Think:Act Magazine "Performance: Faster, Higher, Stronger "
The winning formula
Seamless teamwork saves precious business time
by Gary Rose
Photos by Red Bull, Mark Thompson, Joerg Mitter, Getty Images
Read more on the topic “Performance”
In the top-flight world of Formula 1, performance means a combination of bravery, fitness and strength of mind.
It's a pivotal moment on the track. Your team's driver is battling for a crucial win in the Formula 1 world championship – but with tire conditions fading, they are going to have to make a pit stop. When they do there can be no margin for error, because even a fraction of a second wasted could mean defeat.
The call is then made over the radio: "box, box." Twenty people, all with vital jobs, get ready as the driver "pits." The goal: get the vehicle back out on the circuit within seconds. Millions of dollars are resting on your skills. The future career of everyone in your team and the reputation of the driver rely on you doing your job perfectly. It all comes down to milliseconds. The peak performance of every hand on deck goes without saying. Here on the pit stop it is almost like a life-and-death situation. In fact, a few years ago the stakes were quite literally that high too. "When your wife and kids are watching you on TV and you are on fire," muses Kenny Handkammer in a rather matter-of-fact way, "you have to ask yourself: Is it really worth it?"
The most disarming thing about Handkammer's storytelling is not the content of what he is saying, but the detached and clear way that he tells it. No drama. The former Formula 1 chief mechanic who helped Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel win world championships is describing being engulfed in a ball of flames during a refueling stop – but he tells the story as if it was just spilled coffee on a work shirt.
The incident is a famous one. Jos Verstappen – father of current world champion, Max – was making what should have been a routine pit stop at the 1994 German Grand Prix. "I was the front jackman," continues Handkammer. "I lifted the car and saw this spray of fuel. It ran down to the rear brake, which was something like 800 degrees, and the fuel ignited. I think the hardest thing was after that Michael Schumacher was still on the track and would have expected to do a fuel stop, but there were so many people burnt and equipment messed up and people just didn't want to do it again."
Formula 1's top mechanic from 1989 until 2002, Kenny Handkammer started at Benetton before taking up the same chief mechanic role at Renault and then at Red Bull. He left the sport in 2015 when he was recruited by Tesla.
While this is an extreme incident and refueling has been banned in F1 since 2009, it underlines some of the dangers those working in the sport can face, not to mention how clear chains of command, team roles and solid analysis impact on performance. Taking it seriously not only delivers the best results, it also can save your life. But how do you reach that level of ability in such a brutally competitive sport and how do bring it out of your team?
It takes a certain type of person to want to work in an environment that has an element of danger, punishing hours and includes thousands of miles of travel throughout the year and long spells away from home. Add the pressure to be always performing at your peak and it's perhaps easy to see why it's not a career path for everyone. But the learnings are rewarding and can apply to many things beyond the racetrack. For Handkammer it has taken him from the starting grid into Elon Musk's electric vehicle orbit. More on that later.
It began for him in the 1980s when he entered the sport. He gathered experience and progressed to become widely regarded as one of the best chief mechanics in Formula 1, winning 13 world championships during a 25-year career in the sport. And he was particularly adept at helping teams initially viewed as underdogs before becoming a dominant force. As part of the Benetton team, he worked closely with Schumacher as he won world titles in 1994 and 1995 before later joining Red Bull, where he helped Sebastian Vettel become a four-time world champion. "When I started at Benetton there were a bunch of us the same age and we all had the same ethos. We were always the underdogs but we were determined to see how we could move it forward," Handkammer continues. "We used to always look at McLaren and Ron Dennis in the early 1990s – they set all the standards. We would look at them and think how could we do better than that, how can we set the standard?"
Pit stops take place once or twice during a Formula 1 race.
Replacing tires can be done in seconds, while other repairs take longer.
But one goal is clear: When every second counts, record pit stop times also help break records on the track.
Record pit stop times 1950-1970:
1950: 67 seconds
1965: 45 seconds
1970: 27 seconds
Record pit stop times 1980-1993 :
1980: 11 seconds
1993: 3.2 seconds
Record pit stop times 2013-2019:
2013: 1.92 seconds
2019: 1.82 seconds
Setting the standards is certainly something that the teams and crews Handkammer was a part of did. He pioneered how to improve performance at a very sharp competitive edge. And his focus was the pit stop, one of the most crucial moments in a Formula 1 race where speed and efficiency is key to ensuring no time is wasted. Any second lost in the stop could be the difference between victory and defeat on the track.
Handkammer was part of a Benetton crew that produced a 3.2-second pit stop in 1993, a record that would not be beaten for 17 years. In 2013 he was part of a team that broke the two-second barrier for the first time with a stunning 1.92-second stop. "It is a huge team effort," says Handkammer, who would later be hired by Elon Musk's Tesla company to bring that speed to road car production. "You have to train 22 people to do it in two seconds or under and when we achieved it, it was obviously hugely satisfying. We obviously practiced a lot back at the factory, but there can be negatives about doing a lot of practice – people get bored and lose motivation."
