Sarah Merritt from Badger was lucky enough to be given some one-to-one time with McLaren Racing Director Eric Boullier at the recent test at the Circuit de Catalunya, and chat to him about his career before McLaren, drivers he has worked with, engaging with the fan community, Social Media, and the forthcoming season.
I’m sat at a table in the McLaren hospitality unit in the paddock in Barcelona and feeling slightly apprehensive about meeting with Eric. Not that there should be any cause for concern because I have met Eric many times before when I have travelled to races, and he is always happy to chat to fans patiently waiting at the paddock gates for an autograph, a photo and a glimpse of their racing heroes.
No, this is more of a self-imposed nervousness, because, as I make no secret of, I am a McLaren fan. Die hard. Through the highs and the lows. Always will be.
My childhood was one where I was brought up watching motorsport alongside my dear Dad, now sadly no longer with us, and Sundays consisted of us sat on the sofa together discussing some of the people I have now been lucky enough to meet. So, when I am lucky enough to be given an opportunity like this one, with a team so dear to my heart, I always remember where my interest came from, and hope to use my fan-fuelled enthusiasm to ask well-researched, interesting questions, and, well, not make an idiot of myself!
At this point, Eric comes towards me with a warm smile, we greet each other, and he instantly puts me at ease as he pulls up a chair and I tell him a little about how I’m here to chat to him for Badger GP, and he picks up his phone and goes straight to view the website.
Right, let’s get down to business…
Eric, thank you for sitting down with me today. Before I came to meet with you, I wanted to read up on your career to find out the path you had taken to get to where we are today, because my only knowledge was of Renault/Lotus and McLaren. I can see you studied Aeronautical and Spacecraft Engineering – did you always know that you wanted to go into the direction of motorsport following that?
“Yes. I started at age 9 with remote control car racing, and I always loved planes and racing. Because I was born near Le Mans, I would spend my weekends cleaning tyres, or cooking, or whatever I could just to help, ever since I was a teenager. The reason why I did this degree is because in those days, there wasn’t a motorsport qualification, and my parents were worried, that wanted me to have something ‘in my hand’.
I decided to combine both passions, for planes and racing, by doing this, because the technology you learn in these kind of engineering degrees is the same, but I have never worked on a plane. Even during my university scholarship, between 18 and 23, I was spending all my summers racing.”
Some Team Principals are business based managers, or have been drivers in the past; do you think having an engineering background is an advantage in your role?
“Yes, in some ways, you are who you are. It helps me to understand how to manage engineers, because an engineer wants to do their best, and sometimes that doesn’t suit your timing or your priority. Thanks to this background, I can understand when to focus on a priority, or when to stop things and say ‘no, it’s not a priority anymore.’”
You’ve worked closely with some amazing drivers during the course of your F1 career; World Champions Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, plus Kamui Kobayashi, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Nick Heidfeld, Bruno Senna, Romain Grosjean, and Kevin Magnussen. There must have been a range of unique personalities in there, and also highs and lows whilst racing. How do you go about managing those, and who have you perhaps had the best relationships and bonds with?
“Firstly, they are all characters, and they are all different. I spent 15 years at Racing Engineering, partly as a team manager, but looking after youngsters from 12 or 13 years old up to these guys, so you develop something that is maybe one of my strengths as well; some psychological profiling where you can cope with them. I understand what they need, what they want, and how to extract the best out of them as well.
There’s another person that is not in F1 that you didn’t mention there; Jose Maria Lopez who is a double World Champion in WTCC. I have been very close to him, probably the closest, because I worked with him at Racing Engineering for a couple of years.
If you look at my life I decided to stop managing teams by 2009 because I wanted to move to a management/development role for young drivers with Gravity. Then Gravity bought Renault, and I came back to managing a Formula 1 team again, but it wasn’t planned. The original plan was to manage drivers, not manage! I would say I had a special relationship with Romain Grosjean, and Robert Kubica as well. And Kimi.”
What was Kimi like to work with?
“If you talk to him, he’s fine. I remember (pauses and smiles), if he reads this story, he will be upset with me! I remember when he came from Ferrari. I knew that Jean Todt had applied a financial penalty system if the drivers were late to a meeting, but for me, I did this my own way. I said to him ‘Listen, you come to a meeting, or you don’t come to a meeting, but there are 600 people working for you. I don’t mind if you don’t want to come to a meeting, but don’t come late’. He missed one meeting in two years, and he never came to one late. So that’s a way to manage people differently. I never had a problem with Kimi!”
You mentioned Romain. Thinking of a particular time when you were working with him – after the 2012 Belgian GP incident for which he received the one race ban – what advice or guidance do you give to a driver, not just as their boss, but a mentor or advisor and to rebuild their confidence?
“There is no rule, they are all different and have different personalities. I knew from day one the potential of Romain, and it was just a case of switching on something that was blocking him. The kid is absolutely, tremendously fast, he’s good. But there is no secret – it’s just that everybody is different and you have to adapt to any scenario, and any personality.”
