I’m conflicted. Last week I was sent an advance copy of the Amazon Prime documentary series Grand Prix Driver. This fantastic series offers previously unimaginable of levels of access to the McLaren F1 team as they prepare for the 2017 Formula One Season. Recorded over a period of four and a half months, Manish Pandey, Chris Connell, and Anwar Nuseibeh have produced an in-depth study into the life of a Formula One team with seemingly no topic being off limits. All of which, for a lifelong F1 fan such as myself, sounds incredible. So why am I conflicted?
It is said you should never meet your heroes. After watching Grand Prix Driver, I think this phase should be modified to ‘never watch a documentary about your heroes. I want to make it clear, the production values of the documentary are second to none. To gain the level of trust required to film some of the scenes depicted through the episodes is a testament to the passion, dedication and commitment of Manish Pandey and the team surrounding him. This series is a must-see for any fan of motorsport. Unfortunately, however, it’s also a must-see for anyone studying business management looking for examples of how not to run a successful business, and perhaps most importantly, for Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing on how not to work with a Power Unit Partner.
If you have seen a trailer for the documentary, it will be clear the series charts the breakdown of the relationship between McLaren and Honda on the eve of the 2017 season.
Analysing the series and reflecting on narrative documented, I have tried to break down my assessment of the team into a few key sections.
The key rationale for the McLaren Honda partnership was that Ron Dennis and/ or the team felt it would not be possible for McLaren to challenge for world championships as a customer team. Logic and recent history suggest this assessment is absolutely correct. The mantra throughout the McLaren Honda partnership and throughout this series is that of “One Team” and “We win as a team; we lose as a team”. The documentary shows those words to be largely empty. Relations between McLaren and Honda employees at every level of the business seemed strained at all times. There is a constant feeling of us and them.
An interesting insight into teams using customer power units in Formula One is when the customer receives the power unit. As a customer team, power units very rarely enter the team facility. One unit will be made available for the first time the car is fired up ahead of the season. After this, Power Units will be delivered to the circuit by the supplier and taken away again at the end of a test or race weekend. The benefit of direct / works relationship with a power unit manufacturer should be these limitations are removed. Team and Power unit manufacturer work as one in parallel. Based on the Grand Prix Driver documentary, this unity was never achieved between McLaren and Honda.
The first time McLaren physically saw the 2017 power unit was in the days preceding the first fire up of the unit. This is not an integrated partnership. Heading into 2017, Honda were playing catch up, they decided to overhaul their design philosophy. This decision, it is implied, was one McLaren did not have a say in. After taking such a decision, communication between McLaren and Honda should have been continuous, when it came to installing the power unit there should have been no surprises. As the documentary will show, this was not the case, with components having to be re-engineered on the fly.
The relationship between McLaren and Honda was not a partnership. It was barely more than a customer relationship, where the supplier happened to be supplying power units free of charge.
In speaking to Manish Pandey about the documentary, the topic of humility came up. Manish’s view of humility was interesting. His perspective was that both Honda and McLaren demonstrated great humility as they prepared for the documentary. He and his team made several attempts to get the team to discuss ambitions for the season. Looking for the soundbite of ‘returning to the top step’ or ‘challenging for the championship’. No one offered such remarks. Manish’s view was that this demonstrates the team were realistic in their approach to the season, and on this, I agree.
However, as the McLaren Honda relationship fell apart around them, it was the team’s complete lack of humility that struck me. Throughout the entire series, no McLaren representative takes any level of accountability for the partnership failing. Honda is made entirely responsible for the shortcomings of the team performance. This is wrong. We’ve all had relationships that haven’t worked out, at no time is one party solely responsible for a relationship failing. It comes across as hugely arrogant of McLaren to place all the blame for their performance through the Honda partnership at the foot of the power unit manufacturer.
Honestly, I am amazed McLaren are happy for this lack of humility to be made public. At times I wasn’t sure if I was watching a documentary series set in Woking or a Mockumentary series from Slough.
In the opening episodes, meetings are filmed from outside rooms giving the viewer a feel for events taking place without the content being made public, by the final episode cameras have been invited into meeting with no talking points edited or removed. Whilst again, this is great access, being part of these meetings will be quite distressing for any fan of the sport. Time after time the viewer is shown milestone dates on timelines being missed or management interactions in which it seems almost impossible to offer a clear answer to basic questions. To me this again comes down to accountability, no one in the organisation seems willing to accept their role in the failure.
The topic of sponsorship or partners is something frequently addressed through the series. In a bid to highlight a new beginning for the McLaren team, it was decided that a departure from silver, grey and black tones in the car livery and team environment was required. The origins of this decision and influencing factors are a little conflicted in the series, but the message for change was clear. The ambition being a new livery concept will entice new sponsors to join a new McLaren.
For me, the professionalism around this decision is diminished somewhat by branding being applied on the eve of the launch in what appears to be a corridor. Nevertheless, the ambition is clearly communicated. This desire to rebrand after a challenging period also explains why McLaren are expected to reveal another new livery concept for the 2018 season.
The McLaren team has developed a strong reputation within the technologies sector for its work outside of Formula One in recent years. Major FMCG’s consult with the group on numerous challenges. The McLaren Formula One Team depicted in this documentary is not one many FMCG’s would look favourably upon. I do not believe the McLaren commercial team will look favourably on the way in which the team is portrayed.
Even Handed Approach
In my discussion with Manish Pandey, in an interview for Paddock Magazine (click here to head to the interview) I raised the question of the way in which McLaren and Honda were depicted within the series, highlighting my concern that Honda did not have the opportunity to offer their side of the story.
Understandably Manish did not hold my opinion. The narrative of a documentary is often defined by the events it covers from the perspective of the lead. This is not a Honda documentary. It is a McLaren documentary and the views within it are communicated as such. Again this is not a criticism of the documentary, more a reflection of the brief and the client.
I sincerely hope my interpretation of the McLaren team based on the series is not an accurate reflection of the way in which the business operates. 12 months have passed since this documentary was filmed. With new management structures in place, much-needed process and accountability may have been successfully implemented. I, like many other F1 fans, hope to see McLaren back at the front of the grid challenging for race wins. With The McLaren Team seen through this 2017 documentary, I doubt this would have been possible. Whatever the power unit.
Grand Prix Driver is available on Amazon Prime from February 10th – Click here for more.