He quickly learned that if you wear people out, they get injuries, and their mindset, he says, is not right if they are tired or unmotivated. His solution? Give them goals that they get rewarded for. An added learning was to build the team in different directions so that all parts of the "team machine" are in contact. As well as working closely with those whom they share a garage with every day, he saw the value of building a relationship with the drivers. Vettel in particular was very good at forging friendships with those who work behind the scenes. In 2013, moments after winning the world championship, he paused his celebrations to help the crew to pack up.
Using a special piece of equipment called a jack, the front and rear "jack guys" enable the tires to be removed while the side jack crew is there if the front wing or nose of the car needs changing.
In a crucial role to ensure an error-free stop, a team of "tire gunners" loosens the nuts on each tire before another team removes them. Then another team places new tires before the tire gunners secure them back to the car.
Two people adjust the aerodynamic flaps on the front wing of an F1 car by using a drill to turn a screw. They communicate with the driver and help get the car performing as the driver prefers.
The chief mechanic once stood in front of the F1 car with a large sign and would signal to the driver when it was safe to leave the pit lane. This system has been now replaced by one similar to traffic lights.
While these other pit roles are essential, a pit lane spotter is something a team may or may not deploy. Their role would simply be to provide a second pair of eyes with regard to any traffic or incidents.
It's more than the cliché of teamwork makes the dream work, though. There's hard work, of course, with analysis to up the performance pitch. Handkammer has observed that process firsthand. "When you get a very intelligent driver who knows how to process all the data, knows how to adjust his driving it is great," he says. "I don't think every driver completely understands that and knows what to change, but most do want to learn and see what they can improve."
Winning in Formula 1 is all about fine margins both on and off the track and fractions of seconds lost or gained during a pit stop can prove crucial. The team of 20 or so personnel has to perform in near perfect synchronization to get a car out on fresh tires in no more than a couple of seconds. A stop of more than 2.5 seconds would be considered long and potentially leave a driver playing catch-up on the track.
Better performance has also come from a changed mindset – focusing on the body. In the early decades of Formula 1 it wasn't uncommon to see a driver celebrate with a smoke and an alcoholic drink. These days, drivers are more like athletes, employing physical trainers and following strict diets." When Schumacher came in, he changed so much in Formula 1 to being more focused on fitness," Handkammer says. "That's what makes a difference. It is complete commitment and focus where some of the others at that time would go to the gym for an hour and eat some pasta and that's all they'd feel they'd need to do."
There's been a trend toward conditioning the mind as well. Dr. Phil Hopley, a mental health expert who was the lead psychiatrist for the London 2012 Olympics, was brought in by the McLaren F1 team in 2020 to act as its performance coach during the height of the Covid-19 outbreak. The initial idea was to assist the team's drivers and personnel with their mental well-being during the pandemic as they had to adapt from working as one whole unified team to being split into smaller 'work bubbles' of three or four people to limit the impact of a positive case within the team.
But a positive impact on the team's results, despite those uniquely difficult conditions, has seen him continue in that role to this day, focusing on fine-tuning drivers and team personnel's minds. "The challenge for drivers is the same as for other elite athletes competing solo over an extended period of time and most people working in high-demand business roles – namely to not overthink," says Hopley. "These guys are incredibly experienced in driving while processing communication from their race engineers and giving real-time feedback on track that informs the vast system of engineering trackside and back at base. When the pressure is really on their ability to trust their judgement, taking the critical information from engineering and executing strategy is key. Helping them to develop their ability to ignore unhelpful thoughts, or white noise, when under intense pressure is essential."
Three seasons ago, in 2020, McLaren finished third in the Formula 1 Constructors' Championship – their highest since 2012 – and the following season the team's two drivers secured a first and second finish at the Italian Grand Prix – their first podium wins in over a decade. "Since 2020, when the pandemic had a massive effect on the well-being of our trackside team, Dr. Phil has transformed our mental fitness, effectively developing both mental health and performance psychology," says Tom Stallard, race engineer and head of human performance at McLaren. "Often sport psychology may feel insufficient on the days a person is struggling and psychiatry feels excessive in eking out the last 2% of performance, but Phil's ability to understand and support both at an extremely high level has enabled the team to maintain resilience and deliver consistently great performance over the last two seasons."
For anyone working in Formula 1 it is clearly a very demanding but rewarding sport to be involved in, but for many it has a time limit. Some drivers, like Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, keep going into their 40s but that's the exception rather than the norm, while many engineers and technical crew 'retire' in their 30s to pursue something that allows for a more even work-life balance.
Handkammer left the sport in 2015 when he was recruited by Musk's Tesla company to "apply Formula 1 techniques to revolutionize servicing mainstream cars." Handkammer, who now works for all-electric vehicle company Lucid Motors, adds: "There are lots of technical similarities between commercial car production and working in Formula 1, certainly in the service and logistical aspects. But in other ways it is still much slower – there are things that hold things up like approvals and signoff periods."
After almost three decades of living life in the fast lane, that slower pace suits Handkammer for now. "I am having more family and home time, and I have been able to pursue other interests," he says. "Working in Formula 1 was a fantastic period but I am enjoying the life that I have now."