Over the course of a season you must take an extraordinary number of flights, and be away from home the majority of the time – I couldn’t even begin to calculate your air miles! Do you have any travelling habits or techniques to relax and wind down, such as we have seen with Graeme Lowdon doing his sketches on flights?
“For me I like to be on my own, so you will very rarely see me hanging around in an airport! I’m privileged when I fly to have access to some lounges, but even when I was not in Formula 1, I would book myself lounge access to be on my own.
To be honest, there are so many demands on us – emails, phone calls, messages – I have to say, I love long haul flights, and companies; please don’t put internet in your bloody planes, because this is the only place we can have a ‘mind rest’!”
And on a when you do get a rare break from work, what hobbies or interests do you have, or don’t you have any time?
“This is the problem, there is less and less. It is very difficult to find a balance, and the McLaren challenge is huge, so I have to say my life is only McLaren and very little outside. I think I have played golf twice in 12 months, so it’s not good for my handicap! It’s like a monk’s life, you know?”
You need some robes!
“And my barber to do the style!”
Moving towards your current role, you came to join McLaren in 2014. What were your initial thoughts about the role and the team when you were approached?
“I don’t know really, I think I thought it would be ‘too big a jacket’ for me. I was a bit nervous because it’s a change of life, and I moved to the team from another one, which is not usual for a team principal.
But for me, McLaren has always been a reference in terms of racing culture, management, discipline, and what Ron did was and is amazing. I match his spirit – if you look at DAMS when I was there, I moved them to the same standards as McLaren and I always used McLaren as an example. I was happy and proud to be contacted, but I didn’t think too much!”
And when you came to the team, was it as you expected from the outside looking in, or were there things that surprised you?
“Yes – how warm the team was on the inside. I remember from my old place that the reputation of McLaren was a little bit robotic, so it was amazing how warm the welcome was for me, and I was a little bit surprised.”
In joining McLaren, you knew you were joining a team steeped in history. Do you recall your first meeting with Ron?
“Yes, at his house – and the second time too, as I had a private tour of McLaren on a Sunday morning, and I turned up wearing a tie. He said to me ‘You need to wear a tie in McLaren, but not on Sunday!’”
When anyone visits the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) for the first time, they always say they remember their first sight of the iconic Boulevard, and the display of heritage cars. Do you recall that moment?
“I was lucky enough in my previous role to have been invited to several F1 teams, so I had visited most of them, so I already knew the MTC.”
And were there any cars in particular that stand out to you as your favourites?
“Yes, two – the MP4/4 and MP4/5. The MP4/4 is in terms of results, but in terms of look, for me, I think the MP4/5 is the best looking F1 car ever! It’s tiny, small and fast. This is why I am a fan of size zero! I pushed for that – it is a racing principle, you can’t win with a fat car, it’s not possible. If tomorrow, the engines were on a level playing field, you need the best efficient, aerodynamic car, and that would be a size zero car.”
It’s the various liveries that also make the view impressive, and you know that there is a lot of talk amongst fans on this. So on that note, I give you a blank canvas – if you could pick any livery for the car, what would it be?
“No, you need to give me a blank cheque! Because this is why we are racing cars too, so if you give me a cheque, I will paint the car to your hair colour, so we have a bit of blue and purple…!”
(I will have to keep buying my lottery tickets!)
So would you pick the colour that car is now?
“Maybe I would, yes. I like dark colours, because you need to promote your sponsors and especially when you are not at the front as we are. I have to say the contrast of white stickers on the dark background is fine.”
That’s something that fan’s probably don’t always understand, because for us, a bright livery helps us quickly identify the car on track. The Caterham was good for that. As a fan, we’d always hope someone goes Jordan yellow!
“I do understand that…I would go even darker!”
When you join a new team, you also take on board their fans as your own, and as you know, McLaren has a big following. You’ve always been particularly active on Twitter, and are often seen personally answering Team McLaren members, and we all know how important social media is now to maintaining an interaction with your followers.
“I’m not super-active, I’m trying, and answering the fans, that is me. You can see me here, I’m a real person? (I prod Eric’s arm to ensure he is indeed real)
What are your thoughts on this, particularly at a time when Bernie often implies in interviews that it isn’t crucial to the sport?
“You have to understand Bernie. He’s in his eighties, and his priorities in life are different from trying to implement an interaction with fans. I’m not blaming him, he’s just a different generation. In his daily life today, managing F1 is his priority, not this.
Now, if you want to change your business model for F1, you will have to integrate with social media, because it’s part of people’s lives today. But still people are struggling to understand how to monetise it because we are used to, say, TV, and if you want TV, you pay. It doesn’t work like that with Social Media.
