Business leaders gave Rob Smedley a very warm welcome at Teesside University this morning, as he took them through an honest and insightful appraisal of Formula 1 as a business operation.
Now the head of performance engineering for Williams F1, Rob’s F1 career spans twenty years, from software development at Jordan, through a long span as Felipe Massa’s race engineer at Ferrari, before returning to Williams and taking a leading role in their operation.
He’s not shy about engineer’s 'rock star' roles and how they build the machines that shine in every race, but he talks extensively about the need for a huge team to make everything work.
“What is Formula 1?” Rob asked, before going on to explain primarily what it isn’t – it isn’t the superficial glamour that you see accompanying the races every other week. That’s the tip of the iceberg; the end product.
What Rob described was a complex and comprehensive combination of key business processes that any entrepreneur can recognise from their own business.
It’s a sport – drivers and mechanics are all competitive, without exception, and they want to be the best.
It’s a form of entertainment – you choose to watch that over something else on a Sunday afternoon (though, to be fair, Rob wasn’t exactly sure what else was on TV on a Sunday afternoon, having not missed a Grand Prix in 20 years!)
It’s a marketing exercise – especially if you’re a fan of a certain fizzy energy drink…!
And it’s also an enterprise – it’s a functioning business that must remain liquid, just like every other business in the room.
Rob spoke of some of the practicalities of a business which essentially employs 550 staff just to get two cars around a racing track twenty times a year; a sobering way to look at the sport.
He points out that every part of the Williams business faces challenges: The logistics team have to get two cars and 100 tonnes of equipment, 60 engineers, 40 support staff, at least two drivers and everything that goes with it, to races all around the world, with no room for error.
Equally, the drivers are held accountable for errors that cost as little as 0.03seconds on the track… as a certain Brazilian driver was very recently.
On innovation, Rob talks about the need for strong leadership: “Without a leadership culture, you’ll never innovate. It’s something that I recognised very early on when I went to Williams, and it was easy to understand how they’d failed. But culture always comes from the top and trickles down.
“We’ve tried to create a leadership that’s very happy… not to see failure, obviously, but to see people pushing the boundaries.
“And we accept that they may fail, but that’s alright – it’s part of our culture that this may happen, and we accept that.”
The Williams team have a ‘price per gramme’ that they’re willing to pay, to reduce the weight of their car and get the performance advantages that come alongside it within their available budget. If the cost per gramme is less than the target, they do it – and if it’s not, they don’t. That’s what makes it work.
On the local area: “One of the things that this region misses – and I’m part of the lifeblood of this region – but it misses a bit of self-confidence. And I think that self-confidence, not arrogance, is really important.
“It’s part the culture that we try to instil in ourselves as Formula 1 teams. You’ve got to recognise that other F1 teams are really good at what they do – but hey, so are we.
“It’s about getting more likeminded people who believe in this area to get involved. One of the great things about people from the North East is that they are individuals, they’ve got a vision of who they are and what they are.
“It’s about having the confidence to put ourselves up against others, to promote ourselves and say that what we do here… it’s really good!”
And on women in STEM getting into Formula 1: “It’s definitely getting better, there’s no doubt about that. Our last influx of students, for the first time in Williams history, was predominantly female – of 25 students, 14 were female. There’s a definite change in how many girls are applying for STEM subjects.
“What’s strange for me is that in this region, we’re still behind the curve. If you go down south, they’re much more balanced.
“I would like to see business leaders getting more involved in education to get more girls involved in the STEM subjects.”
Rob was speaking at the Business Exchange, a network of senior leaders from businesses and organisations in the North East and North Yorkshire, with events held at Teesside University’s Darlington campus throughout the year.