Thursday, March 14, 2013

Out in the Garden

It’s always interesting watching how different motorsports series handle the mundane realm of day-to-day operations, including job changes. Moving from team to team seems to be regarded with increasing concern based on the annual cost for a team to compete in a given series.

In NASCAR, stringent rules governing almost all aspects of competition tend to reduce the severity of a resignation - or increase the benefit of a new signing. There have been instances in the past where a team has “found something” – the incredible September sweep of Winston Cup driver “Handsome Harry” Gant and crew chief Andy Petree in 1991, or Kyle Petty’s dominance at the track that was then called North Carolina Motor Speedway in the early 1990s. Still, it’s not at all uncommon to see personnel ranging from crews to crew chiefs cross-pollinating through the NASCAR ranks seemingly at will.

Harry Gant earned the "Mr. September" nickname in 1991.

The opposite is true in Formula One, where annual team budgets regularly exceed staggering figures (think hundreds of millions of dollars). Formula One may be even more closely regulated than NASCAR, but all that funding goes into working within the rules, tunneling deep into the regulations to find tiny openings for technical developments that may yield only a few hundredths of a second advantage per lap. But in a sport where the teams that are given little chance to win are running less than two seconds per lap slower than the elite teams on long road courses, tiny time increments become huge.

With such technical innovations both hideously expensive and jealously guarded, a top team member revealing intentions to move on to a competing team causes a seismic shock. Doubtless the current employer would prefer to simply eliminate the problem in a James Bond fashion (“If I told you, I’d have to kill you…”), but even in F1 – where elaborate espionage plots have played out in the past - there’s no getting away with murder. So the prevailing methodology is to put the traitor out to pasture for as long as possible before freeing him, quarantining him from the advancing march of team technology.

Paddy Lowe, seen celebrating a victory with McLaren driven Jenson Button in 2012, will have a much quieter 2013.

Such a situation is playing out now, even before the first competition of the 2013 F1 season this weekend in Australia. McLaren’s technical director, Paddy Lowe, intends to follow driver Lewis Hamilton from the British team to rival Mercedes. While drivers have some freedom of movement when it comes to employment, it’s also true that their byte-level familiarity with technical details is usually small. Hamilton, after all, was released by McLaren and allowed to climb out of the MP4-23 for the last time in November and go right to work testing his new ride weeks later. But what does Lowe know about McLaren? Simply everything.

Consequently, Lowe will be spending 2013 not attending McLaren’s F1 races but whiling away his time on what is amusingly referred to as “gardening leave.” It’s a period of isolation from his employer’s competition secrets before McLaren is forced to release him from employment at the end of the year. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh, while announcing Tim Goss would immediately take over the team’s reins as technical director, had little to say of his predecessor: "Paddy Lowe will be performing a different role within McLaren until the end of the year.” In other words, working in the garden.

Perhaps in F1 more than any other racing series, such personnel policies offer proof that knowledge is indeed power.

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