Exclusive Interview

NMP Live Meets Mike Gascoyne

In our latest interview from the NMP Live Meets... series we sat down with technical director and designer in Formula One Mike Gascoyne. One of the most renowned technicians in Formula One, Mike has carved out an illustrious career at the pinnacle of international Motorsport for over two decades. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below to see Mike talk about how he got into Formula One, managing risk, company culture, and how he set up Lotus Racing! 

In conversation with Mike Gascoyne

How did you break into the world of Formula 1?

I started doing Formula 1 at McLaren in 1989 as Head of Aerodynamics, which as a young guy fresh out of university was a tremendous opportunity and challenge: working with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and McLaren who at the time were winning world championships.

I then went briefly to Tyrrell and then on to Sauber. I went there with a guy called Harvey Postlethwaite who was a great mentor of mine and a fantastic engineer in Formula 1. From Tyrrell, when that shut down, I went to Jordan; working with Damon Hill and Eddie Jordan. I had a couple of fantastic years there.

I was then head-hunted to go to Renault, by Flavio Briatore… so a couple of colourful team owners to work for! I was then head-hunted by Toyota, to be technical director there. After that I moved on to Force India, and eventually after that, I set up a Formula 1 team from scratch, which was Lotus Racing, which then became the Caterham Formula 1 team.

So, I’ve had a varied career – some big teams, some small teams – but fantastically interesting. 

What are the main topics on which you speak?

I speak on a variety of topics. Obviously, motorsport in general is something that interests people, and I have a lot of stories to tell about motorsport and some of the colourful characters involved! But I think that behind that is using it as a sort of vehicle, to talk about management; how to manage teams; how to manage and create winning teams; how to incentivise and empower your workforce; and how to win in industry. And those lessons from Formula 1 are absolutely key in any industry.

The great thing about Formula 1 is that you have these very rapid and visual performance indicators. I always used to say at Toyota – because they were very keen on their KPIs (key performance indicators) –  that Bernie Ecclestone publishes a really good one every two weeks… it’s called the World Championship table! You can be 100% on all of your KPIs, but if you’re tenth in the World Championship table, it doesn’t really matter. But those lessons on how to manage winning teams and getting that message across of how to do that, is something I find really interesting. 

What’s the key to success in Formula 1?

F1 has always been cyclic… if you look at who’s winning, one team wins and dominates for several years in a row. At the moment (2018) Mercedes have won for the last three years. Prior to that, Red Bull won for four years. In the late ‘80s it was McLaren, when I started. Then Williams in the mid ‘90s dominated. Then Ferrari, with Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn, dominated. And that’s all about building a team.

It’s the team of engineers that win you races, not the superstar driver. Yes, of course they can make a difference, and you want the best driver. But actually it’s building that team of people. And what happens is, when those teams break up – because they get poached, because all the other teams want the good engineers – that’s when teams slip off the top, and they get replaced by someone that’s building for the future.

So, the key is team-building, and getting the maximum out of that team of engineers.     

How did you get the nickname ‘the rottweiler’?

Actually, that was initially a term of endearment! A truckie at Tyrrell, who was called Jolly, who was a very funny guy, when I turned up working for Harvey Postlethwaite, he initially christened me ‘Harvey’s Pitbull Terrier’… and that got changed to ‘Harvey’s Rottweiler’!... and the name has stuck ever since.

And actually, people then assumed it was because of my management style, being snappy and all of that, and I can at times be very to the point to get what I want done. But I think the trick at managing any team, whether in Formula 1 or anything, is to show good leadership; ensure that people are incentivised, that they want to do their job… and ensure that they can make a difference, that they’re empowered, so you listen to them, you listen to their ideas, and you let them achieve.

The phrase he/she is “the best manager on the golf course” is a great adage, but it should be, because if everyone is doing their job properly underneath me, I shouldn’t have anything to do as the technical leader. A Formula 1 car is made up of 4,000 parts, roughly, and I could sit there and say for each of those 4,000 parts, “I want this or I want that”. But if actually none of my ideas are on there, because everyone in my team has contributed a better idea for each part, then we’ve got a much quicker racing car… and I haven’t designed any of it. But what I’ve done is empower them to use their skills and design it. And the great thing when you’re the technical leader in something like Formula 1 is that I get all the credit, whereas I haven’t actually done anything, but what you’ve done is empower your team to achieve, and that’s the key of good management.  

How do you manage risk within F1?

With any sort of technology sport, like Formula 1 or sailing, and aviation or space technology, there are inherent risks, and you have to be very aware of that. The safety of the driver is absolutely paramount, and Formula 1 has made great strides.

I was on the pit wall in 1994 when Senna was killed in Imola. Roland Ratzenberger died the day before. And there were some great lessons learnt there. Formula 1 has actually managed to make the sport safer and safer for the driver. Inherently, driving racing cars at 200mph isn’t safe! But you have to take responsibility, for the car and for the driver. Ultimately, he gets in it and he makes his decision and takes the risks, but you just have to be aware that there’s an individual in there that can get hurt.

Every time that the car goes out of the pit lane, I, as a technical director, was responsible for the driver’s well-being; for making sure things didn’t break, and that everything was as safe as it could be. So, you’ve just got to make everyone aware of the responsibilities of what they are doing.

