I didn’t expect Williams to improve this quickly – Rob Smedley

F1i 18:31 03/05/2015
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  • Rob Smedley made the decision to head for a team which had been - in his own words - “punching below its weight”.

    The first 12 months

    Well-known as Felipe Massa’s race engineer at Ferrari, Rob Smedley was keen for a bigger challenge and in the summer of 2013 decide Williams was where that challenge was waiting for him.

    Eager to learn from the vast experience of chief technical officer Pat Symonds, Smedley made the decision to head for a team which had been – in his own words – “punching below its weight”.

    Not a believer in any team being able to punch above its weight, only maximising its potential, Smedley had to wait until the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2014 to join the team at a race and really get stuck in to his role as head of vehicle performance.

    “Definitely the overriding emotion was that I was excited,” Smedley tells F1i one year on.

    “I wanted to get back to work and I was just really keen to get in there and kick the project off from my point of view.

    "Once I’d made that decision that I was going to come here then I was just fully focused on this job and this project really, getting Williams back on top of Formula One. I was definitely excited, definitely up for it, not nervous.”

    Having been able to take a watching brief as Williams competed in the first two rounds of 2014, Smedley was busy analysing what he would need to do when finally let off the leash at Grove.

    “I had been doing that since mid-2013 really, when I made the decision that I was going to come to Williams. So that was kind of an evolutionary process if you like.

    "I was constantly thinking about certain aspects of the job and where that was headed, what I had to do at the track in terms of operations, what I had to do back at the factory in terms of car performance and car development.

    “It was really trying to think to myself and discussing with the people who were at Williams at the time about certain aspects of the way the place was organised, thinking about how we can do it better. Because it’s always important when you go to somewhere new to do things better and not just do things differently.

    "It’s very easy to walk in and say: ‘Oh we need to do this because this is how I’ve done it in my past and this is how Ferrari do it’, and they would quite rightly turn round – well they might not because they’re quite polite – but they might think to themselves you’ve got a very short shelf-life with that, because people just think: ‘Well, we’re making all these changes and we’re not actually going forward’.

    “So it’s important that you have time to observe, really, thinking about what you want to do with the organisation, what you want to do with the groups of people and how they work together and how to start distilling a sense of motivation and a sense of pride in the place.

    "So it was a long process of thinking about that and trying to give a little bit of direction from the bigger picture of what I would be doing when I got here.”

    Motivated to be able to work alongside Symonds, Smedley was keen to set out a direction for Williams which he could help be the driving force behind, and his first year in the job has seen the team cement itself as a front-running outfit.

    “There were a lot of discussions with Pat over the winter on a non-technical level about how we were going to be organised and how that was going to work.

    "It’s actually better, it’s much better. I think part of that was that it was a team that was ready for some direction.

    "With the new people that came in, primarily Pat obviously, we’ve given it direction. The people here, they wanted direction, they needed direction and they were ready to accept some pain as well to get through it.

    "We’re on a journey, we’re nowhere near the end of that journey, we’re nowhere near the final conclusion but we are definitely on that journey and we’re still on it.

    “It’s important now that we’ve put ourselves in to what I would say is quite a favourable position last year, definitely with respect to the year before.

    "For various reasons, it’s never one reason. And I think the great thing about this year is the fact that if you take the first three races, OK we finished last year arguably second quickest but I think it was nip and tuck depending on the circuit between us and Red Bull.

    "And we’ve maintained that gap if you like to Mercedes, which is quite encouraging even though we need to close that down eventually, and Ferrari has made a huge improvement.

    If you give this group of people the quickest car then they’ll get first and second with it now, and that’s where we need to be.

    “But I think if you take it in the grand scheme of things, apart from Ferrari then we’ve positioned ourselves very well and shown that we can still run at the front in Formula One.

    "That’s the first part which is really encouraging; there’s development to do and we want to get back in front of Ferrari, there’s no doubt about it.

    "The second part is we’ve come and we’ve pretty much nailed every single event. Where we could get the points we’ve got the points.

    "OK we didn't get all the points we could in Australia, but as an operations team there’s not really a great deal you can do about that. I just think this team operates so much better.

    “I said after the China round that if you give this group of people the quickest car then they’ll get first and second with it now, and that’s where we need to be.

    "If this car is good enough for fifth and sixth then we need to nail fifth and sixth every single weekend. While we’re doing that then obviously we are hopefully making inroads in the people in front and creating a bigger gap to the people behind.

    “So I’ve really seen the place move on massively in 12 months. Hugely. There’s a sense of belief as well in the people. When I arrived one of the biggest things that was lacking was a sense of belief.

