12 Jul 2020

ROB SMEDLEY – 21ST CENTURY RACE ENGINEER

As part of the build-up to our eagerly anticipated Q&A called “Torque Shop”, which will be broadcast live on 2nd August, we are delighted to focus this month’s Media Centre Spotlight Feature on our very first special guest and current Formula 1 Head of Performance Engineering and Analytics, Rob Smedley.

Since his first Formula 1 role with Jordan in 1999, Rob has become one of the most respected and recognisable faces in the Formula 1 Paddock. His general approachability and down to earth manner are hugely popular with F1 fans, which as a result mean Rob is regularly sought out by F1 commentators for his highly informed and often witty insights.

Having left his role as Head of Trackside Operations at Williams in 2018 and with the plan to take some time off, Rob was asked by Ross Brawn to take on a new role in 2019 within the organisational hierarchy of Formula One Management (FOM) to lead the development of a whole new way of presenting the sport to spectators and viewers at home.

Rob’s principle challenge is to develop data and analytical presentation for both TV and online delivery, that increases fan engagement and understanding. Key decisions made by the driver, the technicians on the pit wall, and back at the factory over a Grand Prix weekend which influence the outcome of the race will be delivered for analysis.  The aim is to significantly enrich the viewer experience and attract new fans to the sport.

In Rob’s 20 years in Formula 1 he has worked at only 3 teams, which is a testament to his longevity in the sport. By far some of his most high-profile moments were during his tenure at Ferrari including his role as Felipe Massa’s Race Engineer.

It all started for Rob as an eleven-year-old schoolboy whose biggest interest was Football and Middlesbrough FC. This was until his passion for motorsport was ignited during a trip to the British Grand Prix in 1988. It was the year of the all-conquering McLaren MP4/4 with Prost and Senna battling it out for the World Championship. After an unplanned tour around the Leyton House team garage Rob was hooked.

Growing up in Middlesbrough, Rob attended St Peters School, Southbank, and St Mary’s Sixth Form College before heading to the University of Loughborough where he studied mechanical engineering completing his masters.

In 1997 following university he secured a job at Pilbeam Racing, based in Bourne, Lincolnshire, where he focused on chassis and suspension design for BTCC and WRC rally cars.

He then moved to F3000 with the Benetton junior team where he first met a 17 year old Fernando Alonso on a driver evaluation day in Barcelona. Following a brilliant test session from Alonso and Rob’s feedback to the Benetton management Alonso was offered the number 2 seat in the team for that season.

In 1999, Rob moved to the Jordan team where he took on the role as data acquisition engineer based at HQ before moving to a trackside engineering role during the era of Hill, Frentzen, Trulli, Fisichella, and Heidfeld.

Rob’s move to Ferrari in 2003 was a step change from the set up and budgets of Jordan to the tier 1 operational and financial might of the biggest team in Formula 1. Where his spell at Jordan had given him an all-round understanding of how a Formula 1 team worked and what it took to go racing, Ferrari gave him his first opportunity to compete at the top end of the pit lane where the only constraint to success was the team’s ability to design and develop a winning Formula 1 car. His first year was very much about acclimatising to the new greater scale of operations at Ferrari and how this scale brought new perspectives and approaches to his personal way of working.

Having spent time learning the Ferrari way of working within Michael Schumacher’s test team, 2006 saw Rob move to working with Felipe Massa as his temporary test engineer. The two immediately developed a great working relationship and following issues between the driver and his appointed race engineer at the start of the season, Rob was asked by Jean Todt and Ross Brawn to step in at the last minute and take over race engineering duties for the European Grand Prix.

The decision proved to be the right one as a nervous Massa drove to his best result so far with a 3rd place behind Michael Schumacher, and Fernando Alonso. It must have been a fitting moment for Rob in his debut as a Ferrari race engineer to see these three drivers on the podium, having worked with all of them over the preceding 10 years.

2009 brought new challenges for Rob when Massa was injured at the Hungarian Grand Prix in a freak accident when flying debris from another car hit him in the head causing him to crash. The incident to his now friend and colleague caused Rob much thought as to his future in Formula 1, however with Felipe’s full recovery Rob refocused his thoughts on getting back to racing. The accident also set the wheels in motion for a review of driver safety which culminated in the introduction of the Halo System across F1, F2, F3, and Formula E.

Another of Rob’s most difficult moments at Ferrari came in 2010 at the German Grand Prix when he had to communicate team orders to his friend over the radio in the glare of a global TV audience with the now infamous phrase “Fernando is faster than you.”. Massa slowed to let Alonso through who went on to take the victory. Rob promptly apologised over the radio. On a number of occasions in interviews since Rob has mentioned that he shied away from subsequent publicity that he gained from the incident which was hard to deal with just a year after Felipe’s accident, and states that it wasn’t the team’s finest hour.

Rob continued as Massa’s race engineer up until the end of the 2013 season, when he revealed in January 2014 that he would be moving to Williams in the role of Head of Trackside Operations. Massa was announced as a Williams driver for the 2014 season shortly after.

After Rob’s arrival, the Williams team had a brief renaissance where they finished third in the 2014 Formula 1 Constructors Championship. However, this couldn’t be maintained and although Rob is credited with comprehensively improving the team’s engineering practices during his 5-year tenure, by the end of the 2018 season the team had slipped to last place in the constructor’s championship.

Rob decided to take a break from Formula 1 at the end of 2018 to spend time with his family, however that plan was short lived when Ross Brawn came knocking on his door to help bring a new way of presenting Formula 1 to racing fans.

In 2021, Rob is leading a team, supported by Amazon Web Services, developing and rolling out feature rich insights that will give spectators track side and at home a deep understanding of what is happening both on the track and behind the scenes during a race, from decisions made on the pit wall to deeper insights from car telemetry. In a recent interview with Formula1.com Rob explained “The overriding goal has always been the same, since I personally started working with Formula 1 which was to bring some of the excitement and engagement of using data to bring a lot of the racing and Formula 1 scenarios to life. They just help to illustrate, in really basic terms, a really, really complex situation, and I think if you’ve got that level of insight, then that level of insight causes excitement which causes engagement. It keeps you kind of hooked in, because you just understand a little bit more about it.”

We saw glimpses at the first Austrian race of what’s in-store for viewers over the coming season and we look forward to further instalments at the next race this weekend.

Away from Formula 1, Rob is also developing his Electroheads initiative to help grass roots racing become more accessible by creating affordable opportunities for all budding drivers to get started.

During his career, Rob has also been recognised for his professional achievements, with an honorary degree as a Doctor of Professional Studies from Teesside University in 2009 and an honorary Doctor of Technology from Loughborough University in 2015 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Formula One and race engineering.

Rob is also a family man, married to Lucy with two sons. Rob and Lucy are supporters of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society (Sands) and Readley (Asbestos and Mesothelioma Support) as well as supporting regular fundraising events on behalf of the charity and patrons of Zoe’s Place Baby Hospice, a charity for sick babies and young children.

We are delighted Rob will be joining us for the first in our new “live” Q&A series “Torque Shop” which will take place on Sunday 2nd of August and broadcast on Youtube and Facebook Live. Come find us on social media before the event for your chance to ask Rob a question directly on Zoom.

If you would like to experience the very best hospitality at one of the marquee races in 2021, please contact JDC Promotions and let us build a bespoke package for you and your guests.

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ianhucklesby

Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre