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Managing in the fast lane

Christian Horner on pit wall

At the Maximize London Conference late last year Mark Venables caught up with Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull Racing, to discuss the challenges of managing a Formula One team

At first glance, guiding the fortunes of a Formula One team would seem to be a far cry from the realities of managing a manufacturing organisation but there are a great deal of similarities. Take Milton Keynes based Aston Martin Red Bull Racing. They employ over 900 people to manufacture two formula one cars that race under the highest scrutiny 21 times a year. Each of the thousands of parts on the car is designed and manufactured to extremely high tolerances in an incredibly shortened time frame. It is high value, highly customised manufacturing at its purest.

Since Red Bull Racing’s 2005 inception, through the glory years of multiple Formula 1 championship wins and the tougher times of the early hybrid era of the sport, right up to the current time, with the team embarking on an exciting new era, one man has been charged with directing the efforts of the teams of engineers, mechanics and drivers – Christian Horner.

“When you look at some of the challenges that we have in Formula One I’m sure you will relate to across the different businesses that you are involved in,” he says. “We are wholly owned by Red Bull and the group target is very much to be first to market and that is part of what we do in Formula One, part of the challenge that we have. We are benchmarked 21 times this year across the globe, against some massive opponents such as Ferrari, Mercedes, and the historic teams like McLaren and Renault. Those 21 races are under the spotlight of the global media. Outside of the Olympic Games and the Football World Cup, which only happen every four years, this is the most viewed sport on the planet.”

People are key assets
Two of the team’s primary assets are its drivers. “Max Verstappen is in my opinion the best driver in the world,” Horner says. “He is doing a fantastic job and he is now in his fifth year of Formula One. He has that blend of youth and experience behind him so he is a major asset for us. Alex Albon, who he raced against in karting is a year older than him. He is a rookie, he is our newcomer this year, recently graduating to the race team. The drivers are our biggest variable that we do not have total control of; they are emotional animals. They are highly strung. Some of them are a bit insecure. Some of them need an arm around the shoulder, some of them need a kick up the backside every now and again. But they obviously are a crucial element and a very public face of what we do. But there are only two parts of a team that is consisting of over 900 people. I often remind them even though there are two championships, the driver’s championship where the prestige is, where the most important championship for us as a team is the constructor’s championship. That is where the revenue is distributed from the money flowing into the sport.

“Every single member of our team is rewarded for where we finish in the constructors’ championship, nobody is rewarded, apart from the driver for where we finish in the drivers’ championship, that often goes out the window in the heat of the moment if you have got drivers competing for a championship, but that is the message that these guys are constantly reminded of, that there is no individual bigger than the team.”

So what does the team consists of? More than 900 people are employed to produce two Grand Prix cars for those 21 races, working across 22 different departments. In another similarity to successful manufacturing companies it is crucial how those departments interact and work with each other. About 100 people are taken trackside to each event; about 60 technicians and engineers in the garage all the supported by 40 marketing and administration staff. “There is one clear vision for all those guys, which is winning races,” Horner adds. “Our target is a common target. Each of those races is like an FA Cup Final for us. We have got to extract the most out of the package that we have and optimise it on the day.

“Our people are our biggest and most singular asset and so we take a lot of time in developing and nurturing young talent. We invest in talent from universities and different graduate schemes. We have a very low turnover in staff, in fact less than two per cent, which again we are very proud of. And my job is to ensure that we have got the best group of people collectively to effectively go into battle with each Grand Prix.”

And like much of manufacturing there is an extensive and high value supply chain. For Formula One this takes the form of partners such as Hexagon, AT&T, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Siemens. “They are all crucial partners for us,” Horner continues. “They do not simply have their logos on the car, their technologies are in the car as well. And Formula One being such a technologically advanced formula, we rely very heavily on our partners. During the course of the year, under various NDAs, we will have discussions with leading CTOs about future technologies that we can explore that can benefit us on the track. We can be used as a test bed and showpiece for that particular technology.”

Racing around the world
When it comes to challenges, Horner quickly points to geography as the toughest. “It is a truly global world championship,” he says. “By the time I’ve got to the to the fifth race I have flown around the world at least twice. For me a year consists of about 100 flights that involve Grands Prix, different meetings and sponsor commitments that we have during the year. But more importantly,moving the parts and the cars around the world is a huge logistical challenge.”

Red Bull ship 66 tonnes of freight each individual Grand Prix weekend. There are five individual sets of sea freight that are on route to individual races at any one time. At the time of speaking the freight had just arrived in Japan for the next race while freight for upcoming races in Mexico and the USA was somewhere transatlantic, and the freight for the final two races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi packed and ready to go. “For our general kit at races we have five sets that we disperse around the world,” Horner adds. “For the cars and parts that we use these are flown around from race to race in cargo planes that are specially adapted to carry the cars, electronics and IT racks to each Grand Prix. These will go about one week in advance of each of the races.”

That is not the end of the logistical challenge. During a Grand Prix week, every day will see hand luggage going to the race with components that are the latest iteration direct from the factory to supplement spare parts or the latest development parts. “They will arrive right up until the last moment and getting them to the circuit can be worth tenths or hundreds of a second.”

