Did somebody seriously just complain that Formula 1 cars have got quieter? It’s just before noon at the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport facility in Brackley. The throaty revving of an engine fills the warehouse. It’s so loud that you need earplugs just to get it to a tolerable level. Head Mechanic Matt Deane, 44, has scheduled one more pit stop rehearsal before the team heads to their next race. They practise their manoeuvres in as few actions as possible, just like they’ve done hundreds of times before. But if your job is to change a tyre in under two seconds, there’s no such thing as too much practice. Deane looks at a screen that tells him exactly how long each person needs to do what. In Formula 1, every millisecond counts – and that also goes for the crew.
There are over 1,500 people spread out across three locations working on Mercedes-Benz’s Formula 1 activities. The team’s success rides on their shoulders.
A mechanic examines the vehicle shortly before the race. Instead of implementing steep hierarchies, the team is more focused on solution-orientated thinking.
The racks are stocked with boxes and palettes; in the corner are screens, cases on castors, square containers. One of the mechanics is sitting in the racing car. He drives out of the blazing sun and into the warehouse, the ferocious revving of the engine ricocheting off the walls. His crew is up against the clock: one mechanic removes the wheel, another passes on a new one, another one screws it back into place. The car is ready to go. Watching them work, you get the feeling they could do this in their sleep, in perfect synchronisation. The only thing missing is a slow-motion effect with a bit of classical music to underscore the scene’s orchestral character. Indeed, the pit is a lot like a symphony.
Whereas the garages of old smelled like oil and fumes, these days you could say it smells like team spirit. A driver is only as good as the people behind the scenes: the engineers that build the car and the mechanics that keep it running. In all, there are a good 1,500 employees at three different locations toiling away to make sure that Mercedes not only becomes, but stays Formula 1 champion. The challenge lies in bringing these 1,500 people together to form a perfect whole with a common objective. Every day. Formula 1 is where technologies of the future are put to the ultimate test. But even beyond the realm of sport, it can serve as an example: for structures, processes and leadership culture.
Rigorous training for every scenario is part and parcel of the job. After all, there are countless factors that can swing the outcome.
Team boss Toto Wolff managed to clinch four team titles between 2014 and 2017 alone. His modern leadership style played no small role in this impressive feat.
Of course, the races are still won on the racetrack. But the foundation of these victories originate in the engine shop in Brixworth, company headquarters in Stuttgart, and right here in Brackley. Team spirit is typically a bit elusive and abstract, but here in the Formula 1 plant, it’s palpable because of people like Toto Wolff, for example, team principal and managing partner. He may be one of the few team managers with a private office, but the only things separating him from everyone else are a pane of glass and some elegant sideboards. “That was a deliberate decision,” says 44-year-old Wolff. “Every now and then there are meetings that I can only have behind closed doors, but I try to be as transparent as possible.” He prefers to take his laptop and work alongside his colleagues.
Since Wolff joined the company in 2013, Mercedes has won four drivers titles and just as many constructors titles. And if you ask those in Brackley how it’s possible to stay at the top in such a high-performance world, they’re quick to tell you that it’s about having the right mindset. Wolff is a disciple of modern leadership principles, and what he’s achieved could be likened to a cultural revolution. It wasn’t long ago that leadership hierarchies at Formula 1 weren’t unlike those you’d find in other corporations: the communication channels were clearly defined and strictly regulated. “Those were different times,” Wolff says of the era of steep hierarchies. He’s more interested in the idea of a hive mind, but that’s not to say he’s not the one behind the wheel. The key these days is to be engaging. Wolff was once a successful racing car driver himself, but if there’s one thing he’s more interested in than engineering, it’s people.
“I can’t design an aerodynamic surface personally, so I concern myself with the people who can, and I try to help them as best as possible.” He speaks of another buzzword: empowerment. By hubris or complacency, history has had its fair share of empires that were the cause of their own downfall. In motivational research, this is known as the “paradox of success”. Wolff’s team has analysed this phenomenon meticulously, he says. “You have to have reasonable expectations and respect that there are intelligent people working on other teams as well,” he explains. “Nobody has the right to victory. You have to work for it. And above all, that requires humility.” This could easily be the team’s mantra.
Team spirit: Lewis Hamilton with his compatriots cheering for England while watching a football match in the track-side engineering office.
After Germany’s early departure from the World Cup this past summer, many fans were consoled by the reminder that the same thing also happened to teams like Spain, Italy and France in the past. They spoke of the “champions’ curse”. In Formula 1, there’s no such thing as fate, no such thing as destiny. There’s only physics, not metaphysics. You have to be prepared for whatever comes your way. That’s James Vowles’ job.
Vowles, 39, is the team’s chief strategist. He doesn’t just have a plan B – in fact, there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to cover the number of options he’s ready to deploy at all times. “Unpleasant surprises can be quite hectic,” he says. And because hectic situations are rarely helpful, Vowles goes through every possible scenario in his head before each race. “Plans lend structure to your brain so that you will be able to think back to the situation, should you be confronted with something similar in the future. That gives me reassurance,” he explains. Structures, processes and a system of common values. This is the glue keeping any successful organisation together.
Vowles says that the team has created an environment that allows each and every employee to grow. They hold weekly feedback rounds instead of some routine annual employee appraisal. And they’re honest with each other. “Toto says that mistakes are unacceptable, but should they happen, it’s important to own up to and learn from them,” Vowles notes. He says they even come across mistakes when analysing races they’ve won.
The Mercedes-AMG Petronas HQ in Brackley is the power station that fuses the team’s energy into the racing car’s cockpit.
In a sport that involves high-power machines dashing across the racetrack at speeds of around 300 km/h, idleness is not an option. And in the end, success is also a matter of culture. The team’s engineering director, Aldo Costa, has been behind numerous Formula 1 World Championship titles over the last 30 years. The 57-year-old refers to a “winning culture”, which, apart from passion and dedication, also involves constructive self-doubt. Are we doing everything right? Do we have to make changes to our line-up? Things like that.
They’ve put a system into place that follows a pretty simple formula: see it, say it, fix it. This means that employees at all levels have the obligation to address anything that catches their attention. “We’re interested in solutions, not in pointing fingers after a loss,” he said. This is important to Costa, and anyone who knows a thing or two about him knows why: Costa was previously part of a rival team as technical director, and despite the triumphs he had clocked up, he was let go when they hit a rough patch. “It was one of the most difficult periods in my life,” he explains. “Because sacking me was completely unwarranted. Giving somebody the chop is no recipe for success.”
“The guys operate under extreme conditions. Always,” says Head Mechanic Matt Deane.
Thanks to the team: in September 2018, Lewis Hamilton wins the Singapore Grand Prix in the Silver Arrow – and after the finish celebrates first with his colleagues.
Costa sees the absence of political antics and finger-pointing as the reason Mercedes-AMG Petronas has secured its position as world leader in the sport. There’s enough pressure as it is. Matt Deane has said that the team is away a good 200 days of the year. For all the glamour this lifestyle entails, you also have to give many things up. And on top of that, there are a million people watching you change a tyre in under two seconds. “The guys,” Deane says, “operate under extreme conditions. Always.” To take some of this pressure off, the Formula 1 team offers its employees a range of different programmes, including seminars on being mindful. Deane goes on: “We expect the best from our people, and that means we have to offer them the best.” This is a credo that holds well beyond Formula 1.