“We’re far less corporate than Mercedes and McLaren” – Christian Horner on leadership, from the pitlane to the boardroom

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As the new F1 season gets started, Christian Horner – team principal of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing – takes a pit stop to discuss leading under pressure, managing tempestuous drivers and going the extra mile to retain a prized employee

It’s the eve of the 2018 Formula One season and, as Director arrives at the headquarters of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing in Milton Keynes, security is tight.

Beneath a towering trophy cabinet in the reception area, visitors are handed a tablet and encouraged to e-sign an uncompromising confidentiality statement. The factory buildings on the site, we’re politely informed, are strictly off limits today.

And, when team principal Christian Horner collects us, our passage through the corridors to the inner sanctum of his office is secured by the series of fingerprint-recognition pads he touches along the way.

Secrecy is, of course, paramount in this engineering arms race of a business, where the most subtle innovation could prove the difference between success and failure.

Indeed, the ability to throw rivals off the scent is a source of pride here. When RB14, the team’s car for 2018, was unveiled at Silverstone on 19 February, it initially sported a livery nicknamed DisruptoBull – confusing to the eye and “handy for us to make a splash without revealing too much” about the car’s design, according to the team’s website.

It’s clear that, while the results are viewed on the track, F1’s real race takes place in the boardroom, where the battle to outwit rival constructors rages with all the gusto of a turbocharged V6 engine.

Given that seven of the 10 constructors on the grid this year are based in the UK, the ability to attract and retain the nation’s best engineering talent is a high priority.

For Horner – who became F1’s youngest ever team boss when he joined the newly formed Red Bull Racing in early 2005 – his organisation’s culture is a unique selling point when it comes to recruitment.

Despite its considerable success to date, winning four consecutive constructors’ and drivers’ championships between 2010 and 2013, Red Bull capitalises on its image as a precocious upstart compared with its long-established UK-based rivals – including McLaren, Mercedes and Williams – and Ferrari, the legendary Italian constructor that has been racing in F1 since the first world championship season in 1950.

“It’s all about the environment you create,” he says. “If you were to compare us with Mercedes or McLaren, for example, there’s far less of a corporate environment here.

“You’ll see that 90 per cent of our designers are in jeans and T-shirts. We don’t have strict working hours – it’s whatever is needed to get the job done.”

Autonomy for his 14 direct reports and the team’s 800-strong workforce as a whole is central to Horner’s leadership philosophy:

“My aspirations were initially something very different than to be a manager,” says the former racing driver, who started his own F3000 team, Arden International, in 1997.

“But it became clear to me at an early age that leadership is about engaging with people and getting the most out of our common goals.

“The way I try to operate is that, if we recruit a specialist, I can’t then tell that person how to do their job. Otherwise, I’d be doing the wrong thing. I very much believe in empowerment.”

It’s a democratic set-up that, he says, wasn’t in evidence when the energy drink giant bought the Jaguar Racing F1 team from Ford at the end of 2004 to develop a new outfit in its place.

“I noticed, when Red Bull acquired the team, that there was very much a fear factor – you know: stick your head above the parapet and you might get it blown off, so keep your head down – because there had been a revolving door of managerial changes.

“In the 12 years since that period, we’ve enjoyed great stability. It’s incredibly important to breed confidence and pass on knowledge to the youth we’re developing.

“Allowing innovative people to express their creativity is so important in what we do. We’re not a numbers-driven business.”

Christian Horner Director Magazine 1Race for talent

Encouraging freedom of creative expression to keep talented technicians engaged is a tactic that Red Bull has used to keep rival teams, and indeed other industries, at bay.

“In IT there’s a big call from the City,” Horner says. “But our great asset is that this sport moves so fast. Design a component here and it can be on a car within two weeks. It’s high speed from conception to delivery, which engineers find attractive.”

Just how much can a business rely on this creative carrot, though, when a big rival approaches its most valuable member of staff with an offer they’ll find hard to refuse?

This is precisely what happened when Red Bull’s chief technical officer, Adrian Newey – widely regarded as the best designer in the business – was approached by Ferrari in 2014. In his recent autobiography, How to Build a Car, Newey recalls how Ferrari offered him a “film-star lifestyle” and a “ridiculously large” salary.

Horner’s solution would not only retain his prized asset but also create a new revenue stream for both his business and another famous brand.

“Our partnership with Aston Martin grew out of a conversation I had with their CEO, Andy Palmer,” Horner explains.

“Andy’s appointment at Aston coincided with Adrian’s ‘film-star lifestyle’ offer from Ferrari. My way of persuading him to stay was [to tell him]: ‘Don’t worry – we’ll do a car.’ I sat down with Andy and said: ‘Why don’t we look at doing a car together?’

“Adrian was determined that he wanted to do a legacy project: a road car. It started from a discussion about [building only] six or seven cars, but the feedback we were getting from the market was huge.

“Then Aston managed to get the project partly underwritten and eventually we settled on 150 cars that Adrian would have a free hand to design, importing all the Formula One know-how he possibly could.

“This will, without a doubt, be the most advanced F1-integrated car the world has ever seen.”

The result is the Aston Martin Valkyrie, a hybrid electric sports car that will enter production this year for delivery in 2019, with a 250mph track version to follow.

Meanwhile, the technical partnership between the companies has flourished to such an extent that a new advanced performance centre is being established at Red Bull’s HQ, with around 120 designers from Aston Martin joining this year to work on “special-project vehicles”.

The Warwickshire-based manufacturer has topped off the deal by becoming Red Bull’s new title sponsor for 2018.

“We didn’t set out to become automotive manufacturers, but this is how it’s turned out,” Horner says. With Aston Martin announcing a record pre-tax profit of £87m in February – attributed partly to strong revenues from its high-value limited-edition models – it’s little wonder that other luxury manufacturers are seeing potential in an F1 link-up.

He adds that Red Bull’s advanced technologies division has signed “an agreement with Sunseeker to design a boat with them, incorporating Formula One DNA”, referring to the memorandum of understanding signed with the Poole-based yacht builder in January.

Pop-star status

Going the extra mile to retain a key director is one thing, but what about managing racing drivers – arguably the most temperamental breed of employee there is? How has Horner handled the different stars in his charge?

“Mark Webber, for example, was a driver that needed to put pressure on himself, pressure on the team,” Horner says…..

The full interview with Christian Horner can be read exclusively by IoD members in the latest edition of Director magazine, out Wednesday 28 March.

Bonus points: Christian Horner on…

Brexit

“I’m very much of the opinion that people will continue to do business with the UK if we’re attractive to do business with. The skillset is here, just take Formula One – Renault have their Formula One team in the UK, Mercedes Benz produce their engines in Northamptonshire, not in Stuttgart… There is opportunity, so long as we remain attractive and versatile to do business with. There’s no point pushing against it, you’ve got to get on with it.”

Bonuses

“Success here is rewarded through a bonus structure that runs throughout the factory from top to bottom in terms of where we finish in the Constructors’ Championship. While the prestige is with the Drivers’ Championship, we don’t pay a penny against that – we reward against a Constructors’ Championship which is team versus team, so the success we achieve as a team is recognised throughout the organisation.”

Driverless F1 cars

“What’s the next great technology? In our world it’s autonomous driving. Will we need race car drivers in the future? It might be a bit cheaper without them, but will it be as much fun?”

Further views on UK engineering talent…

‘Inclusion is key to your bottom line’ says Royal Academy of Engineering CEO

UK Space Industry boss Graham Turnock outlines SME opportunities in an out of this world sector

CEO of laser firm M Squared talks growth and Brexit

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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