On a wing and a prayer
As an example of the challenges that parts can cause, Horner points to the events at the Japanese Grand Prix several years ago. Red Bull attended that race with a new and improved front wing, but due to the last-minute nature of the sport there had only been time to manufacture two of the parts – one for each of the cars of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. During Friday practice Vettel ran over a curb and destroyed his front wing and the older specification that it was replaced with did not feel as good in afternoon practice.

Horner takes up the story. “For those who follow FORMULA ONE, earlier in the year, I ended up taking a front wing from Webber’s car and putting it on Vettel’s because Mark said he didn’t like it. And then it all blew up and Webber accused the team of favouritism towards the other driver, even though he didn’t want the wing in the first place. So as soon as Vettel lost that wing I thought ‘I am not doing that again’.

“Sebastian came to me and said, ‘I’ve got to have that wing, I can definitely get a pole position with that front wing’. After a couple of calls to the factory it turned out that there was a front wing that was in the early stages of production that potentially we could get there. It would involve hiring a private jet from Luton to go via Russia, to land at Osaka and then be put in a helicopter to arrive at the circuit. We had to get four guys out of manufacturing to finish the wing on the flight. They lined the aeroplane out, and they ended up finishing the construction of the wing, painting it at 40,000 feet and labelling it up with all the sponsor decals. This was going to be a hugely expensive logistical challenge and Sebastian had generously said, ‘whatever it costs, I’ll pay’. The cost of this was about £300,000 pounds to get this wing from one side of the world to the other. With Sebastian being a generous racing driver earning lots of money he said ‘it’s worth it I’ll pay the money’.

“Just before qualifying the wing arrived and seeing the effort that have gone in I said to Sebastian ‘if you get pole position I’ll go halves on the bill’, it was the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. Sebastian got the pole by about half a second; you have never heard a driver so happy and he went on to win the Grand Prix and the championship that weekend. So the wing had a financial value as well as a huge sentimental one as well.”

Battling with changing regulations
Aside from the logistics, another big headache for the team is the changing regulations. Every year the FIA, the sport’s governing body, change the rules. Sometimes there are subtle rule changes like this year where they introduced an all new front wing. The challenge that had for the teams was that the front wing is the first piece of the car that meets with the airflow and so it affects the rest of the car. “The wing was changed for good reasons, trying to improve overtaking, but the knock-on effect was significant,” Horner says. “As a team, we have to react and respond extremely quickly.

“Between each Grand Prix there are eight days where we can effectively do work and turn the car around and get new components through the factory throughout the season. We are evolving the car on a continuous cycle, updating it and dealing with these challenges. Now we are all arguing about the future of the sport for 2021. What will those regulations be? And it is a huge discussion about trying to restrict the amount of development we can do in a year and reduce the cost of these cars.

“But our team of innovative designers want freedom. Now, there is a trade between the teams and governing body for what will become a big law change for 2021. But one of the things we have to do is ensure that the car complies with the rules, a big thick manual of rules that governs every Grand Prix, and that is again where we rely on partners such as Hexagon and their measuring technology. We are always pushing the boundaries of these regulations. For us the accurate measurements are within thousandths of milometres to make sure that we are maximising the car to its optimum performance to make sure that every ounce is extracted. It is those marginal games that we are constantly chasing. And throughout the season we would expect to put about two seconds worth of development onto the car from the start of the year in Australia to the end of the year in Abu Dhabi.”

Reliability is crucial to success
Formula One cars are truly impressive machines; they will do nought to 100 miles an hour in under five seconds and that is mainly dictated by the amount of traction you can have. But it is the G-loads that are most impressive. When cornering they pull between 4G and 5G, the braking forces are between 6G and 7G; that is six times your own body weight, standing on the back of your neck every time you hit the brake pedal.

But despite all this incredible performance, reliability is still of paramount importance. The old maxim of to finish first, first you have got to finish is as true as ever. “Reliability is everything to us,” Horner admits. “We had one mechanical failure in the first 15 races, this year, which was a driveshaft failure in Azerbaijan. And this is again where our partners like Hexagon play such a vital role in ensuring that the components that are fitted on the car, are absolutely hitting the design tolerances; that they have fulfilled all inspection criteria. We need them to be fit and forget items.

“We are only allowed one gearbox per five races, and there will be thousands and thousands of gear changes from circuits like Monaco to Montreal. Having that reliability is a crucial element for us. In the world that we live in with regulations we are not allowed to go out and endlessly test these components. The virtual world for us is hugely important. So designed right first then ensuring that the process is followed through and the component on the car performs in the manner that it should is vitally important for us.”

Throughout the course of a season Red Bull will produce about 100,000 drawing releases. There are about seven and a half thousand parts to each Grand Prix car, each of which will probably be revisited three to four times during the year and updated and superseded. The drawing office release about 1000 designs a week from which they make about a million parts per year to produce these two Grand Prix cars. It is small production runs with only five cars produced for the entire year.

“It is ones and twos, threes, and fours of all of these different components and we have to have visibility of all of these components wherever they are around the world, because we are not running big volumes of these high-performance pieces,” Horner says. “Understanding and having the logistical knowledge of where these components are at any point in time so they can be included on the bill of materials for each building of these cars is hugely important for us. And it is this relentless quest for performance that we keep revisiting.”

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