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Former Driffield School pupil lands one of top jobs in Formula One

Exclusive by SAM WALKER

In an exclusive interview with the Driffield & Wolds Weekly, former Driffield School pupil Mike Elliott stated it is an honour to have landed one of the top jobs in Formula One after it was announced that he is to become Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team’s technical director.

The 46-year-old, who grew up in Hutton Cranswick, will succeed James Allison in the role this July at the record-breaking outfit which has won the last seven World Constructors’ Championships.

Mike’s role with the German team, whose factory is based in Brackley, Northamptonshire, will see him manage a series of directors who control the technical aspects of the car.

He will also be responsible for its performance on track which is currently raced by seven-time world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton and nine-time race winner Valtteri Bottas.

Mike left East Yorkshire at 18 to attend university and took on his first role in Formula One in 2000 at McLaren until 2008 when he left to join Renault, before four years later becoming part of the furniture at Mercedes.

In addition to Hamilton, Mike has worked alongside other world champions such as Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg.

Q&A with the former Driffield School student

Tell us a bit about your background and how you got to where you are now?

“I moved to Hutton Cranswick aged five after a year in Leconfield since my dad used to be in the armed forces. I went to school in the village and then onto Driffield School before leaving the area at 18 to go to university. My parents still live in Cranswick, whilst my sister, Tracey Thompson, lives in Nafferton.

“I undertook a degree in aeronautical engineering at Imperial College, London, but after those four years, I decided that the aircraft industry wasn’t what I wanted to do since the projects are long and they often get cut short.

“After that, I was offered money for a PhD, which was great fun.

“Whilst doing it, I shared an office with John Owen, who is actually the chief designer at Mercedes F1 at the moment and he had an enthusiasm for the sport.

“A wind tunnel at Imperial College was being used by various teams, including Honda Racing Development, pre-runner of Honda, which became Brawn, then Mercedes.

“I helped out in the wind tunnel and, between that and John’s keenness in F1, it increased my interest too.
“Eventually, I was interviewed by a few teams and got a job at McLaren where I was an aerodynamicist initially and worked my way through to a trackside aerodynamicist, spending three years on the race team, travelling to races and tests.

“Then, I became team leader of aerodynamic performance meaning I was more involved in the vehicle dynamics side and simulators, working with the drivers on how the aerodynamics were affecting the cars.

“In 2008, I realised I needed to decide on a speciality and stick with it, so I joined Renault as a principal aerodynamicist where I was responsible for half of the cars’ aerodynamic development before Bob Bell, then technical director at Mercedes, approached me about joining them in 2012.

“At first, I was head of aerodynamics and then became technology director in 2017, overseeing aerodynamics as well as the testing of engine and gearboxes, looking after electrics and also test and development where we do the structural development of the car.

“The role of technical director is one I will begin in July and is a huge honour, as well as a fairly big challenge, but one I’m really looking forward to.”

You take over the role of technical director in July. What will be the main aspects of the role and how will that differ from what you do now?

“I will almost sit as head of a technical directors group.

“There is one technical director and underneath them are a series of directors that control technical aspects of the car
“I will be fully responsible for the whole car and how it performs on the track and answer directly to team principal and CEO Toto Wolff.

“Most of the role is helping that team of directors in getting the best out of the company and supporting them in that role.

“I’m lucky that we have a really strong team at the level it is at and I think my role will be more about how I help them get the best out of their areas.”

The former Driffield School pupil at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2018. Photo: Steve Etherington for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd

The team has done alright in building a good car in the last seven years and since the regulations changed in 2014, Mercedes have hugely dominated. Do you feel a sense of pride and honour to have been part of the team which has become the team to beat?

“I feel a sense of pride in the whole team in what we’ve achieved, since nobody has done what we’ve done in terms of winning seven championships in a row.

“One of the great things about this team is that there are no standout individuals, it is just a great team which has come together and it is impossible to say who has had what impact.

“When I joined, it was already a strong group going in the right direction and I’m privileged to have joined Mercedes when I did and it’s been a really enjoyable period to be a part of. I think that culture and atmosphere is really good and comes from the top with Toto.”

