Although the news that Red Bull’s leading aerodynamicist Peter Prodromou and his right hand man are to leave the championship winning team came as a surprise, further investigation has revealed that the move had been rumoured for a long time on the engineering grapevine.
Prodromou is one of the closest working associates of the design maestro Adrian Newey.
It was reported as news during the Japanese GP race weekend and since then the story has evolved as a clearly irked Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has made it clear that Prodromou has a contract until 2015 and he will not allow him to leave before then.
The central question here however is why would Prodromou want to leave Newey’s side to rejoin McLaren and what does that tell us about Newey’s long term plans?
Red Bull’s success has come in large part by replicating the model created at Ferrari in the late 1990s and early 2000s: a strong and stable management group, based around a champion driver, with huge resources and powerful influence behind the scenes with the governing body and the commercial rights holder. Ferrari won the constructors championship for six consecutive years between 1999 and 2004 and five consecutive drivers’ championships.
Distilled down to its essence, F1 is about money and people and where people are concerned the key is quality and continuity. Like Ferrari before them, Red Bull has managed to build and sustain a team of high quality engineers, to play to the strengths of their star designer Adrian Newey.
Ferrari managed to keep that group together. For Red Bull, losing a key member of the team, not to mention his deputy, destabilises things. The others in the inner sanctum will feel betrayed to some degree. How long a notice period do they hold him to? They might not want McLaren to have him early, but they will also not want him getting sight of their plans too far ahead, into 2015 for example.
With a major rule change like 2014, a huge amount of evolution and development goes on in the first season. A team does not want a man at the helm through that period, who is jumping ship at the end of the year.
F1 is such a sensitive business when it comes to ideas and Prodromou is already an outsider now as far as Newey’s team is concerned.
Newey told us in the recent feature interview on BBC Radio 5 Live that he does not have many associates he takes with him wherever he goes, but he was with Prodromou at McLaren in the early 2000s and he was one of Newey’s first hires at Red Bull in 2006.
For Prodromou to want to leave, there must be more than simply money at stake. McLaren is working to build up its capabilities now that Honda is coming back in 2015 and Prodromou is a key signing. But Prodromou must be looking further down the road than next year or the year after. Perhaps he feels that Newey is coming to the end of the road and it’s time for him to stake his own claim.
Newey said in the BBC 5 Live special that he does not know how much longer he will carry on in F1, but that he still enjoys it. He did acknowledge that the pressure is very intense. Like all the great engineers in F1 he no doubt wants to see how the new F1 technology coming in next season evolves, but how far into the future does he see himself at the coal face?
“It’s a good question, one I sometimes ask myself,” he told us for the BBC 5 LIve special last month. “The answer is I still really enjoy it. The pressure can be onerous at times if I’m honest. The hours are long and if you’re not careful it can be all-consuming but you get a tremendous buzz when it goes well. And that’s quite addictive. I’m 54 so I’m too young to do nothing, but equally at some stage I’d like to be involved in something different rather than only motor racing. When that might be and what that might be, I have no idea.”
He has always expressed interest in the America’s Cup and with Sir Ben Ainslie seeking to put together a British team to challenge for it, there is inevitable speculation that Newey may be thinking of that. But equally, he is in the form of his life in F1 at the moment in a team he likes.
As for how Prodromou will fit in at McLaren, he clearly knows the team well from his 15 years there (1991-2006) and he will work alongside chief aerodynamicist Doug McKiernan and head of aero Marcin Budkowski.
McKiernan drives aero development and despite the poor car McLaren has had this year, is very highly rated in F1 circles, while Budkowski joined the team from Ferrari, where he worked from 2002 to 2007.
Prodromou and his right hand man will have to fit into this structure.
It’s a very aggressive move by McLaren and shows that they mean business with Honda. There will no doubt be more aggressive signings soon.
The market for senior engineers is quite fluid at the moment, which is understandable as teams look to learn more about the new 2014 technology. They want to know what work is going on elsewhere and what better way to do that than hire in people from a variety of teams? Meanwhile a major rule change like this offers senior engineers a chance to cash in on their expertise and knowledge.