1 June 2018

The importance of focus and other ramblings...

People tell me that I’ve been around F1 for a long time. I don't look at it that way. It seems like only yesterday when I was a slightly dizzy new boy, aged 26 (which as very young at the time), writing for Autosport (alongside Nigel Roebuck) about Prost and Senna at McLaren, Berger and Alboreto at Ferrari, Nannini and Boutsen at Benetton, Mansell and Patrese at Williams and Piquet and Nakajima at Lotus. The last two names remind me that I have written about their sons in F1 as well. 

In those days I rushed about a lot, there were 18 teams at that point, and so I met a lot of people. Teams were smaller then and you knew a much bigger percentage of the people who travelled. I don't remember much about the life we lived, or some of the individual races. It was a bit of a blur. I know it was easier because there was only one deadline a week. There was a lot of work, but it wasn’t every single day. Computers were still pretty new and they helped, although I had been a pioneer in the field with the Tandy 200, which had come out in around 1985, with which I had toured the world for three years.

Weirdly, I rediscovered my old computer a couple of years ago (below), while visiting a friend to whom I had given the device years ago for his computer museum. One day, I will probably write the full story of being an international correspondent in the early days of electronic mail (if I can remember it all) but we had some adventures, sending messages at a maximum speed of 300 bps. I suppose that if people are still reading at that point (as opposed to watching 30-second videos) it will probably be like a book I have somewhere in my shelves, called  "When Motoring was a sport" by ED Lovell, a story about what they went through in the early days of the automobile...

Anyway, I digress from the point. In addition to learning to be a journalist, I also began to learn what makes people successful in Formula 1. The conclusion that I reached, way back then was that the key element was not brains, nor money, nor ambition, nor skill, nor luck. It was focus. It was the kind of focus that grew from previous failures. 

McLaren was Ron Dennis’s fifth project. That’s why his Formula 2 team was called Project 4, and why the McLaren cars carried MP4 nomenclature: McLaren merged with Project 4 to create an astonishing team. Frank Williams had 10 years of failure before he finally came good. All the successful teams went through long learning curves.

Today Mercedes is a dominant player but once it was Brawn and before that Honda Racing F1 and before that British American Racing. In theory it was Tyrrell before that, but there was little at BAR that came from Tyrrell - apart from the company number.

I also learned that those who had focus and lost it, disappear. Success turns heads, changes people and they lose sight of how to win. One of the reasons that successful F1 people have often been rather dysfunctional folk is because of the focus required to be successful. Nothing else matters to them. They live F1 and that means that there have to be casualties because life-work balances go out of the window. And yet it is the characters who are the draw. The people who make the difference. They are all gloriously bonkers - and I count myself as such as well. Obsession is one of the keys to F1 success. Obsession and attention to detail. One thinks specifically of Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, and of mad professors like Adrian Newey.

Scale is another problem. Those who were successful when teams had 300 people are not the same people who are successful when there are 1000 people. It takes different skills. Today racing teams are so big that one person cannot do the roles as they used to do. Different people must do different things, but the need for focus and obsession remains. People who work nine to five don’t win World Championships. Brands are not more important than results. Brands are created by results and results are created by focus.

And while different people may now have different jobs, the strategic thinking must always be right. You cannot have two aims. Driving forwards is useless if you don’t know where you are going, or if there is more than one destination. It’s all fairly obvious stuff, but you see the same mistakes being made over and over again by new people who think they know the answers. Success in F1 today is about listening, taking the right advice and not ever saying “It is just like any other business”.

It isn’t.

What is the point of this soliloquy?

Well, I look around the grid today and I see several examples of celebrated teams without the right focus. The only goal for an F1 team must be to win races. If you win, money will come. Teams like Force India have shown what one can achieve on limited resources: they have built good cars and picked the right drivers to suit the circumstances because they have just one goal. Haas is the same. Gene Haas is a smart man. There is no overlap between what he does in NASCAR and what he does in F1. That’s clever.

Of course, being focussed is not quite enough. You also need to be smart. You need to make the right decisions, pick the right people, buy the right machines and - above all else - you need the right drivers. If you need to make some savings to be able to have the right driver, you do it. You don’t just take a driver because he has more money that a better driver. If the money is the deciding factor, this undermines the motivation of everyone and weakens the team.

What everyone in a team wants is to have a driver who inspires them to go the extra mile for. An inspiration, not a pay-check guarantor. They are very different things. If the staff is not motivated, you are wasting your time. You pick the best drivers available and take what they have to offer if you cannot afford to pay them. In the modern world you need money, but you also need drivers with knowledge and understanding, so having two well-paying rookies - like Williams currently has - is no good. Why? Because they don’t know how to inspire.

Others have other problems. McLaren at the moment seems to be a team with too many goals. Yes, perhaps it would be good for the McLaren brand to have a racing team in America, but that is a distraction. It will inevitably take away resources and manpower - and focus. If it is deemed to be more essential than getting it right in F1, then it should have nothing to do with F1. It should have its own independent leadership, its own workshops and machines, its own funding. The only thing in common should be the board of directors, so that no-one is focussing on things other than F1. If people are splitting their time between different programmes, they won’t have the focus required to win F1 races.

It alarms me to see such great teams in difficulties, but that is the nature of the beast. Once it was impossible to imagine that there would come a time when Lotus and Tyrrell would be gone. Ferrari behaves like it has some divine right to be treated differently to everyone else, simply because it has survived longer than the others. I know the team has a lot of fans, but that's not a reason for the playing field not to be level. Their longevity already pays them extra money. People buy into the magic of Ferrari by buying memorabilia, which they would not even consider if it had Sauber written on it.

That should be bonus enough. In the end, I suspect, Ferrari will get extra money for being Ferrari, but it shouldn't be like that.

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