Despite the domination, there has been periods where Ferrari have challenged you and this year it looks as though Red Bull are strong once again. Do you relish a challenge like that where you have to strive to improve an already brilliant car?

“In 2013, before the regulations changed, we already had a pretty good car. We struggled with tyre degradation, but we were on pole quite a bit early in the season and won a few races too, however it took us a while to understand our issues.

“When the regulations came in, our engine partners, Mercedes High-Performance Power Units, did an amazing job and gave us a head start, but we had a pretty good chassis to go along with that.

“As time went by, we grew as a team and have managed to keep our noses in front, despite a couple of seasons where Ferrari pushed us quite hard and now we have the challenge from Red Bull.

“I think if we’d only won one or two championships where we’d pushed to the edge, we might feel differently, but because we’ve won quite a lot, we’re relishing the challenge of this year.

“We might feel differently if we don’t win at end of the season mind you, but you can feel a different energy in the building at the moment, something which we’ve not had for a while.

“There is always the risk that when something is working, you don’t push it, but when Ferrari pushed us for example, we improved. Now, only time will tell if we can do the same with Red Bull in 2021 and if we’re lucky enough, we will have the trophy come the end of the season.”

How much involvement do you have with the drivers?

“I’ve known Lewis for a long time. Before he was a race driver at McLaren, as he used to do a lot of simulator work and testing at Elvington airfield where we collected top speed and aerodynamic data.

“The drivers are a big part of what we do, since they feel the car through their body in a better way than we ever could as engineers and designers.

“When I first joined Mercedes, Lewis would call every fortnight to see how we’re getting on, but that has become progressively less in recent years.”

Have you ever driven a F1 car yourself?

“No, although I’ve been offered a few times, especially in the simulator, but I have never driven one.

“I don’t think people appreciate how difficult an F1 car is to drive, as just getting out of the garage is challenging.

“We had drivers who turned up to do aerodynamic testing on runways who would constantly stall in the garage,

because the engine has very little inertia and is so lightweight, that when you come off the clutch it is easy to stall.

“It’s not like driving a normal road car and I think if you can get the car out the garage, most would be too scared to drive it to the limit due to the sheer power and performance of the car.

“I’m really interested in the engineering challenges provided by Formula 1 cars.

“I have been a passenger in a road car with a driver and it is impressive to see what racing drivers can do.
“There is no way that you are ever going to their level.

“Drivers become attuned to the car so much that they know what it should feel and sound like so they can sense when something is wrong.

“The best drivers can tell you succinctly and in a way which we as engineers can understand what is wrong with the car or how we can improve it.

“Drivers’ reactions are not actually much better than you or I, but the ability to predict what is going to happen is what makes them stand out.

“Amazingly, some drivers actually struggle in the simulator as there are no bumps like there are on track.
“They know where the bumps are so well that they could probably drive with their eyes closed.”

Did you ever think that when John Owens suggested a career in F1 you would get to the position you are now?

“When I was doing my PhD, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but John opened my eyes to Formula One as a career.

“Once you get into the sport, you have ambitions and the initial goal was probably to get to be head of aerodynamics somewhere.

“However, to become technical director of Mercedes F1 is something I never imagined would happen.

“In fact, John and I sit two desks apart now, as we did all those years ago, which is a strange coincidence.

“The reputation Imperial College has for producing aerodynamicists for F1 is very good.

“There were five of us in our office whilst doing our PhD and four of us ended up going into Formula One, with Rhodri Moseley still in the sport at Ferrari, alongside John and I.”

What do you remember about Driffield and the Wolds? What are your lasting memories and do you come back often?

“I still speak to my parents quite a bit, probably not as much as I should, but I think that goes for everyone!

“I’ve not been back for about two years, primarily because of COVID, since my parents have been shielding.

“I lived in London for nearly eight years and missed the rural countryside, although I’m lucky enough to be in a fairly rural area at the moment.

“One of things I miss most is walking in that country air and visiting places such as the North York Moors and even going up to Bempton to see the wild bird colonies, as I’m quite a keen wildlife photographer too.

“The other thing I miss is the banter from back home.

“There is something about the Yorkshire banter which you don’t get anywhere else and Driffield’s banter is quite special too.”

Alongside seven-time world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton.

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