From ‘wheeler dealers’ to engineers: How F1’s team boss role has completely evolved

Thomas Maher
Rob Smedley, pictured 2016.

Rob Smedley says he sees the role of team boss as shifting away from 'wheeler dealers' and businesspeople to become a destination for engineers.

Former F1 race engineer Rob Smedley has pointed out how he sees the role of a team boss evolving as more engineers take on the role of team leadership.

Smedley, who now runs an engineering business called Smedley Group, appeared on The Race podcast and spoke about what he sees as a shift in what teams are looking for when it comes to team bosses.

When Smedley first arrived on the grid in the late 1990s, most of the teams were overseen by their founders (think Eddie Jordan, Peter Sauber, Sir Frank Williams, Alain Prost, Sir Jackie Stewart) or a commanding figurehead key to the team’s growth (such as Ron Dennis, Tom Walkinshaw, or Jean Todt).

Rob Smedley: The role of the team principal has evolved

But these figureheads and founders have slowly been shifted out in favour of canny businesspeople. For 2024, not a single team boss comes from a place of singular authority like the days of 25 years ago – the closest being Toto Wolff at Mercedes due to his 33 percent ownership of the team.

While commanding figureheads such as Christian Horner have been instrumental in building up the team, Horner has no ownership stake in the Red Bull team.

But an interesting evolvement in recent years has seen former engineers taking on the role of team boss.

For instance, following the departure of Jost Capito from Williams after 2022, the team approached Mercedes’ strategy engineer James Vowles to take the role – which he accepted.

At Haas, having parted ways with Guenther Steiner over the winer, the American squad has appointed director of engineering Ayao Komatsu to lead the team forward. Team owner Gene Haas also made it clear in welcoming Komatsu that a net positive from the changes was the shift to focus on an engineering-led approach.

Smedley, who might have had such lofty heights in his sights at the time he left the Formula 1 grid, spoke about the slow shift and suggested it’s due to how engineers view the world differently to that of businesspeople.

“I don’t know whether anybody knows [engineering] inside out,” he said.

“But, certainly, I’ve been around for a while! Engineering has changed a lot over that period. Once an engineer, always an engineer, you know, no matter what position you end up in.

“So there’s this trend now of engineers becoming team principals, but they’re very different as a breed of team principal from a more classic team principal, which is from a more business point of view. recommends

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“And, before that, team owners like the ‘wheeler dealer’ – they were quite a different breed in how we go about things.

“I think it’s because we’re too detailed because we can’t be superficial. We have to get down into the details and understand every bit of what’s been said and try to convey that as well.

“I’m kind of doing stuff more in the outside world now. In my business, we’ve got a commercial team, and they try and keep me away from new clients because I tend to over-explain everything and make everything far too complicated.

“The rest of the world, non-engineers aside, like things that are a lot simpler!”

Other examples of engineers taking charge of Formula 1 teams include Andrea Stella at McLaren, who served as a performance and race engineer for years at Ferrari, as well as current Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur.

Alpine also appointed former power unit engineer and former Peugeot technical director Bruno Famin to replace Otmar Szafnauer in mid-2023, while both Mike Krack and Laurent Mekies boast long careers as racing engineers prior to taking up their current roles as Aston Martin and VCARB team bosses, respectively.

Smedley believes that the fact F1 teams have swollen massively in size compared to 25 years ago, and the resulting elements of specialisation this brings, has made it far more difficult for engineers nowadays to develop a general grounding in a wider variety of technical areas.

“I think that, as much as Formula 1 has changed for the better – from an engineering point of view, the element of how professional it has become and how big the teams have become and how in-depth the engineering goes – I actually think that there’s an element that we’re missing, and you can’t really bring that back, because you’ve got to go back to the old days of tiny teams,” he said.

“The young engineers don’t get the grounding that my generation got. So my generation… we got to see everything, and that’s why my generation are now all the chief technical officers, they’re still all the technical directors.

“They are now all becoming the team principals, it’s why my generation is difficult to kind of move us on, right? That’s not good for any industry, you want to be able to create highly intelligent generalists that can come up through the ranks and, one day, run teams.

“The teams need to consider this as well, you know, it’s a team-centric problem – how do you create these great all-rounders? How do you create them in numbers as well because, in my time, we were being created in numbers. There were lots of us hanging around and you get the natural wastage – some of them go out of Formula 1, some of them don’t make it, some of them don’t like it, or whatever.

“But then you’ve still got this group of senior leaders that will, one day – as is the case now – kind of run Formula 1 from the team’s point of view.”

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