    "They didn’t believe that they could run at the front, they didn’t believe that they could get podiums, and now that’s a given. Where we’re running now, we’re the third quickest car, it’s a given. When we get on the podium – hopefully sooner rather than later – it’s a given. The next step is to get race wins and be able to do that consistently.”

    The future

    Despite resources akin to those at Force India, and less than half what is available at Ferrari and Mercedes, Smedley is not satisfied for Williams to be punching at its current weight.

    Going forward, the main task is to move it up in to the heavyweights, and Smedley is encouraged by the way the team has been undergoing such an evolution off the track while remaining competitive on it.

    “We’ve got here and I think our CEO Mike O’Driscoll describes it best, it’s trying to fix the bike and ride it at the same time. I’ve said quite a few times since I’ve been here, the objectives here now at Williams F1 are exacting to say the least. We are trying to put together, or let’s say fix, years’ worth of decline.

    "I think it’s fair to say that, we’re trying to fix on the technical side years’ worth of not operating at the level that we needed to.

    “You can’t do that overnight, it’s got to be a long, slow process of getting it right and having long-term strategic thinking as well.

    "Not just thinking about tomorrow and what we’re going to do tomorrow but what we’re going to do in two years and three years, giving that sense of calm to people that they can think long-term and strategically.

    "At the same time, the remit from above is to run at the front of the Formula One World Championship. It’s not the Formula Ford Championship at Mondello Park, it’s the Formula One World Championship where the competition is fierce.

    “People who have their operations absolutely locked down, rock solid and have a big resource are struggling to do that.

    "Yes, OK there’s personnel issues in some teams, there’s power unit issues in other teams and all the rest of it, but we've got those as well. Everybody has got their cross to bear, we just tend to talk about it less.

    "We could bang that drum every single week: ‘Yeah, we’re being beaten by Ferrari but we haven’t got as much money and we haven’t got as many people’. I don’t think that’s Williams’ style to be honest. If we’ve got any drums to bang we bang them internally.”

    The mention of Ferrari’s budget isn’t by accident, however. Having analysed where Williams needs to grow, Smedley has also been deconstructing the positive and negative aspects of the size of his former team.

    His current assessment is he believes Williams needs to get closer Maranello’s structure, but shouldn’t attempt to match it.

    I don’t believe that we need [Ferrari's] level of resource, either fiscally or in terms of the number of people.

    “I came from a team which had a massive resource and I don’t believe that we need that level of resource, either fiscally or in terms of the number of people.

    "Because I believe there is a critical mass, and there’s a critical mass both at the lower end and the upper end of the scale.

    "I firmly believe once you go past a certain number of people you create a lot of inefficiencies in your operation. I think it’s important not to do that.

    “I think that we have a very, very good, agile team which is fundamentally very good. All the fundamentals are in place in this team now, and the key technical people are all very good and they all work very well together.

    "What we need to do now is we need to bolster all those technical departments and just add more resource in to it.

    "But you’ve got to do that responsibly, you can’t arrive with 300 people and throw them in to the company and say ‘Go and get on with it’ because we’d take three steps backwards from where we are now.

    “So it’s about responsible growth. But does the company need to grow? Does the technical side of the business and the amount of development resource we have need to grow? Yes, of course it does. That’s what we need to do if we want to win races and win world championships.”


    And Smedley admits Williams is already further along the path towards those titles than he anticipated when he joined.

    “It would be foolish of me to say that it hasn’t gone better than what I expected. I certainly didn’t expect us to be this far forward in such a short space of time.

    "I firmly believed that we would be here but I probably thought it was going to take us another 12 months to get here to be honest.

    "We’ve got here in a shorter space of time, which is great. It means we are right on target, we’re hitting targets.”

    It’s easy enough to map out a plan, but much more difficult to tick off the boxes in F1.

    "So the success rate enjoyed since he walked in to the Williams factory for the first time encourages Smedley the ultimate goal is an attainable one.

    “You can’t stand still. In F1 and in most businesses now, if you stand still you’re going backwards. We’ve achieved Phase One targets if you like.

    "Phase One targets are done, we’ve ticked them off, and I think with the start we’ve had to the year we’ve also achieved the question mark that we were a flash in the pan.

    ‘They usually hang around seventh or ninth in the championship and they’ve had this flash in the pan because they’ve got the best engine and all the rest of it. Blah blah blah’. Clearly you can see it’s not a flash in the pan, if we didn’t do anything from here on inwards it’s clearly not a flash in the pan.

    “We have an organisation which is able to develop and is able to use the correct process to go forward and constantly keep competing at the highest level.

    "All it does hitting your targets earlier is it means all your other targets have come forward by a year as well.

    "We have to keep developing the company, we have to keep growing the resource of the company in all areas and keep going forwards.

    "Eventually we’ll hit those targets and get the world championships.”

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