Who could have thought that a trip to Milton Keynes would be so inspiring – Red Bull really does give you wings
A few days before the Australian Grand Prix, I was fortunate enough to be given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Red Bull Racing factory at Milton Keynes.
The staff must have thought their colleague was showing someone with, what politically sensitive people term ‘special needs’, round. I couldn’t stop grinning. It was cooler than a polar bear’s naughty bits. Admittedly this was the first F1 facility I’d been round, but I have been told by people in the know that whilst McLaren’s base is all ultra-modern sophistication and lashings of chrome, it is also like the handwash in the bogs – sterile.
Red Bull was equally hi-tech to the hilt and yet also very ‘human’. Adrian Newey still designs everything on a drawing board, but such is his skill as a draftsman that he is accurate to 0.05 of a millimeter – just using his eyes. In each and every department I was shown, there were friendly, smiling people and a lot of them.
What looked like a busy call centre was actually a huge design office full of egg-heads beavering away to find that extra something to keep Webber and Vettel ahead of the pack – or in Seb’s case, on the road. I met a jolly chap milling what looked like a lump of high density foam, but was in fact a mould for a wing end-plate for the race in China.
And in virtually every available piece of floor space that could randomly accommodate one was an ‘old’ RB-prefixed racer. Are they there to inspire the engineers? No. It’s simply because there’s nowhere else to put them. See, human. Red Bull is like your house. Unless you have the photographers from Ideal Home coming round (and frankly, who does?) you sling your old stuff anywhere.
But what my drum doesn’t have is a command centre. I was ushered into a room that appeared to have been styled on the bridge of the original Starship Enterprise and a small lecture theatre. In banked rows were about twenty computer keyboards and screens with a series of buttons and LED lights recessed into each desk space. These were for communicating to the pit-wall engineers from base camp. It was small, airless and devoid of windows. The atmosphere in there during a race must be electrifying and yet claustrophobic.
This and things like a state of the art gym for the drivers and mechanics shows the team’s holistic approach to the business of racing. It highlights that success comes from effective partnerships.
Many of the factory kart teams are now run on similar lines to those of their F1 counterparts and there is much that drivers can achieve by looking closely at the minutiae that goes on behind the scenes. As the old business maxim goes; fail to plan, plan to fail.
For drivers and team bosses who are planning to go places, an agreed plan and shared vision is essential. Furthermore, the DNA of Red Bull is marketing. The brand forms partnerships with companies and people who can help spread that message and what Red Bull has a particular genius for, is cool.
By that, I mean they take very simple, basic concepts, add a dollop of fun, produce something professional and then chuck it into the market. When they first launched in 2005, Red Bull knew it was going to struggle to figure on the Grand Prix grid but successfully side-stepped this issue by creating the Red Bulletin magazine and hiring a bunch of hotties to look gorgeous and hang out in the paddock, usually near a hot tub or in the Energy Station hospitality unit. People go where they’re invited and welcomed and here was Red Bull simply doing again, what they do so well, extend a welcome and create relationships.
The ideas they introduced also show how some things never change. A simple idea, well executed can seem fresh and innovative, but the Energy Station was simply a snazzy way of saying, ‘We’ve got two guys in the next GP, come and join us, we’ll have a few cans and cheer them on.’
Of course, sponsors were doing this back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nowadays it’s just a bit more sophisticated and subtle, but it’s still the same concept.
Far less subtle was Lewis Hamilton’s very public split from his father. The issue is still shrouded in mystery and after being nabbed by the dibble in Melbourne he, according to many accounts, looked like a young man very much in need of his dad. With ‘hooning’ a hot topic in Australia at present (nothing to do with former Defence Ministers on the make) it was foolish (like being caught on camera by Channel 4). Lewis was also linked with a suggestion that Mark Webber should retire if he wins the world title, which incensed Eddie Jordan and brought more criticism of the 25-year old. Matters were not improved when the 2008 World Champion then had a verbal spat with his team, over the pit to car radio about being called in for a second set of tyres, while his rivals had stuck to one-stop strategies. He demanded “Whose call was it to bring me in? Freaking terrible idea” and sounded petulant, as if looking for someone to blame.
Ironically, it turned out to be a computer error. A simple mistake, made all the more ironic when you consider that Jenson Button, his McLaren team-mate and a man who possesses masterful inter-personal skills, made the earlier and ultimately decisive call in conjunction with his race engineer.
The mood down the pitlane in the Red Bull garage was phlegmatic. Vettel had looked set to take his maiden Australian victory until what appeared to have been a wheel-related problem pitched him off the road and out of contention. What he said afterwards is revealing: “I felt that something was wrong one lap earlier than I went off. I had some sparks coming up from the front left wheel; we didn’t know what it was and so wanted to pit. Then, a couple of corners before, I had huge vibrations building up and as soon as I touched the brakes, I had some sort of failure going in to Turn 13 and ended up in the gravel. There was nothing I could have done, I lost the car and that was it. It’s a shame as I think we had the race in total control at every stage, even though the conditions were difficult. But to win you have to finish. It breaks my balls not to get the win, but there’s still a long way to go in this Championship. We’re working hard to get on top the reliability issues and we hope to have a solid race and see the chequered flag in Malaysia.”
What he says is open, honest and from the heart. He mixes ‘I’ with ‘we’, takes ownership of what happened but shares the future goal. No wonder that Bernie Ecclestone said that if he could create the perfect racing driver, he’d design Sebastian Vettel.
It’s also why I am his and Red Bull’s latest fan and if you are pursuing a career as an F1 driver or wish to be the boss of the best kart team going, I suggest you follow them too.