Interview: David Coulthard and Mark Gallagher
The opulent Kempinski Palace hotel in Portorož provided an apt setting for an interview with former Formula 1 driver, David Coulthard. Taking part in the Microsoft NT conference, it was his third visit to Slovenia, this time with Mark Gallagher in whose company he presented the challenges of Formula 1 and ways to apply their solutions to the business world. Mark Gallagher is an equally interesting figure, he has worked in Formula 1 for almost 30 years and has spent the last 15 as a senior executive within the management of Jordan Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing and Cosworth. He has worked directly with the world’s top drivers and team owners including Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard, providing him with a privileged understanding of what it takes to be a world class competitor.
Millions are spent on developing a F1 car but at the end of the day, tyres become the decisive factor. It is good from the spectacle point of view but is it fair from the technological perspective?
David: It is a good thing for Formula 1 because the sporting spectacle has been improved. If you are following soccer and you only have one or two teams battling for the championship you don’t mind if you are supporting one of those two teams. But if you are one of the millions who support the smaller teams then you get bored after a while because you never taste success whilst you are still working hard. Pirelli, in cooperation with the FIA, have provided a tyre which has limited life and is very temperature sensitive. So the requirement for the driver to understand that tyre is greater than it used to be. In the past you had a tyre that was basically black, round and made of rubber; you put it on the car and its variation from old to new was maybe one second. It was a very predictable element. However, the tyre is the only thing that touches the road and it has always been a huge influence in the performance of any driver. Irrespective of how challenging it is for the teams and drivers to get into the operating window, they will get into that window because they have time modules, simulation technology that will be run millions of times to understand the way to drive that tyre. It is one of the great challenges of modern Formula 1. The upside is that we have seen five different winners from five different teams this year. That cannot be bad for the sport. Providing Pirelli make consistent tyres then it is up to the teams who are most able to use the software and the brain power within their teams that will come out on top. They are all fighting to find the magic ingredient that will enable them to be the dominant team.
Mark: We are a technology-based sport. However, we are also a form of entertainment. In the last two years the tyres have been used by the rule makers in Formula 1 to introduce huge variability into the teams’ strategy. This year, tyres have played the central role in why five different teams have won the first five Formula 1 races. This is the first time in 29 years. Does that compromise the technology in Formula 1? There is a big argument for that. But fundamentally it is still up to the teams and the way they use their technology and their data to optimise the performance of those tyres. To draw an analogy, even in the business world sometimes things happen over which you have no control and you then have to have the business processes in place to adapt and maintain your competitive advantage. In Formula 1 we have intelligent people trying to work out how to get around this problem. It is just a business problem and they will solve it using data, information, technology and then make the right decision.
What is your view of drivers like Michael Schumacher whose careers extend beyond their 40’s. How did you deal with your retirement?
David: It is fairly well documented that you have a physical limit to being at the peak of your powers. As a sportsperson you are typically at your peak somewhere before forty, probably before thirty in some sports. In motor racing, being a less physically dominant sport, it is probably a bit later. As you get older it comes down to motivation. I don’t think that people stop racing because they lose the speed but they lose the need. For me, I felt tired at the beginning of the 2008 season. I didn’t feel that I was getting better. I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to always believe that I could improve something. My whole career was dominated by the belief that I could improve something, always pushing to improve, searching every single avenue from hypnosis to improving physical training, working in the simulator, there was always something new and exciting. But I got to the point when I had pretty much ticked all the boxes over a 14 year career and three years before that as a test driver. But then again, you have to look in the mirror and be honest: are you getting better, can you achieve more than you have achieved? Once you start realising that the answer is probably no and all you are doing is prolonging the inevitable then you have to be honest. You should face it, discuss it with the team and pick an elegant solution to find your exit.
In my case, Sebastian Vettel was coming in the Red Bull system. I’d rather have been smart enough to recognise that I was the man most likely to be replaced and find an opportunity to continue working within the sport because I enjoy it. For me, it is television commentary, a Red Bull ambassador role and other things and I didn’t want to be the last guy to know that my time was up. I am still racing in a professional championship (DTM) but for me this is very much a process of enjoyment, not because I believe I am going to be a multiple DTM champion.
Mark, Honda and Jaguar were rather unsuccessful teams despite their huge resources. Why and how were Jordan and Red Bull different?
