James Allison: The answer to Adrian Newey and Lewis Hamilton bargaining chip

Thomas Maher
James Allison is back at Mercedes as F1 technical director. April 2023

James Allison is back at Mercedes as F1 technical director. April 2023

Mercedes have put James Allison back in charge of their technical department, seemingly admitting defeat at what was supposed to be their succession plan.

After starting off their second successive season on the back foot, Mercedes have opted for sweeping change in their technical department with immediate effect…by returning to the structure of personnel they had previously.

With Allison returning from the faraway pastures of the team’s Chief Technical Officer role, the British engineer resumes in the role of Technical Director – the position he had to oversee the monumental successes of 2017 to 2021.

Mike Elliott, having been in the role of Technical Director for the past two years, has moved in the opposite direction – switching to a role that sees him take on the more long-term strategic planning that the role entails, including playing a key role in help shape the direction of travel for the 2026 regulation changes.

The change has come about as a result of an apparent internal review, instigated by Elliott himself, after the team kicked off 2023 with the admission that their design philosophy, which continued on into this year after being introduced on the W13, has taken them in the wrong direction – an open admission from Toto Wolff in Bahrain admitting the faux pas.

Elliott’s apparent desire for change at the top level of Mercedes’ technical structure is admirable. After all, it shows a level of self-awareness and deprecation that is allowing him to all but make the admission that he is not the right man for the job.

Is James Allison the right person to turn things around for Mercedes?

While Adrian Newey is the king of Formula 1 racecar design and aerodynamics, there’s no doubt that James Allison is his nearest rival on the grid.

After kicking off his career with Benetton and Larrousse, he joined Ferrari to lead their aero department for 2000 – just as the Scuderia came good. The cars he helped design won the championships over the next five successive years in what was one of the most dominant spells of any F1 team ever in the history of the sport.

He moved to Renault in 2005 as deputy technical director, helping them secure back-to-back titles before climbing to become technical director in 2009. The Lotus cars he penned in 2012 and 2013 were both race-winners, before Allison joined Ferrari in 2013 to become chassis technical director.

He quit Ferrari in 2016, following the tragic death of his wife, returning to join Mercedes as replacement for Paddy Lowe – a role he held until 2021 when Mercedes put in place their succession plan.

Allison has played a part in the design of two of the most dominant F1 cars ever created – the Ferrari F2004 and the Mercedes W11. His return to the coalface of F1, taking in hand the day-to-day running of the design of Mercedes’ car, should thus strike fear into the hearts of the rest of the field.

But is Allison’s return likely to be an instant turnaround for Mercedes? Perhaps not.

After all, the 2022 design philosophy for the new ground-effect era had already been decided by the time Allison stepped aside for Elliott – even if the effects of that weren’t evident until several months later.

Allison also oversaw the aerodynamics for the notoriously evil Ferrari F14-T after rejoining Ferrari, only for the 2015 car to be a major step forward, suggesting Allison can, as is human, be as caught out by the new rules as anyone – even with such an impressive back catalogue of hits.

Added to that is the fact that, while Elliott may be admitting he’s not the right man to be Technical Director, he was head of aerodynamics at Mercedes at their most dominant – such aptitude hasn’t disappeared overnight.

Is James Allison move an attempt to reassure Lewis Hamilton?

One key factor in the timing of the change is that it comes at a time when Lewis Hamilton’s future is uncertain. With Hamilton clearly unhappy at how his communicated wishes were not listened to over the winter, and his elusive eighth world title no closer now than it was 12 months ago, the switch of personnel could be a move to assuage any concerns Hamilton has about Mercedes’ direction.

After all, with contract talks not far off (or possibly already having even begun), Mercedes can now point to Allison and remind Hamilton that the man overseeing the design of next year’s car is the same as the one who oversaw his title-winning cars from 2017 to 2020.

That’s quite a bargaining chip and, while Allison may not be able to make any significant differences until late-2023 upgrade packages are introduced, signs of upward momentum from this point onward could help secure Hamilton’s signature for another contract.

