Whitmarsh with Lewis Hamilton in the early days of the F1 driver’s racing career

Interview: Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Land Rover BAR

Image credit: Getty images

Martin Whitmarsh became a household name as the legendary CEO of McLaren Formula 1, where he spent a quarter of a century winning more than 100 races. Today, the former aerospace engineer is back in the world of high-performance racing as CEO of Land Rover BAR.

When there’s high-precision engineering coupled with high-performance racing in your blood, it’s not easy to retire. Yet a few years ago, for Martin Whitmarsh, retirement had been a serious option. Faced with rebuilding his career after a much-publicised departure from his position of team principal at the McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 motor-racing outfit, as well as CEO of parent company McLaren Racing, the easy option would have been to spend the next few decades on the golf course reflecting on a career that had taken him from relative anonymity as an aerospace engineer to the champagne glitz of F1.

Finding himself wealthy and in his mid-50s, he might have taken it easy, but easy options aren’t Whitmarsh’s style. He took the plunge into a different form of high-performance racing, resurfacing in 2015 as CEO of Land Rover BAR, the sailing team fielding Britain’s challenge in the America’s Cup next month. Having been in post for just under two years he considers himself to be “still a new boy”, but he’s new not only to the company but also to the world of sailing.

Whitmarsh says that while the America’s Cup might be the world’s oldest international sporting trophy – it’s been going for 166 years – “the technology is only just coming alive”. To date, the sport has evolved on gracious wooden monohulls, weighing in at 20 tonnes moving at a stately average speed of 8 knots. “But today we have vast, dynamic foiling multihulls and this is new. People didn’t think this was ever going to happen. These boats will be moving around at three times the speed of wind, making startlingly quick jibing and tacking manoeuvres.” He says that as engineers, he would dearly like to have flight control systems that “flew these things semi-​automatically. But we’re not allowed that, as technologists have to recognise that this is a sport. Spectators aren’t so much interested in the best software as the combination of best sailing skills and technique.”

Referring to Land Rover BAR’s team principal and skipper Sir Ben Ainslie, Whitmarsh says: “The public is more interested in Ben than me, and I don’t blame them.” He adds that exactly the same thing happened in Formula 1. “The advent of fly-by-wire technology – and I was involved in the very first car with that technology in 1991 – meant that people became alarmed that we were going to drive these cars remotely from the garage, with effectively a driver sitting in the car doing nothing.” It followed that limitations were placed on the extent that pit engineers could communicate with the cars and which traction control could be deployed.

“It’s the same with the America’s Cup. You’re keeping more than two-and-a-half tonnes of machine and crew flying on a hydrofoil the size of an ironing board. To keep that going, with all the disturbances from the water and the wind, takes enormous skill. The crew has got to work together in concert, while there is no feedback control mechanism. There are clever control systems for sure, but they are all manually controlled.”

Clearly Whitmarsh has suffered nothing in the way of technology culture shock in jumping ship from the fastest racing cars to the fastest boats. The two worlds are different, “but there are lots of parallels. In sailing, the America’s Cup is the pinnacle, with the most technically advanced boats, best sailors and biggest prize. Likewise, in the world of motor racing, the pinnacle is Formula 1.” The marked similarity is that the sports draw together similar personalities. “It’s about winning races, and so in that respect, the two sports are fundamentally identical. You have competitive engineers and extraordinary athletes.”

Whitmarsh pauses to reflect on his career in F1, which he joined in 1989 as head of operations at McLaren, where he spent nearly a quarter of a century and worked with some of the biggest names in the sport. “The shared characteristic of these people is that they are absolutely focused, ruthless winners. You see that in Ben. Yet the big difference is that Ben has been a solo sailor and now he’s in charge of a crew, and so you must have collaboration and coordination happening here. There’s choreography to every manoeuvre. If any one of the six sailors moves at the wrong time – even if he’s a second late – then there’s a disaster.”

He goes on to say that while fundamentals of driving an F1 car – steering angle, brake pressure and throttle – are down to one driver, with the America’s Cup it’s all about teamwork. “When the boat makes a manoeuvre, there’s a whole combination of things happening.” In F1, he says, the winners are individuals interested first and foremost in their own performance, “whereas here,” he says, looking out over Bermuda’s Great Sound where the races will be held, “the sailors have to work together.”

Fifty-nine-year-old Whitmarsh has always been an engineer, having grown up with a burning desire to design aeroplanes. “At school, aircraft were my passion and all I wanted to do was work with them.” After graduating from Portsmouth Polytechnic (now the University of Portsmouth) with a degree in mechanical engineering, he joined British Aerospace as a structural analyst working in material development, ending up running the aerospace business in charge of Hawk and Harrier frame production. “When I left to join the race team McLaren in the late 1980s, people thought I was nuts.”

