During his stint at Ferrari, Rob Smedley has become possibly the most popular race engineer at the time, thanks to some entertaining conversations with Felipe Massa over team radio. In 2014 he departed to Williams to become the Head of Performance Engineering. During the Barcelona race week, he sat down with ŚwiatWyścigów.pl’s Roksana Ćwik about his team’s recent struggles and the plan to overcome them.
Rob, it is fair to say that this year’s car didn’t meet the expectations. How do you approach this situation?
Objectively. I think you have to take a numeric and objective approach, gather all the data that you can and make the decisions as well as you can. Once you know what the weaknesses of the car are, then you have to deploy your resources, engineers and technicians to that areas to seek the greatest return. That’s exactly the plan that we are implementing right now. It will take a huge amount of work and commitment from people and we will also need to seek some changes within the way we operate and do things.
How the team was influenced by the arrival of Paddy Lowe?
Paddy has a wealth of experience from the top level within Formula 1, from his days at Williams, through McLaren and ending at Mercedes. I would say that he brings the mentality of what’s needed to win and that’s different from the mentality of what’s needed to just compete in Formula 1. That’s great and we need to instil that culture into everything that we do at Williams.
Having Paddy at the top of the technical team has been a huge boost but things take time and we shouldn’t expect Paddy to do everything. He has a technical team underneath him and what we need to do is to collaborate well as a group of colleagues to give direction to the rest of the team. We are still finding our way of reorganising and eventually we will end up with a very strong team.
Another man who came to Williams having worked for a top team is Luca Baldisserri…
He is another guy that brings that mentality of a top team. He’s been there, has done it and won a lot of championships being the race engineer of probably the greatest driver of all time [Michael Schumacher]. He understands the commitment it takes to win. He has a huge wealth of experience and has been using it to help Lance [Stroll], who is now much happier about the structure that surrounds him within the team. Luca has been really influential in Lance having the mindset of always getting the best out of every situation, which I think every top-line Formula 1 driver should do.
How important is to have Robert Kubica in the team?
Really important. One of the challenges that we face is that we have two very talented but also young drivers as our race drivers. Robert has a lot of experience and his talent is unquestioned from what he’s already done in Formula 1. Him bringing that experience is very important and he can act as a guide not only to the race drivers but also to the team in general. In all successful teams the guy sitting behind the wheel should give the direction to the car development and Robert is very good at that and great to work with. He can be very direct with his comments, which is good, and galvanises the whole team.
Could you compare working with young drivers to what you have done in the past at Ferrari?
It is very different and in many ways it is impossible to compare it to my days at Ferrari. While we have 40 years of heritage at Williams, we are sort of an emerging team that is still finding its way and sorting out its weaknesses. Ferrari was very different because at one point everything was almost perfect and that’s why the team was so dominant. Working with the top level drivers in Michael, Felipe or Kimi is very different to what we have here.
What do you think of the idea of introducing spec components to Formula 1?
If it drives the costs down, brings the teams closer together and make the racing better, then I’m happy with it. Effectively we are already running spec components, so it’s just an extension of that. Whether they are full components or not, but we already have mandated parts that we’ve got to run on the cars, around the crash structure, for example. And that’s been hugely successful, all the teams are doing the same thing and there’s no freedom there, as it’s a safety component and not a performance differentiator.
We also have the spec electronics on the car. Pre-2007 there was a big electronics war between the team and getting rid of that has helped reducing costs in that area and it wasn’t stopped, then probably the electronics departments within the teams would be as big as mechanical design departments. It helped contain costs and that’s a good thing.
And what’s your view on the changes made for 2019?
As a team we are very happy. There’s a gap between us and the front and any significant rule change leaves us open with an opportunity. We are already discussing internally within our senior technical management how do we exploit this opportunity, that’s the really key point here. We wanted the opportunity and we have got it. We now have to make some really brave decisions between the development of this year’s and next year’s car, so that we take full advantage of it.
After Baku some drivers were critical of the Pirelli tyres and wanted the race to be red-flagged.
We have found it a bit difficult to warm the tyres behind the safety car but there were drivers crashing behind the safety car, so they found it even more difficult than us. But I think the tyres are the same for everyone, it’s a spec component and we need to learn how to use them.
We are very happy in how our tyre technology department has developed at Williams over the last two-three years, it’s a real area that we have made improvements. We still have a lot more to learn but it is a great indication of how putting science, technology and objectivity behind something and getting the right people together we can create a real change.
At Williams we have currently a lot of problems and we are quite open about what those problems are and I would say that tyres isn’t one of them, so it’s a really good example for everybody that having done that in one area where we were weak, we can do that in other areas as well.
Taking Barcelona as an example, how do changes to the track surface affect the car?
It is very low grip and quite a difficult surface in general. During the winter testing the track was very smooth and we have struggles enormously with the tyre warming. Since then the track has aged a bit and that improved grip, which it turn gave us a lot of temperature, so we were struggling with overheating the small-window compounds like a super soft. We had to bring that temperature down, which can be done through managing the out laps, the heating from the brakes or the blanket temperatures.
How the communication with the teams has changed under Liberty Media?
It’s no secret that Liberty have been more involved with helping the FIA and the teams to develop the technical regulations. They’re putting resources into that and have built their own technical team under Ross [Brawn] who has employed Pat Symonds, ex-Williams man, who now has a group underneath him and that group does something different than what we have seen before. It’s primarily a research group which has both the resources and the capacity to be able to go and research new rules. I think it’s got to be a good thing that we’ve got that level of research within Formula 1 and hopefully it will give us less surprises in the future.
And finally, do you miss Felipe?
Emm… not really, because I chat with him all the time, so I either see him or I talk to him. I miss him a bit at work, especially when you have a bad day and you need a mate.
Chcesz czytać więcej ekskluzywnych wywiadów 1-na-1? Postaw nam kawę!