James Allison, the chief technical officer for Mercedes, is undeniably drawn to the thrilling intricacies of his job, even when it entails a degree of “visceral unpleasantness.” This particularly rang true during a rough patch of ground-effects woes for the Silver Arrows. Allison, who previously worked with Lotus and Ferrari, began his journey at Brackley in 2017. He was there for the team’s crowning victories with five out of eight consecutive constructors’ championships. In April 2021, Allison stepped up to take an overarching role as the chief technical officer.
While his new position slightly distanced him from the grand prix operation, it allowed him to focus on other projects including the America’s Cup sailing competition. Yet, 2022 brought about a milestone regulatory shift that prioritized underbody aerodynamics. This shift presented a challenge for the Mercedes‘ sidepod design, which had been designed for perfection. The cars, W13 and W14, have proved to be particularly unpredictable, unlike the more consistent Red Bull creations.
Nevertheless, there were sparks of hope in the team’s performance from last season, such as George Russell‘s wins at the Brazilian sprint and main races. These victories demonstrated that their concept had merit. Though they are currently second behind Red Bull in the standings, Mercedes choose to stick to their tried and tested framework and tactics.
Toto Wolff, the boss of Mercedes motorsport, is a firm believer in a ‘no-blame’ culture within his team. Relying on this ethos early this year, technical director Mike Elliott and Allison decided to swap positions on the premise of it potentially reviving their team’s fortunes.
In an exclusive conversation with F1 Initiative, Allison shared his feelings about returning to his previous role, he said, “In F1, I don’t think there’s a better and more enjoyable job than being the technical director… It is a fantastic, never-ending jigsaw puzzle. So, what’s not to like?” Embracing the “physical toll” and emotional stress of being a hands-on technical director, he explained the difference between his two roles.
Allison is highly respected within the F1 community and is considered one of the leading technical figures. When he rejoined the frontline of F1, Wolff expressed confidence in his leadership, stating that team members would go to any extent to support him.
Allison is dismissive of the idea that the return of figures like himself, Adrian Newey at Red Bull and Dan Fallows at Aston Martin, signals a need for a symbolic figure to rally the team. He has sought to improve morale subtly, stating, “I’m a cheery sort of soul and the team is a bit bruised and battered. Being a cheery sort of soul is a helpful thing…It has a surprising impact.”
Allison didn’t re-join the technical director role with the intent to upend the ‘no-blame’ culture to improve results instantaneously. Instead, he stepped in with a collaborative approach to find the “best route back out of the woods”. Allison emphasizes the sense of comradery in his team stating, “It’s putting my shoulder to the wheel alongside John Owen, the chief designer, Loic Serra [performance director], Andy Shovlin [trackside engineering chief] and Jarrod [Murphy] in the wind tunnel – just working with those folks to try and figure out what our best route is back out the woods and into the clear.”