Formula 1, transfers and looting: during the winter, the war continues between Red Bull and Mercedes

In Formula 1, the season of rumors about driver transfers traditionally starts on the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix and extends until the allocation of the last seat available. Which generally does not occur long after the end of the world championship; with rare exceptions such as that of Jenson Button, established a few minutes before the presentation of the Williams in 2000 or that of Lewis Hamilton, who had concluded his negotiations with Mercedes at the beginning of February 2020, shortly before the first runs.

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For the Formula 1 teams, all this is only the tip of the iceberg, because with more than a thousand employees for some, it is a continual turnover of entries and exits that must be managed in technical departments. Except if your name is Haas, a team largely subcontracted to Ferrari « where no one comes and no one leaves » in the words of journalist Will Buxton, in the Netflix series « Drive to survive ».

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Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) in Melbourne on March 12, 2020

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Factory Sealed Workgroups

And that’s a completely different sport, much more exhausting and stressful for a team leader. Indeed, a high-ranking technician takes with him everything he knows when he leaves the ship, often sensitive information that his training endeavored to keep secret. It’s even sometimes just to weaken him as well as another team hiring him and that’s the whole danger of this kind of maneuver.

It also concerns the pilots, but to a lesser extent because, for example, we don’t need to tell them what has changed in their engine. They just know that the latest version of their thruster offers them X more horsepower, usable in such and such a condition and that’s it. Engineers don’t all know much more because the rule is simple: at the factory, the work groups are tight and no technician will have information on an ancillary domain that he does not need within the framework of his mission. Clearly, an electronics engineer will never see the future single-seater in the wind tunnel.

In this story, all the art is to say just what is needed to move forward. At Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton knew a year before that the team was preparing the DAS (dual axis system), this revolutionary system which during the 2020 season allowed them to push or pull the steering wheel on the steering column to modify the parallelism of the wheels. They knew because the design office needed to know if the development of this system was relevant. They were made aware because they were under contract for 2019 and 2020 but they did not know for a long time what the system was about. And within the factory, very few technicians knew about it and the surprise effect was total.

When brains garden

The brain drain is therefore above all a leak of information, and that is why the transfer of a head of department (chassis, engine, aerodynamics) is subject to quarantine. In the jargon of the paddock, it is a « gardening leave ». Pictorially, in English, he is asked to take care of his garden during the transition period.

This period of « gardening » would be unbearably long for a driver but not for a technician determined to pay the price for his freedom or his ambitions. It is generally six months. Thus, on January 20, Red Bull and Aston Martin finally agreed on the transfer of Dan Fallows to Lawrence Stroll’s team, as technical director, from April 2. Knowing that Aston Martin had triumphantly announced the recruitment of the chief aerodynamicist of Red Bull Racing on June 25, 2021.

In the meantime, Red Bull has played for time by obviously removing Dan Fallows, a key contributor to the success of the team for 15 years, from its F1 organization chart to assign him to the Valkyrie GT program, a project jointly led by the two brands. With the idea of ​​putting him on display until December 31, 2022, the end of his contract before a six-month “gardening leave”. History to prevent him from limiting his contribution to the Aston Martin single-seater project of 2023. In 2014, Dan Fallows announced his departure for McLaren before turning around, but there he engaged in the showdown. And if he lost the first part in court last December, his attitude pushed Red Bull and Aston Martin to agree on their side. With no doubt financial compensation.

Budkowski risked 18 months

It’s a reality, in the teams the winters are not only used to build a new single-seater but to plan for the coming season and even the following ones. Because the next day, Chris Horner’s team announced a new agreement, with Mercedes this time, to release its future chief engine specialist, Ben Hodgkinson, from May 24, 2022.

For the record, Red Bull announced that it had recruited him on April 23, 2021, and when we remember the media turn of the fight for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles last year, we realize that the Red Bull had to offer compensation to speed up the schedule.

Six months or even a year is therefore the time that a brain must wait between two missions, which must roughly correspond to the lifespan of a design secret in the paddock, where everything ends up being known. . But it may take longer. In October 2017, Renault recruited Marcin Budkowski and some rival teams demanded 18 months of « gardening ».

The art of plunder

Why ? Because the Franco-Polish Polytechnician was technical coordinator at the FIA, where he theoretically had access to all the plans of the opposing engines… Including that of Renault, quite behind the competition. He said that was not the case and ended up taking up his post at Enstone in April 2018. A real tour de force signed Cyril Abiteboul. Because the boss back then had been very good at negotiations and a lot of things are negotiated outside of that. What a good team leader must know how to do anyway, otherwise he will be swallowed up by the Piranha Club, the nickname of the bosses in the paddock.

If Red Bull Racing has lost a renowned aerodynamicist, it will soon recover the engine manager it needs to organize the construction of its new power plant by 2026, with the reinforcement of many other « takes » from Mercedes, including Steve Blewett (Production Manager), Omid Mostaghimi (Electronics Manager), Pip Clode (Battery Specialist), Anton Mayo (Engine Design Manager) and Steve Brodie (Engine Operations Group Manager). A looting carried out in the rules of the art and just in time for Red Bull, which imported gray matter at great expense – « there is only one address, it’s ours »sighed Toto Wolff last year – before the establishment of a cap budget which will soon no longer allow this kind of technological raid.

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