The Team Principal used to be one key figure, who would embody the aspirations of a team and lead the operations. The figure who would represent the team in front of the media, alongside the drivers and conduct and conquer the logistics and politics of Formula One. However, in recent years, there has been a notable change to the hierarchy within the management of several teams and the Team Principal role has been diminished and devolved. Following Toto Wolff’s recent comments suggesting that the role is now outdated, could Team Principal’s soon be a feature of yesteryear?
Are Team Principal’s Outdated?
The recent trends of team personnel movements suggests that having a single man, (or woman) leading the team as a Team Principal is not the preferred option. Is this surprising in the modern era of Formula One, where politics and commercial dealings at times eclipse the on track action? This is no longer the 1960’s, where drivers and teams turned up at a race track with the sole intention of racing. Media commitments, briefings and gatherings notably eat into the time available for Team Principal’s to work alongside drivers and engineers. For instance, almost as soon as the checkered flag falls at the end of FP2, several key personnel are ushered towards the media centre to meet journalists for the official press conference. At a crucial time when their attention should really be on their Friday performance, their focus is elsewhere. When a number of key personnel are working within a team, the effects of this are nullified. For example, in 2013, Mercedes were in the privileged position of being able to accommodate for this. Either Brawn, Wolff, or Lowe would head to the obligatory conferences, while the remaining duo could analyse data and conduct Friday proceedings. While the conferences only usually take between 20 and 45 minutes, they are at a critical time where every second counts.
Meanwhile, having more than one leader tends to lead to more ideas. With more inspiration, innovative deigns and mechanisms can be easier to find. However, it can occasionally be a poison chalice, with the phrase, “too many cooks” coming to mind. With more differing ideologies comes more disputes and a crowded boardroom could lead to conflicting opinions which could be portrayed negatively by the media.
Similarly, their can be some blurring of duties. Mercedes are again a key example of this, due to their top heavy management structure. Last year, Ross Brawn expressed his confusion at his role within the team, (most notably in his revealing interview on Sky Sports F1’s pre-race show in Japan.) He was supposedly the Team Principal, yet it seemed from the outside looking in, that both Lowe and Wolff had taken some of his duties. This would not necessarily have been a negative on Mercedes’ part, yet it did seemingly lead to Brawn’s departure. I would hazard a guess that Brawn would oppose Wolff’s views regarding Team Principal’s after thriving in the era of Formula One where they were integral to success.
Consequently, their does seem to be a need to more devolution of the Team Principal’s roles within a team, yet with the art of restructuring in its infancy, there are some teething problems.
Following their dismal 2012 campaign, Mercedes became the pioneer of the management restructures. Norbert Haug lost his position as head of Mercedes-Benz motorsport, and the team began to create an unprecedented managerial landscape. Niki Lauda, who was appointed as the non-Executive Director, was joined by Toto Wolff, who took up a position as the team’s Executive Director. Meanwhile, the announcement in February last year, that Paddy Lowe would be joining Mercedes as Technical Director, was proof that Mercedes were aiming for a top heavy management structure. Both Lowe and Wolff were taking some of the duties associated with Team Principal Ross Brawn, who was seemingly left with what was essentially a Racing Director’s role in all but name – much to his distaste.
However, after the team enjoyed a huge leap forward last season, as they climbed from P5 to P2 in the constructors, other teams seem to be following the route of devolving the power of the sole Team Principal. McLaren have most notably adopted this ethos this winter, following their less than impressive 2013 season. Martin Whitmarsh has disappeared into the shadows at Woking, with the return of Ron Dennis and his absence from the launch of the MP4-29, placing question marks over his future at the team. Meanwhile, McLaren have undergone a similar transformation to Mercedes, with Dennis, Sam Micheal and new recruit Eric Boullier all ranking highly within the team’s pecking order.
It seems that they have opted for a three-pronged attack to the Team Principal role. As CEO, Ron Dennis will seemingly manage the commercial issues surrounding the team during the race weekends, while Sam Michael’s role as Sporting Director will have a bigger influence now that the Team Principal figurehead has been devolved. Meanwhile, Eric Boullier has been snatched from Lotus, to act as McLaren’s Racing Director. In this role, Eric may work alongside Michael in developing race strategy and will generally oversee the on-track action throughout the weekend. By having three men doing the job of one, McLaren will hope that improved focus will unlock the solutions to the issues which hampered their progress in 2013.
Which Team’s Will Follow Suit?
It makes sense that the larger outfits will undertake a management restructure first. Since they attract the most commercial attention, they have the biggest need to reduce the strain and workload burdening their Team Principal’s. For the smaller teams, it is not a necessary change at the moment and is compounded by the financial climate – The Sauber’s, Marussia’s, and Caterham’s of this world can ill-afford to add significant figures to their wage budgets. Meanwhile, teams which have enjoyed the success of Red Bull in recent years will feel that there is no apparent need to change.
Evidently, Team Principal’s are not set to disappear overnight. It will surly be several years before some teams even begin to consider the perks of having an array of leaders. This season is a key season for McLaren and to a lesser extent Mercedes. If both perform well, then their decisions to remove their Team Principal’s will be validated. Mercedes somewhat completed this mission last year, yet until the likes of Christian Horner and Red Bull begin to falter, many analysts will be unconvinced in regards to just how ‘outdated’ Team Principal’s are.