However, it is part of the investment that I think you have to do now to educate, especially youngsters. There are young people who may not be interested in watching a 1.5 hour grand prix on TV, but they may be interested to know what Lewis was doing with Rihanna in Barbados. So once you invest in that, you can then talk about F1 to a huge number of people in F1, but not pure F1, it will be more Lewis and his dog, or Jenson, or Fernando or whoever, but then sometimes some racing cars and sometimes some results!
It’s a call that will come with a change of business model in F1, I guess, but as long as Bernie doesn’t see we need it, it is what it is.”
It seems to me that the teams know we need it and are participating well?
“Yes, the teams are trying to do it, and I think McLaren is very active – we have a few people now working on the social media side for this reason.”
What are your thoughts on the efforts to attract more people to the sport, or make it more exciting – for instance, the new knock-out qualification system , which is actually an area that many people didn’t think was broken in the first place!
“I don’t think the sport is broken to be honest. Everybody is keen to make sure that we put on a good show, but I think it is more important that we make the car faster and more enjoyable to drive for the driver, because if the drivers are happy, they will be more excited on track, and then you have a better show for the fans. That is the key.
The second priority for me is to make sure there is a sort of engine parity, and let’s stop this ‘engine formula’ to ensure there is a better level playing field between the teams and the cars, like in 2012/2013. And after that, the format of the race weekend, maybe it needs to be reshuffled, but then you have to decide – TV, social media, fans at the track – each view will be different.
So I think this then starts the discussion over how to make F1 different, because the 12-year-old kid on twitter doesn’t have the interest or the need for the same information as someone like you attending a grand prix, as a fan.”
I know the team has been working hard over the winter to keep development on track, and I’m sure that last season especially, you noticed many tweets and messages of support from your fans. Do you read those messages, and does that help give you and the team a lift when working long days or having challenging times?
“Definitely! I read most of them. I have to say that I am struggling a little bit these days, unless I’m notified, as I follow too many people!
I check Twitter a few times a day. I use it because I think it’s the best information source, and then obviously I get to interact with the fans. I can’t do too much of that as if I answer one, I get 25 people come back to me, and then I cannot answer everybody as I’ll get another 60, and Ron will ask me when do I do my work!
The only problem with being open to the world is that you get insulted a lot too, and that isn’t very pleasant.”
Touching on last year and the then new partnership with Honda, there are always things to get used to working with a third party, but were there any cultural differences that you and the team had to learn about when partnering with Honda?
“Yes, there are a lot of cultural differences and I have had some experience with another Japanese car manufacturer in the past, but still, it’s another level here. I think we have cleverly managed and developed our communication into something efficient. There are some frustrations sometimes on both sides, but it is getting much better now.”
And have you picked up any Japanese?
“No, I’m very lazy. I’m French – it took me a good few years to learn English!”
Looking forward to the year ahead, the first test saw progress in the mileage covered by the MP4-31, but you were quick to say in interviews that week that the car still wasn’t good enough. We’ve now seen more running, and a day when Fernando finished third on the timing board. Whilst we all know times at testing shouldn’t be interpreted in absence of the full data, I wondered your thoughts and are things looking more in line with your expectations?
“They do, and I’ve been maybe too cautiously conservative in some interviews because I absolutely don’t want the wrong expectation to begin like last year.
I’m more relaxed this year, but let’s wait – my target, obviously, as the Racing Director of McLaren, is to make sure we can win, but my first target is to make sure that McLaren itself is back to the winning mode. So if we can have the best chassis, like Fernando has maybe suggested, that for me would be a first win. McLaren, back to the top. Then, we have to include our partner, Honda, and make sure they are also catching up to where we are and where we want to be together. And then, we will win.”
There was much talk in the press around Fernando looking at how the car performed at the first test, and then perhaps taking a sabbatical if it didn’t look to have improved enough, but he seemed to lay any talk of that to rest in recent media sessions. Do you think that is now fully off the agenda as a possibility?
“I think it is.”
Looking to the future, might there be an opportunity to give McLaren Reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne a chance to participate in a few FP1 sessions this year, perhaps ahead of him taking on a full time driver role next year?
“No. It’s something that doesn’t bring any value to the drivers because the track is very green during FP1, and it may distract the team from it’s commitment to win.”
Lastly, talking of progress for the year ahead. What do you think are realistic aspirations, initially for Melbourne, then for the first part of the season up to Barcelona updates?
“Finishing the race in Australia – both cars. I should say, starting the race in Australia…! After that, we’ll see.”
Eric shares a few final jokes with me, then heads off to his next media commitment. I sit at the table for a few moments longer and reflect on what we’ve discussed, smiling; it’s clear that Eric has such a passion for what he is doing, and that’s something that all McLaren fans should take heart from – here is someone who like many of us, has loved motorsport since childhood, and now he is working with and leading the team he held up as a role-model throughout his career. His goal is clear; to steer the team back to winning ways, and that progress is well underway.
Many thanks to Eric, and to McLaren, for finding space for Badger in their busy schedule in Barcelona.