What inspired you to begin your career in Formula 1?
I had the great fortune to have grown up in the heyday of the space race. I was always interested in it. I was the sort of kid who was always taking things apart to see how they worked and then putting them back together again. Taking on big projects and technical challenges just really appealed to me.
When did you realise that you wanted to become a technical director?
I began to realise that I was really into doing things as part of a team and delivering on a big challenge. I was initially fascinated by aeroplanes. When I got to university the real drive was that it was more important to be part of a team trying to achieve something than it was to achieve that thing itself. Most of my compatriots went into the aerospace business. But Formula 1 was a big area of technical expertise that centred around people trying to achieve a great sporting challenge. All of that really appealed to me.
Were you a pioneer in bringing aerodynamic understanding to technical development in the sport?
Really, I was lucky to get into Formula 1 in the way that I did, to catch the start of a large tsunami of technical growth in the industry. I got a break through John Barnard who was then the technical director at Maclaren. I was the first of a new breed, PhD-educated in a field where most people running technical development came from an engineering background. The performance gains of aerodynamics were just so big. I applied that aerodynamic knowledge to Maclaren at a time when its team was just 60 people. Since then though I’ve always been keen to develop as a generalist, but it was great to have been in right at the start of things.
What lessons have you learned during your career that you have applied to the job you do today?
There are two things. The first is attention to detail. All the little things have to be right. I’ve always been a bit anal in life! Things have always been like that with me – as a kid I built soapbox racers and was always abhorred by other peoples’ efforts if they weren’t perfect.
The other point is that it’s always important to be able to see the bigger picture. You need to make sure that all the aspects are correct. There is theoretical practice but it needs to be paired with actual measurement. My PhD was a 50 per cent practical and 50 per cent theoretical, and that balance is absolutely crucial in modern Formula 1 racing. Scientific rigour is everything.
What advice would you give someone looking to follow an engineering career path into Formula 1?
Firstly, go through university and try to achieve the very best grade that you can. Then in parallel with that, develop your character so that you can become integral to a team personally. And get F1 team experience or indeed any relevant team experience that you can – at weekends, in your spare time, whatever you can do.
Formula 1 is all about pressure and performance. What is the hardest thing about your job?
Failure. I really do see myself as part of a team, and it’s great when the teams succeed. But we are being beaten at the moment and nobody in sport likes to be beaten. The real pain comes with not being at the top.
What has been the best time in your career so far?
There are so many good times but I have to say the early 2000s in the first incarnation at Enstone. To go from scratch to becoming the world champions for a major manufacturer was incredibly satisfying. To build a team and then see it deliver. We are seeing that again here.
What are the fundamentals of building a winning team like that?
Firstly you need to develop a car that can deliver the required performance. But then you need to make that sustainable. You need to have the infrastructure, the people and of course the partners like Castrol. It is very easy to always take the short-term view. Sometimes the best people can take the longest to recruit, and you need the very top technical skills if you want to be the best.
Why is the Castrol partnership important to what Renault F1 wants to achieve?
Castrol has long been known for liquid engineering. A top Formula 1 car is like a grenade with the pin about to fall out – it’s right on the edge of the performance that can be achieved from it. Nowhere is that truer than in the lubrication of the transmission and the engine. We need to answer that and have a drive chain that do all that we ask it to. To do it at the very peak of performance is the real challenge. We need the cars to finish each race but do so to their absolute maximum performance, which is no mean feat. Castrol products have continued to be fit for purpose.
How have these demands changed in today’s Formula 1 environment compared to the past?
Well of course all technology moves on but it’s about Castrol and what it provides being able to keep pace with very rapid change in the demands we place on lubricants. The timescales for Formula 1 are very different to all other forms of motoring because of the speed at which we develop technology and ask for other things from the oil we use. Castrol has a tremendous history in motorsport and understands each issue that we at Renault F1 confront, which is most of the battle.
Can you give an example of how the partnership has helped to overcome a specific challenge?
Castrol is well resourced and very well able to deal with our requests. There is a very strong technical bond between our two organisations. An example is when we recently were working in the wind tunnel to model what happens when we turn the car into the air and cause a tremendous amount of friction. We needed a lubricant that would reduce the juddering between a polymer belt and a rubber tyre – not a conventional development request, but within just a couple of days Castrol had provided the right products for us.