Mark: The difference in the success levels was due to good management and the way these organisations were run. Jordan was a very entrepreneurial type of team. We worked extremely hard to get tour sponsors, we were a profitable team, we were run as a proper profitable business. My job was to work with Eddie Jordan on sponsorship. We really worked seven days a week to do the job. Because the way we ran the business we had an extremely close team, great communication, we were a small organisation, we were taking on the big guys. We punched above our weight; we achieved a huge amount in the time we were there. Going from a team like Jordan to then working in a team like Jaguar was a shock to the system because the management of Jaguar did not know what they were doing, I don’t think they had a strategy, they certainly were not running Jaguar like a business. It was a cost centre for the Ford Motor Company. The problem is that when you run a Formula 1 team as a cost centre, which is also what happened with Honda and Toyota, it actually changes the mentality in the team because everyone wakes up each morning knowing that they will get their salary anyway. There is no urgency. In the case of Jaguar it was, in my experience, quite a shock to see how a large organisation like Ford and a brand like Jaguar, could get the fundamentals so wrong. The really interesting story is that Jaguar was sold to Red Bull and that same group of people turned into world champions in a very few years. That’s all to do with management investing in the right areas of the business and they made some key appointment in terms of bringing in the right people to do the job. The Jaguar team that was so unsuccessful in 2004 became world champions by 2010 as Red Bull Racing. An energy drink company was able to do a better job than a car company.
Amongst other Mark, you have worked with Senna, Mansell, Schumacher and Coulthard. Apart from driving skills, what other qualities did they possess that distinguished them from “ordinary” people?
Mark: The first time that I really experienced working with top drivers was when I worked with McLaren, when Prost and Senna were there. It was a revelation to see just how intelligent these guys were. People talk about F1 drivers being brave but having intelligence and understanding all different aspects of the job and how to apply that. Prost and Senna were the best drivers of their time. When Schumacher came into Formula 1 he made his debut for the Jordan team. He only drove for us one weekend but the theme that really came home was his intelligence and how hard he worked to apply the knowledge to get the most out of his car. If there is one thing that the top F1 drivers are extremely good at – and which any other person can do in their job to excel – is to communicate effectively. Even the biggest problem can start to be solved if you communicate. If you listen to the radio conversations during a Formula 1 race, I would say that as you go up the talent ladder, the closer you get to the top the better the communication. You’re getting the right information at the right time, you’re processing it, you communicate with the team. Equally, the drivers who I worked with and who were not so good tried to let their natural talent do everything. Natural talent isn’t enough; you still have to work hard.
Team principals are special people and good leaders, too. David, you spent most of your career with Ron Dennis. What made him a good leader?
David: He had an absolute belief that whatever McLaren were doing was the best. Even if in the rocky road of development things were failing and something smoking by the side of the track was not winning, he was able to see beyond that and had an absolute belief that the chosen path of development was the best path.Therefore his whole mantra to the factory was of “we’ll get there, this is the right process we are going through, this is a bit of pain we are taking right now but I believe and you should believe in it”. That was something that stood out in his management and himself. In terms of the business, they created a hugely successful business.
David, during your career your were often called Mr. Nice. How did you find the right balance between being nice and being ruthless on the track but still achieving your goals?
David: There were some times at McLaren when I was requested to move over for Mika Häkkinen. I was seen as not being ruthless enough. For me, it was quite straightforward, I was employed by the team and I had to take the instructions. That was how I dealt with that; I was doing my job. I also always took the view that this is only sport, it is not winning at all cost. In a sporting contest you want to be able to look your competitor in the eye, go into battle and shake his hand if he wins and expect him to shake your hand if you win.
Was this also the point of view of other people with whom you got into conflict with, like Michael Schumacher?
David: Michael’s point of view was very clear: he was never wrong. When I said to him once: “Surely you must be wrong” he replied “Not that I ever remember”. For me, it is like being at home with your wife, you must be wrong sometimes. But anyway, I didn’t start my career to be best friends with racing drivers. I started it because I wanted to compete at the highest level, using the best cars in the world. Of course the drivers that I raced against were the guys that you had to look in the eye beforehand and try to work out how to beat them. But them becoming my friends was never my motivation. The sooner you realise that you won’t please everybody and you won’t be friends with everybody the better for you; providing that you’re not doing something underhand and disrespectful. In terms of the sporting challenge that I took, I never got the ultimate goal which was to win the world championship. But I don’t feel any less of a competitor or less a man because of that.