And, while there may be something of a transition period as Allison and Elliott assume their new roles, and chief designer John Owen also refocuses on the job of car design rather than budget cap adherence, it’s far less tumultuous than that of a new signing – meaning everyone involved should be quite comfortable with the new dynamic very quickly, given that it’s essentially a return to the old dynamic!

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Mercedes attempting to emulate Red Bull turnaround?

Nine years ago, frustrated by the direction F1 had taken for 2014 with aerodynamics playing a lesser role in a team’s performance, Red Bull’s Adrian Newey took a step back from being involved in the design of his team’s cars as he signed a new deal as Chief Technical Officer to work more closely on non-F1 projects through Red Bull Technologies.

While Newey played a supervisory F1 role over the following four years, Red Bull essentially trod water until 2019 when, with the Honda engine proving to be competitive after a swap from Renault, Newey was tempted back into playing a far more involved role by working with technical director Pierre Wache and aero chief Dan Fallows.

The increased concentration from Newey yielded near-instant results, although the 2020 RB16 did prove troublesome until its evolution into the RB16B.

With this in mind, Mercedes are likely hoping that their Newey figure will meet with similar success once his mind refocuses on the task of extracting performance.

The concerning part for the Formula 1 teams is that the prospect of short-to-medium term failure is so uninviting, that the talismanic type leaders of the technical departments aren’t able to slink off to do what it is they wanted to do for very long – their replacements competent, but perhaps lacking the spark that has made their predecessors the top guys in their field.

Newey, having been tempted away by sailboats and prototype hypercars, was enticed back to F1 once aerodynamics became a more important factor after the early years of the hybrid rules meant Red Bull were less competitive, which has resulted in plenty of success.

Meanwhile, over at Ferrari, Rory Byrne was heavily involved in the design of last year’s F1-75 and signed a new three-year deal, despite being 79 years old and long since ‘retired’.

It also appears to be ever more difficult for designers to make their mark felt in such a way as the old-school guys like Newey and Rory Byrne – look at how the highly-rated James Key found himself ousted after this year’s McLaren proved uncompetitive at the start of the season.

Dan Fallows, having headed up Red Bull’s aero department under Newey’s supervisory eye, now finds himself building a reputation but is only just starting out with the increased responsibility of a technical director role – meaning a single dud under his watch could halt his momentum.

Mercedes, rather than trying something new, are reverting to the structure that was originally in place until Allison set his sights on new challenges – meaning it’s back to square one with no clear path for what happens once Allison reaches retirement age or moves elsewhere.

“The person who is coming next, Mike, will pick up the baton from me and accelerate away with it,” Allison said two years ago, as he stepped aside from the role to which he now returns.

“He will bring to it a vigour and a dedication I’m sure will see the team very well served. His standard of engineering judgement and his values and behaviours as a leader are top-drawer.

“There’s a great deal of pleasure to see Mike have his chance and to know the team will be well served under him, and a great deal of pleasure to know the handover is happening in a nice, organised way and where I can feel I’m stepping away with the team in good shape – stepping away from the technical directing that is.”

Why don’t Mercedes make an approach for Mattia Binotto?

With the attempt at moving on from Allison adjudged a failure as they now wish to steady the ship, perhaps it’s time to look for an external hire rather than promoting from within – an approach that clearly hasn’t worked on this occasion.

Given his recent resignation from the team boss role he perhaps wasn’t best suited to, Mercedes could do worse than look to famed technical director Mattia Binotto – a figurehead who has proven himself more than capable at leading a team’s technical department with aplomb.

The only drawbacks to this are that Binotto is only three years younger than Allison and, having been team boss at Ferrari, may feel a role reporting to Toto Wolff is now too difficult to accept.

James Key, as mentioned, is a free agent worth evaluating – like drivers, personnel can sometimes just not be a good fit for a team, and Key proved himself more than capable in his years with Sauber, Force India, and Toro Rosso.

While Allison’s re-appointment to the technical director role might be a cause for celebration for Mercedes fans in the short-term, the long-term implications are that the structure is not yet in place to let him go elsewhere…