Interview: How "unusually different" Mercedes has invigorated Allison

As one of the most-respected technical directors in the F1 pitlane, and having helped guide teams to wins and titles, you could forgive James Allison for thinking he had seen it all in grand prix racing.

But speak to the Mercedes technical director about his first few months at Brackley, and almost immediately his eyes light up about a structure and way of working that he has not seen before.

In fact, despite a career that has spanned spells at Benetton, Ferrari, Renault, and now Mercedes, he says he has found something unique in his latest team.

"The culture and ethos of this company is unusually different – so making the most of the huge opportunity I have been given to come into it, is the thing that is most interesting and unusual about it," he tells Motorsport.com in an exclusive interview.

"The thing that is very noticeable when you walk in, is that like any team it is layered, which is broadly pyramidal. But, the team trusts each layer to a very, very high degree. So people at quite junior levels are empowered to make decisions.

"And that works all the way up through the organisation, so the technical director is much less the moment by moment lynchpin that is making decision after decision. It can be sort of like a machine gun, which is what it feels like a bit in other places – and that wasn't something I enjoyed!

"There are very, very competent people who are making decisions that would normally be the fiefdom of the technical director and it works really tremendously well, so the technical director's role is quite different in our team."

Monaco fallout

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-Benz F1 W08 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-Benz F1 W08 Hybrid

Photo by: Sutton Images

One of the defining moments of the season for Mercedes was how it responded to its Monaco dramas – with the team calling on a huge pool of staff who worked non-stop for 10 days to understand exactly what had gone wrong.

Allison is sure that the culture at Mercedes – where the reliance is not just on the technical director to have the answers – was one of the factors that helped it bounce back by winning the next race in Canada.

"The challenge we faced – we, collectively faced – to make the most out of a car with huge potential, that challenge was met, was faced and met, by large groups of people within the technical organisation. Of which I was only one tiny part.

"So frankly, if I had just gone to bed through the last few months that particular problem would have been dealt with very, very impressively by that group of people.

"I hope I was helpful to it, but it was studied, understood and corrected, from within the company rather than from the top down. And that is what I mean by the company's very impressive devolved structure. It makes it really an interesting place to work. To have your influence on a company where there is so much capability wherever you look.

"And that is what I mean by the company's very impressive devolved structure. It makes it really an interesting place to work - to have your influence on a company where there is so much capability wherever you look."

Hamilton surprise

 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1

Photo by: Steve Etherington / LAT Images

It is not just the working environment that has amazed Allison about Mercedes since he has joined, for he is full of praise about what he has seen of Lewis Hamilton so far too.

While few could ever question Hamilton's abilities on track, there has often been intrigue about how the three-time world champion is to deal with when he is out of the car.

For Allison – who has worked with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso – there have been some very good first impressions of how Hamilton handles himself when the helmet is off.

"It has been a real pleasurable surprise," added Allison. "A surprise because very fast drivers are ordinarily complex characters. I am not saying that Lewis is uncomplex in any way, but he is a deeply human person whose warmth is on show at all points of working with him.

"He is a demanding man as you would expect of someone who has achieved what he has achieved and achieves every weekend. But it is really nice when you see the warmth of a person shining out of them."

Allison says Mercedes also benefits from having two drivers with very different personalities – with Bottas's calm manner a good contrast to Hamilton's emotional side.

"It is interesting because we have two exceptional drivers. Both of whom help us greatly in what we need to do with the car, but whose technical vocabulary is so different.

"Valtteri is as you would expect succinct and minimalist in the way he will describe very accurately the car. Lewis is more emotional. He is an emotional character and he describes the car in that emotional terms as well.

"But if you listen to both of them and you make sense of what they are saying, it is that they are giving the same message but they are such different men in the way they get it across.

"And it is actually an interesting and new thing for me, hearing a driver describe the car's behaviour emotionally but also articulately, but in a way that allows us still to know what to do with the car."

Fist fight

 James Allison, Technical Director, Mercedes AMG F1, talks to a colleague
James Allison, Technical Director, Mercedes AMG F1, talks to a colleague

Photo by: Charles Coates / LAT Images

Despite having to adjust to his new environment, Allison was hired by Mercedes to do a job – and that was help guide the team to the world championship.

The title situation is finely balanced at the moment, with Ferrari having hit back in Hungary, and Allison says it is impossible to predict which way things will go over the remainder of the campaign.

But he admits to a conflict of desires when it comes to where things go from here, for he is only happy that things remain close all the way to the finale as long as it is Mercedes that comes out on top.

"I hope it will be one where neither side makes any mistakes and where it remains an enthralling battle until deep in the season," he explains.

"But that is what I would hope if retrospectively I was looking back on it, us having prospered, because that would be the most amazing thing to remember and be a part of.

"It would be a fib however to claim that I want that weekend to weekend. What I want weekend by weekend is for us to be massively quick and to crush the life out of them, because is what an F1 team lives to do! You want to prosper at your opposition's expense.

"But I also know these races this year where it has been a compelling fight, have just felt utterly fantastic. We all know that as long as the season can go our way, for it to be a fist fight all the way, it will be an amazing thing to look back on. And correspondingly crushing if it is the other way."

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Series Formula 1
Teams Mercedes
Article type Interview