As I mentioned, I remember talking to Ken Tyrrell on the pit wall in 1994, in qualifying, after Roland Ratzenberger had been tragically killed, and I said to Ken Tyrrell (several teams were packing up and didn’t want to go out), and I said to Ken Tyrrell – who’d obviously been in Formula 1 in the ‘60s and seen terrible tragedies – I said to him, “what do you want to do, Ken?” H looked at me and he said “track looks clear, Mike, let’s send it”. And I sort of hesitated, and he said, “Mike, if you haven’t got the stomach for this, off you go. Otherwise, send it. It’s our job.” And it was a great lesson to me, and actually, Ukyo Katayama went out and did a great lap, and came in and very poignantly said “oh, it was a really good lap, apart from it being very oily up at the Tosa hairpin", which is where the accident had been.

So, for a young guy in Formula 1, those were very strong lessons to learn, but it’s part of the job.    

How does company culture impact on success?

I think one of the most important things in Formula 1 is actually when you see how cyclic it is; that teams win because they build a winning team of engineers together. Developing your own in-house style and looking forward yourselves, is absolutely key.

When I started as an aerodynamicist, people used to say to me, when you go to the first test or the first races, and look at all the other cars, do you look at them and think ‘oh, we must copy that… we must rush back to the wind tunnel and put those bits on’? – and my answer was always, “well of course we look, but actually, what we see may be interesting, but it may be the fifteenth or twentieth thing we want to try, because we should have fifteen or twenty better ideas ourselves. If we don’t, there’s something wrong.” The team that’s winning isn’t going to be looking at anyone else’s car, they didn’t have anyone else’s car to design the winning one, they had to do that themselves.

So that in-house style and winning culture, is as true in any other industry as it is in Formula 1; so you never win by watching what the winning car is doing, because it’s quicker than you; you’re not going to catch up by doing that. You catch up by having better ideas yourself. 

How did you set up Lotus Racing?

Setting up Lotus Racing – which became Caterham – was probably the pinnacle of my career; you never think you’re going to get the opportunity to start a Formula1 team from scratch.

It came about because the FIA, under Max Mosley at the time, wanted to encourage smaller teams to enter. So they had a sort of competition for new teams – they wanted three new teams – and I was approached by a Formula 3 team to do an entry for them. That didn’t succeed initially, because we didn’t have a budget, but the FIA were impressed with the technical presentation that we’d put forward. And then I was approached by Tony Fernandes of AirAsia, who wanted to back a Formula 1 team. So, we re-submitted our entry very late in September and we got an entry into Formula 1. So we had five months to not just build a car and be on the grid, but to build a team at the same time.

I remember going in on that first day, September 16th, and there were four of us: my partner Silvi Schaumloeffel, who went and sat on the front desk and became HR, PR, Press, Marketing… everything! And there was myself as the Technical Director, and there was also a General Manager and a Production Manager. And they looked at me in disbelief and said, “what are we going to do now!?”, and I said “don’t worry, I’ve got a plan”. And they all sort of looked quite relieved… and I said “Well I’m the Technical Director, so I’ll design it. Keith, you’re the Production Manager, you make it. And Paul, you’re the General Manger, you do everything else. At the moment, that’s it.” And they all looked at me, taken aback.

But five months later we were on the grid in Bahrain, both of the cars finished the race – we were the only one of the new teams to get across the line – but that was because of the people we employed. So, from those four people in the beginning, we got in good people, and it is those people that make things happen.  

What is I.O.T? 

I.O.T is the ‘Internet of Things’, and really, we’re all used to using personal computers now, and the internet, and connectivity and emails and other forms of communication, and it’s the extension of that to everything around us.

So, it’s your washing machine talking to the person who’s going to service it and telling it that its bearings are failing; it’s switching your security lights on in your home; it’s about connectivity, not just with computers and us interacting with them, but interacting with everything that we use in our everyday life. And if you look at Formula 1, they've been doing that for twenty years, in terms of using the data from the car to improve the car, to improve reliability.

In Formula 1 twenty years ago, we used to test run the cars for thousands of miles around the racetrack, and yet they still used to break down all the time. Now, we do hardly any on-track testing – it’s all done in the workshop and on the test-rigs – and yet, the cars are practically one-hundred-percent reliable. And that’s because we’re using all that information that’s available to us, to design better products; quicker products; more reliable products; products that don’t break down, but that achieve what we want them to achieve.

The Internet of Things allows us to do that. Formula 1 has been doing it, because it’s at the cutting edge of performance, and it can afford to do it. One of the things I’m really passionate about is using all of those lessons that Formula 1 has paid a lot of money to learn, and applying them in mainstream automotive, aerospace, and marine, and using those lessons very cheaply, because Formula 1 has paid to develop them. And that’s something that’s very exciting and you see that in all walks of life.

How do your talks relate to other industries?

Although I use motorsport as a vehicle for talking about management, really it applies in any industry, because the underlying themes of creating winning teams, and empowering your workforce are true, whether you’re designing washing machines or Formula 1 cars. Now, it’s quite nice when you’re designing Formula 1 cars to watch the race every other weekend; it’s quite fun! You can’t do that when you’re designing a washing machine, but the lessons are exactly the same. So, really any industry will benefit from those lessons. 

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