James Allison Tomorrow, today

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport won the FIA Formula 1™ World Constructors’ Championship four years running. What's their secret? Technical director, James Allison, who joined the team in early 2017 has surprising answers.

Formula 1 engineers are perfectionists. They grow up wanting to design racing cars and tend to obsess about the product, and not worry too much about the rest. Left to their own devices, most would happily iterate their designs over and over to produce something that was just a little bit better than the last amazing thing they did. It is a bit of weakness in all the Formula 1 teams and it’s true for ours too.

James Allison, Ron Meadows and Toto Wolff (left to right)

Yet, the fascinating thing about this team is it invests a lot to ensure that it is not only staffed by good, obsessive engineers, but that the team is set up in a way that allows everyone to work well together. That means we have a very powerful Human Resources department that looks adventurously to the outside world for guidance over how we should organise ourselves and structure our departments. We have a very open-minded approach that makes it a progressive and harmonious environment to work in.

Constantly improving together

The Mercedes Formula 1 team has a hierarchical structure, but spread across the organisation are lots of autonomous, or semi-autonomous working groups that bring together people from all over the organisation. These groups are often guided and led, but they have the ability to take decisions, even at quite a low level in the food chain. They include everything from managing our personal development system, to thinking about technology, or designing compensation packages.

These working groups are deliberately chosen to work across the organisation, which allows the company to have all the effectiveness it needs to drive a project plan through, but still retain the agility and innovation that come from sitting down in a room with a mixture of different folk, without anyone thinking "I have to please my boss here." They are peers who have some overall objectives set for them, but they just beaver away and out of these groups comes goodness, that is then continually pushed into the racing car.

It is an empowering and liberal way to work where people from across the company can have a quite profound effect on the car.

With hundreds of small innovations to success

Across the grid, Formula 1 teams are separated by tenths of a second a lap. A car might gain a second a lap over the course of a year, but that is made up of hundreds and hundreds of small innovations. Every time you find a way to improve the speed of the car it feels like a quantum leap. If you are used to counting milliseconds, and you find a 50 millisecond jump, that’s awesome!

We launched our 2017 winning car in late February of that year, it improved aerodynamically by three quarters of a second per lap during the year – and we only won the Championship with a car that was 0.2 of a second faster than our opposition. So if, in February, we had said: “Right, that’s it! Stick a fork in it, we’re going to just do next year now,” we would have been heavily beaten by Ferrari, and probably even come third.

The Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team after winning the F1 World Championship 2017 in Abu Dhabi

We work in a very niche industry and have one of the very few products that is driven almost entirely by performance. It means trying to work out how to make something the best it can possibly be, then trying to work out how much it’s going to cost you. Most things are the opposite way around in the world of engineering. It is only in the extreme end of military technology or space technology that you get to the niche-ness of the engineering that we have in Formula 1.

The type of things we do, in big picture form, find their way into products that eventually are enjoyed by you and me in normal life. We have a hybrid system, with energy flows around our car, the manner in which we seek and get thermal efficiency at a big picture level creates concepts and learning that do flow into wider industry and inform wide-ranging applications of that learning.

Preparing for future challenges

You can’t react to the short-term in an industry like this. Mercedes F1 is a company that has a forward-looking approach, but every single racing car team has the same dilemma: whether to develop the car that is on the track now, versus preparing for the one that is going to race in a year from now.

The natural tendency is for the current car to be a siren voice, always pulling you towards putting more into it than is strictly wise for the long term and therefore you have to guard against that and when it’s a close fought season it’s a much harder decision. The championship you are in now is the one that is heralded in the press and the one that you will be criticised for if you’re not doing well and it can have a very large pull in terms of where you spend your people and your investment.

Lewis Hamilton getting ready to race the Bahrain GP, 2018

But you don’t have an infinite resource. You have people in the factory who can work on one or the other, but not both. For example, you have a wind tunnel that by regulation can only be used a certain number of runs per week. It’s a straight choice whether you spend all of those runs developing the car that’s going to be running next week and the week after, or whether you are going to allow that car to potentially fall behind the opposition in favour of investing in the next season.

I always think of it as robbing Peter to pay Paul. You only have a certain amount of goodness that you can do in any given year and you ignore next year at your peril. Various things influence it, for instance you might have an enormous regulation change coming, then every single thing you do in the current year is a lost investment, because none of it will translate into next year.

The best way to make sure you are not going to come to grief next year is by taking care not to be dragged into developing the current car any longer than you have to.

You also need to consider a portfolio of investments in technology and capability that might pay off, one, two or three years from now and be disciplined about pushing a certain amount of coins that way as well.

Formula 1 is a super tanker and if you want good results in a given season you need to have thought about it years ahead, not days or weeks.

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Biography

James Allison is the Technical Director of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport. James' motorsport career started in 1990, when he joined the Benetton Formula 1 Team as a Junior Aerodynamic Designer immediately after graduating from the University of Cambridge. Success soon followed, as James celebrated Michael Schumacher's World Drivers' Championship success in 1994, with Schumacher and Benetton claiming the Drivers' and Constructors' titles the following year. James was promoted to Head of Aerodynamics in 1997 and, just two years later, swapped Enstone for Maranello and the new role of Trackside Aerodynamicist with Scuderia Ferrari, playing an important role in a period of unprecedented spell of success, as the team won six World Constructors' Championships between 1999 and 2004. James departed Ferrari midway through the 2016 season and returned to the Formula 1 grid in 2017 as Technical Director of Mercedes AMG-Petronas Motorsport.