Paddy Lowe is one of the most famous and successful engineers in the history of Formula 1. Nigel Mansell, Mika Häkkinen, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg all won championship titles thanks to the cars he co-created. The former technical director of McLaren or Williams tells us about the business after the end of motorsport or the years of work in the most famous racing series.
What was F1 like in the 80s? Why wasn’t Williams rebuilt? What team did he see Robert Kubica on? The former F1 team engineer now realizes himself as a co-owner of Zero Petroleum, a synthetic fuel company that uses only carbon dioxide from the air and renewable hydrogen from water.
Interview with Paddy Lowe, legendary Formula 1 engineer
Michal Viniarczyk, Wprost: Did Paddy Lowe’s life slow down after he left the F1 paddock?
Paddy Lowe: I travel less, but still a busy person. In Formula 1 there is a break in the middle of the season when everyone stops working for a moment. We don’t have that in the real world. Especially when it comes to a start-up business. From time to time you have a new task to complete. I don’t slow down in life.
What does your company Zero Petroleum do?
The fuel we use today is liquid hydrocarbons. We assume that they come from the earth and are limited resources. In practice, it is a chemistry that we can create ourselves. Zero Petroleum produces 100% oil-free fuels synthesized by recycling water and atmospheric carbon dioxide using renewable energy sources. We do not create new materials, we do not extract anything from the earth, we use only what is in the air. In biology, we are dealing with the carbon cycle in nature. A similar phenomenon occurs in the production of our fuel.
Can the experience of working in a packaging company after several decades be useful?
This is a very interesting question. You are referring to the beginning of your professional career, even before working in F1. MetalBox sponsored my studies. I worked for them for several years after college. I was a control engineer. I was involved in the development of control systems for equipment that quickly created cans and plastic packaging.
When I settled permanently in Formula 1, computers just entered the environment. The skills I learned in my first job have been useful in both motorsport and my current business. I deal with machines all the time – even now, because machines are needed to produce fuel. Just like before, I now need to control them so that they run smoothly. The job of an engineer has consistently satisfied me for decades.
Have you ever wondered what your life would be like without one conversation in a pub?
Life is full of surprises. When you look at the biographies of many famous people, you will read: “Even when I was 12 years old, I knew that I would stay …”. They indicate that the dream of this work has accompanied them since childhood. I didn’t think so. My life plans have never moved forward more than a year or two. It was not a planned professional career, but it was always accompanied by optimism. I have reasons to be happy.
What was Formula 1 like when you joined in the second half of the 1980s?
From the first to the last day of work in F1 it was fun. Of course, the most fun was winning races or seeing how the design of the prepared car came to fruition. I liked seeing the uptime for each sector highlighted in purple. This meant that we were the best.
When I came to Williams in 1987, there were no such advanced development programs. Engineering in Formula 1 has often been driven by instinct, whether you have a nose or not. Moreover, there were not so many engineers in the sense in which we know today. This meant more freedom and the opportunity to experiment because the rules were not rigid.
Today’s F1 engineering is much more advanced, but also less interesting. You don’t have many options. I went from few options but a lot of freedom to a lot of options but little freedom. These proportions began to change the most in 2000-2005.
What is the difference between an engineer’s point of view and an F1 team leader’s point of view?
Formula 1 is a great place to work as an engineer. If you complete the task correctly, an equally large reward awaits you, because this is the “queen of motorsport”, one of the most popular disciplines in the world. Although, as I said earlier, we have a lot of restrictions related to regulations today, but compared to, for example, the aviation industry, we still have relatively flexible opportunities for innovation.
You were at Williams when the famous active suspension was developed. Mark Blundell, your test driver, told me this is the first sign that technology in F1 is starting to outstrip the human body.
The absence of such clear rules as the current ones meant that we could afford a lot. I agree with Marek that technology has started to overtake humans, but I don’t know if active suspension is a good example. This invention required, above all, good driving skills. The Williams FWA14 that Nigel Mansell won the 1992 World Championship with was very demanding. He did not tolerate mistakes. But when you could tame it, it paid off in speed.
I would call traction control and launch control, power steering and braking inventions that have surpassed the skills of drivers. A great example of the development of technology is the fact that today you can drive a car remotely from a computer in the paddock. If someone had said in the 1980s that something like this was possible, I would never have believed it.
Finally, the FIA put an end to this. A line has formed that cannot be crossed. The idea was to give drivers back control over the cars. I do not agree with the statement that today technology reigns over the players. Driving skills are still important.
