Despite « visceral unpleasantness », Allison still loves F1 tech chief role

Despite « visceral unpleasantness », Allison still loves F1 tech chief role

And he reckons as much despite the « visceral unpleasantness » that it can entail, especially during a spell of ground-effects grief for the Silver Arrows.

The former Lotus and Ferrari engineer first punched in at Brackley in early 2017, meaning he was on board for five of the eight consecutive constructors’ championship crowns. But in April 2021, he assumed the more overarching role of chief technical officer.

While Allison was by no means removed from the grand prix operation, he was now one step back, partially spared the daily cut and thrust and had the capacity to adopt other projects such as the America’s Cup sailing competition.

However, then came the landmark regulatory shift for 2022 that placed the emphasis on underbody aerodynamics. In real-world conditions with imperfections in the track surface, the size-zero sidepod architecture Mercedes pioneered too often failed to replicate the simulated class-leading levels of downforce.

The W13 and W14 have proved particularly capricious and unlike the unflappable Red Bull counterpart creations, only enjoy a narrow operating window.

The result was third in the standings last season. But a late glimmer – with George Russell winning both the Brazilian sprint and main races – suggested to Mercedes that on its day, the concept could still deliver. So, for the new season, it stuck to its design guns. Although it’s slightly better off, sitting as the current runner-up, Mercedes still has fewer than half the points of Red Bull.

Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff is proud of the ‘no-blame’ culture by which his squad operates. But in April of this year, with those results as the backdrop, the team reckoned technical director Mike Elliott and Allison had agreed they would be better off switching positions to bring about a change in fortunes. As such, two years and two weeks later, Allison was back on the front line of F1.

Speaking exclusively to Motorsport.com, Allison says of returning to his old gig: « In F1, I don’t think there’s a better and more enjoyable job than being the technical director. It doesn’t mean it’s free from stress or anything, but the reward for every little creep and gain you make is absolutely huge in terms of the satisfaction it brings.

James Allison, Technical Director, Mercedes AMG, and Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

James Allison, Technical Director, Mercedes AMG, and Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

« And then there’s just the puzzling out what’s wrong and trying to make things better with your colleagues. It is a fantastic, never-ending jigsaw puzzle. So, what’s not to like? »

When Allison moved out of the limelight in 2021 to become CTO, he was partially motivated by a need at the time to travel less. Now that circumstances have changed, he can lean into the « physical toll » and emotional stress that is heightened by being a hands-on technical director.

Asked to compare the two posts, Allison notes: « The thing that is harder about this role than the other role is just the physical toll it takes. Everyone is under pressure in an F1 team, but the technical director feels pretty directly the pressure when the car isn’t on pole and isn’t winning races.

« The CTO is looking a bit more over the horizon. And so, while it’s distressing, it’s not such a visceral unpleasantness as when you’re a technical director. »

Allison carries a high profile in the paddock and is regarded as one of F1’s leading technical lights. Wolff also reckoned that « the troops are going to go through the fire for him and with him » when he came back into the fold.

Nevertheless, Allison brushes aside the notion that his return – like Adrian Newey at Red Bull or Dan Fallows at Aston Martin – is reflective of a need for design departments to be led by a totemic figure that can galvanise a workforce.

Instead, he has moved more subtly to address morale. Allison explains: « I’m a cheery sort of soul and the team is a bit bruised and battered. Being a cheery sort of soul is a helpful thing. That seems a bit lightweight, but it has a surprising impact.

« If I was going to pick a single thing [that I have done], it’s just trying to encourage the different technical parts of the company to work more closely together instead of working very hard in their own pillars.

« You need to just do your best, to listen to the folk around you, to try with them to pick out what looks like the most promising route, and then to try to align everyone to go in that direction. And of course, it is a helpful thing if you’re able to communicate that in a way that excites people, or they can believe in it. Then you don’t have to sort of drag people screaming and kicking in a given direction.

« I’ve always been adequately good at persuading people to do stuff without them feeling like they’ve been battered. So, that’s a helpful thing. »

James Allison, Technical Director, Mercedes-AMG

James Allison, Technical Director, Mercedes-AMG

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

As an extension of this more personable approach, Allison hasn’t returned to a more hands-on role to simply disregard the ‘no-blame’ culture by wringing out the changes immediately in a bid to improve results. Instead, he is favouring a more collaborative approach to discover the « best route back out of the woods ».

Allison says: « [When reverting to the role of technical director], the whole team was working on making the current car better. I just wasn’t. I was working on other things.

« Getting back involved means I get back involved with the colleagues who are puzzling this stuff out and we try to do it together. So, it’s not like I came back and went, ‘Oh, no, you idiots! I wouldn’t have done it that way. You’ve got to do this, and that, and then everything will be fine’.

« It’s putting my shoulder to the wheel alongside John Owen, the chief designer, Loic Serra [performance director], Andy Shovlin [trackside engineering chief] and Jarrod [Murphy] in the wind tunnel – just working with those folks to try and figure out what our best route is back out the woods and into the clear. But I wouldn’t want to characterise it as a sort of seeing what’s missing and putting it right. »

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