Mercedes F1 boss Nick Fry is adamant that motorsport can be sustainable as well as entertaining.
With racing legend Michael Schumacher already in the points following his much-hyped return to Formula 1 (F1) last week, the Mercedes Petronas team is tipped to be one of the front runners for the 2010 season.
Heading the group’s strategy is its no-nonsense chief executive Nick Fry, whose focused approach under the Brawn name led the Northamptonshire-based team to clinch both the 2009 Drivers’ Championship and the Constructers’ Championship in a year of major rule changes and budget constraints.
Now racing in the livery of Mercedes’ famous ’Silver Arrows’, the team is hoping to use the same technical adaptability that drove it to success in 2009 to win podium positions and to challenge the view that the gas-guzzling sport of F1 has increasingly little relevance in a low-carbon society.
Fry admits that, over the past few years, developments in F1 have gone off on a tangent. ’This is beginning to change,’ he said. ’F1 has to be entertaining, but we also need to make it sustainable… I know the new president of the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile [FIA], Jean Todt, is very keen on balancing these two things in the coming season.’
Last year, F1’s foray into sustainable racing saw teams reduce costs by spending less money in traditional areas, such as aerodynamics, and more on technologies with relevance outside the sport. The most notable of these was the development of kinetic energy recovery systems(KERS), which allowed drivers to store energy and release it on demand.
“I’m positive that KERS, and hybrid technology under a broader heading, will rear its head again”
While the decision to scrap the technology this season has been viewed by some as a step back from F1’s commitment to green racing, Fry remains confident that the sport will see its return in a much cheaper form.
’I think the concept behind KERS was fundamentally sound,’ he said. ’It was, unfortunately, probably a case of wrong technical specification, wrong time, but I’m positive that KERS, and hybrid technology under a broader heading, will rear its head in F1 again.’
According to Fry, the shift to hybrid technology will result in major changes in the specifications for the powertrain from 2013 onwards. The ban on refuelling this season has already pushed teams to find extra efficiency gains from the engine. In the longer term, he believes that electric powertrain technology is likely to feature increasingly heavily in F1 – a trend that is already being set by races such as the all-electric TTxGP motorbike race. (Read our article on this here)
’I thought the Isle of Man TT race was fantastic,’ said Fry. ’You really did feel, just by looking at the bikes, that you were at the start of something special, which was going to be the way of the future. The rate of improvement of these types of things really is immense… We’ve been looking into this from a business point of view and I know other F1 teams are spending a lot of money in this area.’
Whether motorsport fans will continue to be excited by near-silent electric F1 races remains to be seen. However, the arrival of Richard Branson vowing to make F1 a ’sexy beast’ again suggests that the existing high-fuel, high-cost racing model is not without its problems. The sport has been criticised for being dominated by racing heavyweights for too long and, with the character of the F1 fan changing, Fry claims that motorsport appears to be entering a new era.
“Schumacher’s got an intimate interest in the technicalities; he wants to interrogate the engineers to a much greater degree than some past drivers”
’We’re seeing an increase in much younger, technically aware fans who are incredibly enthusiastic,’ said Fry. ’F1 is changing and, from a country perspective, we need a new strategy. We’re bloody good at advanced engineering, we’re good at design and we’re very creative and innovative. I think that is the next area where we really have to push to continue making the sport relevant and exciting in the coming decade.’
With the UK pioneering composite materials, Fry believes that the materials side of F1 engineering could be one way to improve interest in the sport. In his vision, F1 cars of the future will be made from materials that change shape as they go faster to improve downforce and aerodynamic efficiency. ’At the moment, this is done mechanically with wing devices that hold the car onto the road. In 20-30 years, this will become completely integrated into the shape of the car, providing a completely new challenge for F1 engineers.’
The range of technical developments in F1 is far beyond any the sport has seen before. Fry believes that even the most doubtful fans will share his enthusiasm for the very different future of the sport. ’It has been proven so many times in motorsport and other disciplines that people are initially very cynical,’ he said. ’But it’s amazing how people’s views change. Once you get over the initial shock, I think people are more accepting than might be predicted.’
Speaking about his long-term strategy for the team, Fry remains cautious about fully supporting any one of the emerging technologies. ’My general experience would indicate that, at the moment, you’ve got to back a number of horses,’ he said. ’That’s why it’s proving so expensive from a development point of view, because a number of the technologies aren’t mature enough for anyone to be able to say, that’s the one… But that uncertainty is what makes it interesting – it’s what F1 is all about.’
Q&A The rocky road to success
How do you think F1 is doing at the moment?
I think F1 is doing pretty well, but that’s not to say it’s not without its issues. It’s up there as one of the top three sports globally. We’re doing well in attracting a new, younger audience, especially in Asia. The centre of gravity of F1 races is moving east. You’ve only got to look at the location of the races… I think this year is the first that we have more than 10 races outside Europe.
Schumacher’s return has put all eyes on Mercedes. Why does he stand out from other drivers you’ve worked with?
Michael is extremely focused and has a strong work ethic. The relationship he has with his engineers is also interesting. He’s got an intimate interest in the technicalities; he wants to interrogate the engineers to a much greater degree than some of the drivers we’ve had in the past. That helps with driver performance and makes our job a lot easier.
Will we ever have a zero-emissions F1 car?
I think, eventually, that will be the case. What’s more likely to happen in the shorter term is that there will be a move towards an allocation of a parcel of energy and the person who wins the race in the F1 car will be the person who uses that amount, whatever it is, most efficiently.
Does this mean that future F1 engineers will need to have a new skills mix?
Yes, the skills mix will have to change if the F1 cars move in the direction of a different type of power train or more use of battery power. For example, at least a quarter of our team at the moment are aerodynamic engineers. This weighting could change fairly rapidly. But we’re very used to change, probably more so that any other industry.
Will fans go for a low-carbon race?
I don’t see why not. It’s technically interesting; it’s exciting to watch. I think there are definitely issues with the noise factor, which clearly, with F1 part of the whole event, is this incredible noise. But if that needs to be created artificially I’m sure it can be.
What’s the UK position in F1?
The UK is still the home of F1. We have eight teams that are either based in the UK or are using cars principally designed in the UK, and if you look around, even the teams that aren’t based in the UK have a substantial number of British engineers. We’ve also got a growing motorsport educational base, such as at Cranfield University, that is helping to keep engineering talent here.
How do you expect the 2010 season to pan out?
Last year, we had a huge advantage at the start of the year because of the massive shake-up in the technical regulations. Frequently when that happens, someone hits the jackpot because they discover something that someone else hasn’t. Clearly, from everything we’ve seen so far in testing, no one this year has found that silver bullet. We may not have seen it yet, but I think it’s doubtful because the regulations have not changed as much as last year. What we’ll probably see is a very close fight from some of the bigger teams that have the resources to sustain an effort over the whole year.
Chief executive officer
1977 Graduated from Wales University with a degree in Economics
- 1978 Joined Ford Motor Company working in sales and then market research
- 1992 Director of operations, Aston Martin
- 2001 Group managing director, Prodrive Automotive Technology
- 2002 Managing director, BAR F1, in addition to Prodrive responsibilities
- 2005 Chief executive officer, BAR Honda
- 2006 Chief executive officer, Honda Racing F1 team
- 2009 Chief executive officer, Brawn GP F1 team
- 2010 Chief executive officer, Mercedes GP Petronas F1 team