However, Whitmarsh knew it was time to move. His reasons are interesting. “I went into aircraft because I wanted to get into performance engineering,” he says. Yet what he found was “the gestation period for making things was extremely long. As a young engineer it was difficult to work with 30-year product cycles. It meant that you might only see one product in your entire career.” This was compounded by events in the early 1980s which saw Britain going to war in the South Atlantic over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

“If you remember, we were militarily ill-equipped to wage that campaign.” In particular, the RAF’s Harriers weren’t up to the job. For Whitmarsh the writing was on the wall, knowing that if development of the plane went according to previous time frames, “what with procurement, development, sign-off and flight test processes, it would be another 10 years before anything happened”. Then suddenly all these processes were condensed into “almost a matter of weeks. This was exciting and I realised that it was the necessity of war that was driving this through so quickly. It was strangely thrilling, so after the end of the campaign, I thought: ‘look, we can learn from this. We can do all this stuff better, cheaper and quicker and with considerably more efficiency’.” Yet it was difficult for Whitmarsh to get his voice heard and so, thirsting for faster turnaround engineering, he made camp in the world of Formula 1 where, “maybe it is not the best analogy, but it can seem like going to war 20 times a year. The cycle time and the time-to-market was compressed, while the whole organisation knows what they are there for, from the people who buy the pens to the drivers themselves.”

For Whitmarsh, this brave new world had rhythm, momentum and pace: “If you found something in the wind tunnel on Monday, the modification had to be on the car by Thursday, and the car had to be ready to race by the weekend.” He recalls how “there were fewer than 100 of us on the racing team, and I was lucky because we won more than a hundred races as a team, as well as championships and Le Mans”.

In the process, Whitmarsh oversaw the transformation of McLaren from a $90m business to an organisation turning over more than a billion dollars annually, with a headcount of 3,000. “Of course, by that time we’d diversified into a technology transfer, general automotive and electronics business. But we used the thrust of the Formula 1 business to develop commercially. At the technology centre we had at McLaren, we used the set-up so at lunchtime every one of the 3,000 people had to pass the race cars that were being prepared to go to the circuit. The whole emphasis was to ensure we weren’t just a light engineering company in Woking, but were using the pace, energy and tempo to infect every other part of the business.”

Likewise, Whitmarsh sees the America’s Cup as a “great opportunity to focus upon technology issues such as performance and speed. Yet these come from efficiency and with that efficiency I think we can really revolutionise the maritime racing sector. We can now do things in that world that haven’t been done before. Just as Formula 1 became a development hotbed, an accelerator of technology, introducing systems to our road cars, I think that the America’s Cup can nurture key developments that we’ll see elsewhere at a later date.”

One of the key similarities between America’s Cup sailing and Formula 1 is that it can no longer work unless the spectating public is heavily invested in it. Yet the problem with both sports is that they aren’t (in any real sense) activities that the casual observer can ever get involved with on a competitive level. Unlike sports such as football, athletics or cricket, sailing is a closed option to all but the very few. However, Whitmarsh thinks there is underlying magic to cutting-edge technology-led racing. “I remember clearly that in winter I’d probably spend about six weeks away from the cars. But then we’d go testing in Spain or somewhere like that. I can always think of the moment when I’d hear the engine of a Formula 1 car for the first time in a while and I’d get a shiver of anticipation and excitement down my spine. That sound, or the Fleetwood Mac song that was played at the beginning of the F1 TV show – all these things bring a terrific sense of involvement that I think everyone can share.”

“Now when I see these powerful super-advanced hydrofoiling boats I get a similar thrill. I think the job we have now is to put that message out there.”

The problem until now, says Whitmarsh, is that the America’s Cup falls away from the public imagination so quickly. “Remember that great comeback in San Francisco in 2013 when Ben Ainslie turned the whole thing around? Everyone got so excited by that. But then the whole thing disappeared for 18 months. It fell out of our heads and we all forgot all about it. So we built up to this great crescendo and then it went away.

“What we have today is something that is a fantastic live audience spectacle and very televisual, which frankly it hasn’t been in the past. It’s fast and dynamic, raced on a short circuit, close to shore. Yet the challenge is to deliver something. In the old days, beautiful boats left the dock, sailed four or five miles to sea, and you wouldn’t know unless you were an aficionado what was going on. This year we will see these boats hurtling across the start line in a flying start, and with the investment in on-screen graphics, as a non-sailor you’ll be able to see who’s leading, what speed they’re going and so on. You need that instantaneous feedback to the audience.

“Now we’ve got the speed, technology, excitement, arena, graphics and so on. This will give the viewer a real appreciation. However, to get that appreciation going, you need continuity and until now, the America’s Cup has been stop-start.”

He adds: “What we are aiming to do in this contest is to build a following. If you look at most of the major sports these days – all sports that I love, incidentally – such as athletics, football, F1, they’re all tainted in one way or another by drugs, corruption or money. We’ve got something here that is fresh, clean, green and untainted. And fast.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate throughout my career from the aerospace days and my motor racing career. I’ve lived through some fantastic moments. To land in something as brilliant as the America’s Cup at such a critical transformative moment is something special.” 

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