The announcement that technical director James Allison is to leave Lotus is the latest in a series of big money backroom moves – but who are the top engineers and how important are they?
Formula One is built on the personality of its star drivers but they are really just the final piece of the jigsaw.
Like top footballers, the drivers earn big money not only for their sporting talent but also for their global marketability as world famous personalities.
Lewis Hamilton, for instance, has amassed a £60m fortune in his career to date, £9m more than the Premier League’s top earner Wayne Rooney.
But without a top car, the drivers would not get the chance to become superstars and they and the teams would not bring in the big bucks from sponsorship that make the sport go round.
So it is no wonder that teams will now pay ‘telephone number salaries’ for the men who design the machines to secure the very best.
The first ‘superstar’ designer move came with Adrian Newey’s switch from Williams to McLaren in the late 1990s, when he was reportedly signed on a £3.5m salary. But even that went up dramatically when he switched to Red Bull in 2005 in a deal that is believed to have almost doubled his pay.
At a time when Michael Schumacher was the dominant driver and Red Bull were in the midfield, team boss Christian Horner said: "It’s a massive recruitment for us. Given the choice of Adrian Newey or Michael Schumacher, I'd go for Adrian every time.”
Horner’s prophecy ran true, with the decision to build the team around Newey leading to the current dominant period for Red Bull.
And with a car to create a star, they grew their own ‘Schumacher’ in Sebastian Vettel.
But there are few people like Adrian Newey – and with the 54-year-old firmly locked in at Red Bull for the long term the other teams are trying hard to find the next in line.
All teams operate with a technical director apart from Sauber, who run an unusual structure, and there are also two big names currently out of action seeing out their notice periods before moving to new teams.
In order of age, the key players are:
Pat Symonds, 60 – Marussia
Bob Bell, 55 – Mercedes
Adrian Newey, 54 – Red Bull
Mike Coughlan, 54 - Williams
Mark Smith, 52 - Caterham
Paddy Lowe, 51 – Gardening Leave (McLaren to Mercedes)
Tim Goss, 50 - McLaren
Pat Fry, 49 - Ferrari
Andrew Green, 47 – Force India
James Allison, 45 – Gardening Leave (Lotus to TBC)
Nick Chester, 43 - Lotus
James Key, 41 – Toro Rosso
It is not yet clear where Allison will end up, but it will be one of the top four and is most likely to be Ferrari.
Mercedes already have a host of big names and have surely stopped hiring now, with Geoff Willis and Aldo Costa sitting beneath Bob Bell and team principal Ross Brawn (who also has a technical background) and ex-McLaren man Paddy Lowe also joining soon.
McLaren approached Allison when Lowe announced his departure, but they have denied any move for the Renault man, while Red Bull have also confirmed they are not the chosen destination.
At Ferrari, however, there are plenty of links that would make Allison feel at home: he worked with Fry at Benetton in the 1990s; he worked at Ferrari during Schumacher’s his dominant run in the early-to-mid 00s; and he worked with Alonso at Renault during his title-winning years.
In terms of age and experience, Allison would sit nicely in beneath Fry but in doing so he would relinquish his title of technical director. That said, he has always stipulated that his main goal is to have the resources to fight amongst the top three – and if he felt that was not the case at Lotus it most certainly is at Ferrari.
But how much will his departure affect Lotus and how much will it help his new employer, whoever they may be?
In terms of development, his loss will not be as dramatic for Lotus as it may seem. He will have already contributed significantly to the development that will take the current car to the end of its life and unless the team anticipated this announcement, his expertise will also have been fully integrated in developments for 2014 at a crucial time when the new rules and regulations are being explored and exploited.
What they will miss is his presence on pit wall, and his influence on race strategy. And in a season where optimising their advantage on tyre wear is crucial, that could still be telling for their title challenge.
On the flip side, his future employer will not benefit significantly for some time.
He will be on a long gardening leave, so will not have any further impact this season and will not be integrated into his new team in time to pass on any secrets on the 2014 developments going on at Lotus before the new cars are complete.
It is this ‘engineer inertia’ that at least helps protect the teams from losing their advantage to the opposition in the short-term – but in the long term, a good technical chief is worth his weight in gold.
And by all accounts, whoever has just signed Allison up has made a very shrewd move for the future...
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