Honda website
Honda website

NOVEMBER 9, 2005

What is an F1 designer worth?

There is a school of thought in F1 these days that no one man (or woman) can be wholly responsible for the design of a modern Grand Prix car. It is an interesting argument. The odd thing is that there exists a small group of engineers who seem to be able to make cars that work, no matter where they go, while others struggle to build competitive machinery. Strength in depth in engineering may be a useful thing but not if the focus is on the wrong things.

One of the reasons that Adrian Newey is leaving McLaren is that for a time, a year or so ago, Newey felt that he was being ignored. The cars were not working and Newey reckoned that he knew how to fix them. It turns out that he did and the MP4-20 is, depending on who you talk to, evidence that Newey is someone who makes the difference. The string of World Championship titles that he can boost is also a fairly clear hint.

McLaren says that they did not feel it was worth investing the kind of money that Newey was asking. Or to put it another way, he was not that important.

"Everyone always say that I don't do anything and that I get the people to do it for me," says Mike Gascoyne of Toyota. "Well, that is what a technical director does. He is directing and prioritising, not doing it himself. The secret is knowing what makes a car go quick. Harvey Postlethwhaite always used to say and I always repeat it: Any idiot can design a racing car. The trick is to design a quick one. The technical director's job is to identify what makes a quick one. The secret is prioritising and telling the people in the key areas how to do it."

The difference between success and failure in F1 is tiny and yet huge. A few tenths of a second can mean many millions of dollars and so teams with money are willing to pay for the best. Drivers like Michael Schumacher are paid as much as they are because they can deliver that little extra. But there is little doubt that, in the overall scheme of things, a designer can find more tenths than a driver. And thus they should be worth more.

Newey is believed to have been looking for $10m a year to stay at McLaren. He probably got that from Red Bull. Gascoyne is rumoured to be on $9m at Toyota and Ross Brawn is understood to be earning similar amounts down in Italy.