When you’ve led Porsche to a trio of trilogies in three years – double World Endurance Championship titles (drivers/manufacturers) in 2015-17 plus three-in-a-row Le Mans 24 Hour victories during the same period – there is little left to prove in sports car racing.Formula 1 is concerned, that’s unfinished business for Andreas Seidl.
He was approached in June last year at Le Mans by McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, seeking a team principal to help in rebuilding the company’s F1 effort. Not only had the once-illustrious squad twice made Q3 in seven races (and thanks to Fernando Alonso’s superhuman efforts), but McLaren’s relationship with Racing Director Eric Boullier was broken. He left a month later.
Seidl, a 43-year-old Bavarian from Passau, spent almost ten years in F1 with BMW, initially as engineer during the 2000-05 Williams engine partnership. When the Munich company acquired Sauber he was appointed head of track operations – and tasted motorsport’s sweetest champagne in 2008 after Robert Kubica won in Canada.
When BMW withdrew from F1 at end-2009, Seidl, at heart more a BMW man than a Sauber-er, switched to the DTM team, steering them to the 2012 title. The next step beckoned: Le Mans with Porsche’s nascent WEC team, facing massive diesel powered, in-house competition from sister brand Audi. The rest is, as they say, history: Porsche’s petrol V4 hybrid swept the major silverware.
Porsche announced its next challenge: Formula E, with Seidl earmarked for the top job before Brown invited him for a chat at Le Mans. At the time Porsche had just canned plans for a move into F1, leaving him with a choice between Formula E or Formula 1, with McLaren.
Andreas and I meet in McLaren’s hospitality in Montreal to discuss why he joined a struggling British team, albeit owned by a respected automotive engineering group, rather than facing the challenge of electric racing with one of Germany’s most pioneering companies. I open with the obvious: I know it’s been a long-time ambition of his to become a Formula 1 team boss.
“Yes.” Smile. “I would say that. Obviously it was always a target to lead big motorsport operations. I’m a competitive guy; I’m a racing guy, so it was always clear for me that I wanted to work in Formula 1.
“Obviously having the possibility to lead this great team, with all this history, is a unique opportunity for me.”
The word ‘great’ crops up often during the interview, but is said casually yet earnestly, without fake PR inferences. Indeed, Porsche’s period profile of Andreas made clear there’s nothing fake about him:
“As an engineer with a perfectionist streak, he’s responsible for the technical performance of the cars; as race manager, he’s responsible for the organisational aspects of a world championship race. To the squad of LMP1 drivers, he’s akin to a national coach; he heads up business relations as a manager and ambassador; and as chief of strategy he makes crucial decisions together with race engineers.”
Any wonder Brown approached him, having observed these qualities at first hand while campaigning his own United Autosports WEC squad? Back, though, to the matter in hand: Was the overall plan always to return to F1, even if Porsche had remained in WEC?
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He does not wish to discuss Porsche. “For me it was always the target to be back in Formula 1, with the right opportunity. I wasn’t desperate to go for whatever, but [it had to be] the right opportunity. Straight away after we had the first talks with Zak last year after he approached me – at Le Mans – it was immediately appealing for me to have the possibility to lead this great team.
“Then after further talks with the shareholders and seeing the commitment from their side, and how they want to further invest in the team, with the clear target to close this gap again to the top three teams, it was simply a chance I didn’t want to miss.”
I probe this point, for all too often promises made and reality delivered turn out to be miles apart: Does Andreas have the full support and authority to take decisions about what he thinks is best for the team?
“Yes, definitely. Full.” Pause for effect. “I think it was very important for me in the talks to get full responsibility. I’m not scared of responsibility. I want to be accountable. I think it’s the only way forward if you want to lead such a big operation: you need full support, and at the same time full freedom to execute.”
Thus, if the team wins, it’s collective victory, with the defeat buck stopping at his desk?
“Of course. I think the way Zak structured his organisation it’s clear I have the ultimate responsibility for the success of the Formula 1 team, which I also want to have, which means we get the glory as a team in the good days, but at the same time I am ultimately responsible for bad days.
“I think it’s important to have clear leadership, especially also looking at the situation that we are in at the moment. We need to work out a clear plan or clear vision how we want to approach the next years in order to have a clear path of how we want to get back towards the top teams. I think it’s an absolutely necessary requirement to have clear leadership there.”
A true racer, then, but where does this racing blood come from? His parents were in education, so what – excuse the pun – drives his passion?
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“I’m a Michael Schumacher kid, I have to say, from the Michael Schumacher generation. I really started to watch Formula 1 in detail from ‘92 onwards. With his rise in Germany I started watching every practice session from Friday to the race on Sunday.
“There I would say this desire, or target, [arose] to finish school and study mechanical engineering with a clear goal to be involved in motorsport, in Formula 1, as an engineer.
Interesting point, that, for team bosses are often frustrated drivers. Did he ever consider driving?