You mentioned the 1992 season. When did you and the team realize that you had built a good car?
I think during the first round of the World Championship in Kyalami. At the time, pre-season testing was optional. McLaren, the then hegemon who reigned in Formula 1 for many years, decided not to send his cars to it. He checked them silently, without other commands. Then it was allowed. We, on the other hand, were not confident in our abilities, because we did not have a point of reference for the best team.
During the first practice we were better than McLaren, but we weren’t thrilled because we thought maybe they were hiding something or making some adjustments to the settings. The second session was the same. Only on Saturday it dawned on us that we really are one second better than them on the lap. Then you know how it turned out.
After this season, you traded Williams for… McLaren. How do engineers negotiate with F1 teams? Is it possible to talk about a calm transfer market, like, for example, in football?
On the one hand, yes, but here we are talking about a much smaller scale. And there is no transfer amount. In this environment, everyone heard about everyone. I was not anonymous to McLaren. They didn’t have to check if I was a good fit (laughs). They made the offer themselves.
F1 engineers have long-term contracts. Even when you feel like going to a competition, you often have to wait a while. No one will just give away an important employee to a competitor. He could reveal all mysteries. The conclusion of a successful engineer does not necessarily mean that the championship will immediately go to the next team. There are many examples in football of players who were the subject of high-profile transfers and ended up falling short of expectations.
How is the relationship between the engineer and the driver?
We treat them with great respect. These are hardworking individuals with great talent. They want to work hard and develop, and, as you know, engineers often use the word “development” in the context of cars. I liked listening to the analysis of the players, their proposals for the car. Yes, there were cases when the driver decided to take the place of an engineer and consider himself smarter. It took a bit of diplomacy back then not to say something superfluous.
Do engineers have a say in driver contracts?
Of course, our opinion always matters. We often prepare driving data for bosses. In life, decisions are often made based on subjective guesses. They say numbers don’t lie, so engineers can speak confidently when discussing a given player’s choice. I am satisfied that I was able many times to facilitate the signing of contracts with racers who subsequently became successful.
I missed what country are you from?
Oh yeah. It’s interesting because the driver I recommended to McLaren many times was Robert Kubica. Unfortunately, in this case, they did not want to listen to me. I was often a little ashamed of the fact that I could not defend my position. I tried my best in 2008. I saw him at McLaren in 2009. I’m sure he’ll be a fantastic transfer. I always thought of him as an amazing player with skill and intelligence.
You had the opportunity to work with him during your second stay at Williams.
Besides being able to have a substantive conversation with Robert, I just had a lot of fun with him. He is a really nice guy and loves racing. I know how passionate he is about motorsport and how it affects his life. I still cannot understand how unlucky he was in his career. The accident has deprived him of the opportunity to achieve great success in F1.
Kubica was one of the best drivers I’ve worked with and he didn’t finish his career with a world championship. We mentioned earlier discussions with racers about car development. Robert was a driver who often did accurate analysis.
You have had success with Williams, McLaren and Mercedes. How difficult was it for you as a person to get back into the first team when they were failing badly, usually finishing last in the competition?
I won’t lie, it was a difficult time. I am a person who is not afraid of challenges. When a new, even very responsible task appears, to which I agree, I try to give all my best at 100%. I will compare Williams’ case to mountain climbing. In the case of this mountain, it takes ten years to reach the summit, not six months. Formula 1 is an impatient discipline that often fails to understand itself. Even if today I no longer work in this team, I keep my fists so that they again refer to their past achievements.
Before I began to communicate with Formula 1 drivers, I wondered for a long time what is more – a good driver or a good car? I have heard many times that if you put Lewis Hamilton in Williams, he will not achieve anything great.
I don’t think a good car is more important than a driver. The proportions are balanced. Some drivers think otherwise, but this is their opinion. A good driver can make a weak car better. Of course, he probably won’t win the race, but he will change the lap time. On the other hand, placing a weak driver in a better car will probably also result in a win, but not as often as a better driver. Why do the best teams ride in the best teams? Because it means better money for everyone. Where there is success, there is money – just.
Have your years in motorsport influenced your character outside of work?
In addition to perseverance, motorsport taught me … calmness. Many years of experience taught me not to approach life so emotionally. Surviving and tormenting yourself with thoughts will ruin you more than help you.
I have worked in the news industry for over 10 years. I have been an author at Daily News Hack for the past 1 year. I mostly cover sports news, but I also have a keen interest in current affairs and politics. In my spare time, I enjoy playing tennis and spending time with my family.