job as Force India's, nor do either men undertake the same duties as the man in charge of the Ferrari team.

At F1's second pre-season test this year, in Barcelona, the Sauber team completed their four-day programme without the presence of the team principal, Peter Sauber. When asked about his boss's absence, Sergio Perez, the team's young Mexican driver, shrugged it off, saying such involvement was not vital.

Peter Sauber founded his eponymous team in 1993 and secured deals with first Mercedes, then Petronas and then BMW. Since BMW withdrew from F1 at the end of 2009, the Sauber name has remained in the sport almost solely due to the private funds of the team's founder. The 68-year-old Swiss is thus crucial to the team yet, increasingly, his presence in the paddock is not paramount.

"In our team, Peter Sauber is the founder and the team's gone through a quite awkward time, especially since 2010," said Monisha Kaltenborn, their chief executive officer. "So I think it's been important for us that, since he is the founder, he stands for a certain stability and continuity, which was important in the past two years.

"Everyone has seen that over these years he has started to step back a little. He doesn't particularly enjoy going to all the races, and it's of course up to him to whether he will want to change anything, but I guess it's important for us, because of our specific situation, that he is around."

Few can deny that Sauber, who built his first car in his parents' basement in the late 1960s, has a long-standing relationship with motorsport. The same, arguably, cannot be said of Tony Fernandes, the team principal of Caterham.

While the Malaysian entrepreneur has a strong background in the aviation industry, his relationship with motor racing goes back only as far as 2009 when he capitalised on BMW's withdrawal from F1 to launch Lotus Racing.

As he said last year: "I am a strategy person and I leave it at that. I don't decide who drives or how because I don't have that value. But I add value in the branding, getting the right team together and getting them motivated."

Such is Fernandes's investment portfolio - AirAsia, Tune Hotels, Queens Park Rangers are only a few - that his presence at races is becoming rarer. The result of his forced absence has seen Caterham's former chief operations officer Riad Asmat gain further responsibility and the title of CEO.

As Asmat puts it, his boss, in being an outsourcing team principal, "has broken all the rules", and yet their arrangement "seems to be working quite well". Like Sauber, Fernandes has become more of a figurehead.

"We all know that just because Tony does not come to every race, does not mean he is losing interest," said Vitaly Petrov, the Caterham driver. "We all understand he is busy, so if he needs to be somewhere else on a race weekend, then we appreciate that, but he always has the passion, is pushing, sending messages, calling - sometimes too much!"

Last year, Petrov raced under the Frenchman Eric Boullier at Renault and concedes the more orthodox arrangement had its benefits. "It is always important to have a team principal there on a race weekend because if something doesn't work, you can go to him to complain or he can come to you and tell you what is bad or good."

While Boullier is team boss, he is not - like Sauber or Fernandes, or Vijay Mallya at Force India - also the team owner. Gerard Lopez holds that title and the Luxembourg-born entrepreneur feels the set-up at Renault is the way it should be.

"Eric manages the team as a team principal should, as far as we're concerned, and also for the fact that unfortunately or fortunately, I have other things to do, so I can't devote my time to Formula One as much as I probably sometimes would," Lopez said. "He plays the role and acts as a team principal, which is the way we understand it."

Boullier's role of team principal is in the more traditional sense: overseeing strategies, car set-ups, design tweaks, driver development and the like.

The sport's two most storied stables, McLaren and Ferrari, as well as the constructors champions, Red Bull Racing, all employ roughly this arrangement. Christian Horner, the team boss of Red Bull, calls it "an old-fashioned structure".

"There are many faculties with a Formula One team these days and you have the responsibility for them on a day-to-day basis: reporting to the shareholders and managing the team daily," Horner said. "So there's certainly never a quiet moment, and that's part of the involvement and challenge of the role. Every day, you drive to work, you're not quite sure what to expect."

At Ferrari, Stefano Domenicali is boss of the F1 team, but he has plausibly the least power of all team principals; Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari chairman, is known to make most major decisions. Domenicali concedes he has little involvement in the technical side of things, and Montezemolo is understood to negotiate team contracts and sponsor deals.

"The team is an entity where there are a lot of things that have to go on in terms of organisation, sponsorship, commercial activity, administration. It's really a company because we are part of a group that is bigger," Domenicali said.

So, aside from his wallet, is a team principal dispensable? At some teams, perhaps; at others, not at all.

Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren chief, takes the whole role with an admirable dose of humility. "In our team, the team principal enjoys going to all the races," he said with a smile. "Whether the race team enjoy him going to all the races, I don't know … but I go because I quite enjoy it."

When asked how important he feels his position is in terms of the team's running, the smile widens. "We like to think we're hands-on, but I suspect they just humour us most of the time."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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