“Driving was never really the bit that interested me. I always loved team sports, I played soccer when I was young. The most interesting bit for me in my daily job is to work together with a team, because success here in motorsport, especially in big operations, is a big team effort.
“To feel this dynamic inside a team is something which I really like. In the end I think we have to approach whatever we do back [at base] and also out here like being a big sports team. I see every single member of the team as a kind of an athlete also, not just the two drivers.
“You need to create a certain spirit within the team, [create] this special spirit you need in sports teams to ensure they push each other day by day, keep going. That’s what drives me also.
“For me the biggest pleasure is to celebrate together with the team, success, in the garage or back home at the factory. To see everyone smiling after days and months of hard work, that’s the biggest pleasure I can have in this job.”
Andreas, a married father of two whose family still lives in Germany while he commutes to McLaren on a weekly basis, confesses to having zero interest in driving full-blooded race cars: “I know, compared to what these guys can do, I can’t do [it]. Just running around is not something that interests me. I have more pleasure seeing our drivers operating these machines at the limit.”
As many team bosses have discovered, not all ingredients for F1 success lie in their own hands. How does he see outside factors impinging on his plans?
He pauses before delivering a brutally honest answer: “To be honest, that is not my biggest worry at the moment, because I see that, as a team, with the budget that we have available at the moment, with the infrastructure, with the talent we have inside the team, we are under-performing.
“So my focus at the moment is to simply lift the performance again, inside the boundary conditions we have at the moment, because I see there’s a lot more potential compared to what we [are achieving] right now.
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“Of course I’m looking ahead; it’s important that these regulation changes are coming because they will obviously help, to a certain degree, to create a more level playing field again.”
“[But] top teams like Mercedes and Ferrari, they’re not just there because they have more money or more budget, it’s also because they simply do a great job. I mean, guys like Toto, what they do with their team, the spirit he has created inside the team, the know-how, the methodologies and so on, this is where performance comes from.
“Of course if you want to take the final step and you want to compete with these guys, you need the resources also. But, again, at the moment I think our main focus must be to get more out of the current situation where we are in. That’s my focus. It’s also important to not get distracted by regulations or excuses…”
We turn to McLaren, and more specifically this season: Is it currently a top-five team on merit, or does fourth in the championship at the one-third point flatter to deceive?
“The important thing is for me to see that there is already a good step compared to last year. I mean, we shouldn’t forget where we have been at the end of last year. There’s no magic in Formula 1. It takes time.
“A lot of changes that were initiated last year by Zak are paying off already. I think the full effect of all the changes that have been put in place now, plus James Key [technical director] coming in, plus me coming in, it takes time.
“The most important thing is that we have a positive trend, positive momentum, because this is what keeps morale up inside the team. It was great for me to see when I started that there’s a lot of positive energy now and positive momentum, which in the end you need inside a team if you want to move forward and push on. It’s a tough business, it’s a tough job.
Seidl isn’t thinking in terms of immediate objectives for the team.
“At the moment we’re P4 in the championship, but it’s a long way to go. It’s an unbelievably intense battle in this midfield, and at the moment we see on some tracks we are more competitive than other tracks, so we know about some weak points that we still have in the car, and so on. We keep bringing updates, race by race, but the competition is doing exactly the same…
“I’m not really focussed on certain positions at the moment. For me it’s simply important that we have a positive trend, that we see the methods we are applying, correlation, which is important, that the basics are in place again in order to have again a better starting base for next year’s car, and again a starting base for the year thereafter.”
One of McLaren’s biggest issues was the unwieldiness of its matrix management structure, which left the team less exposed when key employees departed, but meant responsibility was shared and thus failure difficult to apportion. One of Brown’s first tasks was to install more traditional ‘family tree’ structures. Is the matrix system completely dead, I ask, or have elements survived?
“No, considering where we are right now as a team, and also with the history the team went through in the last years, my approach is to keep it simple. I want a straightforward organisation, which is easy to understand for everyone, with clear reporting lines, clear leadership of different divisions. These are things I will implement as soon as I have a good overview of the team.”
It couldn’t be simpler: James Key, technical director, reports to Andreas, as do Paul James (team manager), and, currently, COO Jonathan Neale, who is temporarily covering in the role of production director vacated by Simon Roberts. The balance of over 700 employees report to one of the three.
As an ex-Porsche man, Seidl has seen at first hand the advantages of in-house engine supplies. Could Renault customers McLaren achieve world champion status again without some sort of ‘works’ engine arrangement?
“That depends on the regulations of the future,” he says thoughtfully. “We’ve seen in the past that it’s possible to win world championships with non-works engines. Red Bull has shown they can win races with [outside] engine deals in the past, [but]… my focus is not on world championships at present.
“My focus is to get the maximum out of the team as it is right now, that’s our full focus. When I look for example to the partnership with Renault we are having, this is very, very positive, a very open relationship that we are having. Renault made a huge step in terms of performance compared to last year, and I would say this is not something which is holding us back at the moment.”
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