The technical director is king in modern Formula 1. Once, it was the designer who was given the credit, or blame, for the car's success or failure. Now, it is the technical director who is celebrated or denigrated for a team's on-track achievement.
Grand prix teams are now massive organisations comprising multiple departments collectively responsible for putting the car - which is made up of more than 6000 parts - on track. The technical director is the conductor of this vast technological orchestra.
No two teams are the same in size, structure, budget, facilities or management roles, so it would be a mistake to believe that there was such thing as a 'typical' technical director.
But it's fair to say that there is a significant amount of common ground shared by the technical directors at the 12 F1 teams.
There are exceptions, and there are plenty who would baulk if they suddenly found themselves in Red Bull chief technical officer (this is basically a higher-paid version of the technical director usually more deeply embedded in overall team management) Adrian Newey's offices.
A few would struggle to do anything useful with the French curves and drawing board and find adapting to a team built entirely around his unique way of working very difficult!
Sauber's James Key is well placed to tell AUTOSPORT about life as what might be termed, oxymoronically, a 'normal' technical director. The 39-year-old joined Sauber last year after half a decade in the same role at Force India (in its various guises), so has recent experience of life at two emerging midfield teams.
He is also very well regarded in the paddock, having first consolidated and restructured Sauber after BMW's withdrawal and, this year, overseen its climb back up the grid.
Where better to start than with the typical day for a technical director...
Kamui Kobayashi in Sauber's 2011 car, which Key techincally directed into reality © LAT
"It changes depending on the circumstances," explains Key. "During the season, the first thing I tend to do in the morning is to look at the windtunnel data, which is constantly up on my computer screen.
"Then my PA will come in with paperwork to sign and a bit of admin - there's more of that at Sauber than at Force India!
"There are a lot of meetings. That's to try to ensure that there's a common direction.
"Sometimes it's necessary to call people together on a given day and say, 'We've been discussing this but actually this is what we're going to do' if we haven't run through it before. Other times it will be scheduled meetings.
"I probably have too many meetings, but when the season's on it's the easiest way to deal with things because you get all the people together in one place.
"In the case of the three-day week between back-to-back grands prix, for example, there will be a lot of diverse meetings.
"You'll have a meeting about the CFD strategy for next year, then you'll be talking about a personnel issue and half an hour later you'll be going through a decision about the chassis for next year.
"After that, you will be catching up on aero developments.
"Between those, it's a case of getting out there and getting involved in pockets of work. That is the really interesting bit because you can get into the detail and make progress - but between that it will be phone calls and lots and lots of emails!"
If that sounds a lot like a management job rather than spending all day tinkering with racing cars, it is. It's impossible for one person to design the whole car, or even have nuts-and-bolts knowledge of every last millimetre of it.
Key's job is more management than tinkering with cars © LAT
What the technical director must do is ensure that everything fits together, that nothing is overlooked. In that sense, you can talk about an F1 car being the work of a technical director.
"As technical director, you are ultimately responsible but equally I've always maintained that it's a team effort," says Key.
"I don't sit down and design the front wing; I wouldn't know where to start compared to the guy who does it as a day job.
"Where the TD plays a part is in giving advice about direction. Say we've got direction A and direction B. They are both completely different but one is going to be better than the other and it's difficult to tell which one.
"But the TD says which one we're going to go with. The bigger picture is important; you must have a guy who can do that.
"It's the same on a race weekend. We'll discuss what we have to do during practice and we'll have a track aero specialist, a driver, a race engineer all with their separate parts to play, but someone needs to say what is the most important thing and how we do it. That's my job.
"As TD, you need to try to have a feel for what's right, not just for the next event or three events' time, but in three or six months' time."
Inevitably, the financial implications of any course of action are a huge part of the equation, as anyone who has ever worked in a management role knows.
The technical director is no accountant, but he has a budget to work to and at a tight ship like Sauber, this is particularly important.
With more ideas than can ever be explored with the resources available, the bottom line is often the bottom line.
As F1's behemoths show, there are endless avenues for development and exploration. The Red Bulls, McLarens and Ferraris of this world can afford to go down plenty of pathways that might end up as blind alleys, or produce negligible gains.
Further down the grid, it's all about bang for your buck and managing the development rates in a way that doesn't break the Swiss bank account.
"If you bring a project to me, provided it is technically sound, all that matters is what the headline number is," says Key.
"There is a certain amount of budget control, but what we try to do is be a little bit on the edge with things. Rather than having an aero update with six new parts, let's have three and then a fourth at the next event.
Managing the bosses expectations, and budget, is all part of the role © sutton-images.com
"That spreads the load from a budget point of view and is the sort of decision I would make."
This kind of decision-driven existence is not for everyone. Plenty of very skilled engineers have struggled to make the transition into a technical management role.
It's not dissimilar to any walk of life, where someone very skilled working 'on the ground' might struggle to adapt to directing the team he once worked alongside.
Key comes very much from a hands-on background. A data engineer with Jordan, he became a race engineer with Takuma Sato in 2002 and later moved on to vehicle dynamics, eventually become head of department.
Then he moved into a more general technical management role before becoming technical director.
This is by no means the typical path, for there is no such thing. Key is not the only technical director on the grid to come from this background; for example, Sam Michael, Pat Fry and Giorgio Ascanelli all came via race engineering.
Others, for example James Allison, came from a more aerodynamic design-oriented background.
Key believes that the education he gained at the track plays a vital part in his understanding of the role - although doubtless a technical director from a design-oriented background would claim that their in-depth knowledge of work away from the track does the same for them.
"Everyone has their own background," says Key. "I always wanted to do it [be a technical director] but it was never a grand plan. Circumstances meant that someone was needed and I was that person at the time at Jordan.
"What really helped was being at the track to begin with because that's the sharp end of everything. It teaches you to learn very quickly because of the compressed time-scale.
"Race engineers think quickly, so it's a really good place to start. By being at the track you see the end result of everything the company does and you're one of the few people that really gets to dig over the performance of the car.
"When I was engineering a few years ago, we had more control systems to play with.
"You'd be thinking about how the traction control is going to affect how you set the front wing, how it affects the driver's feeling and tyre degradation, so you're linking this with all these other aspects of the car.
"For the specialists, that's less obvious because they are focusing on one part.
"To get that overview early on is really useful because you see the bigger picture. You also learn about the factors out of your control - the driver having a bad day, the tyres doing something different from what you expect.
Sauber's front wing detail for the German Grand Prix © sutton-images.com
"If you're factory-based, those are factors you don't think about. So the track side is a good thing for the TD to have.
"But sometimes it's difficult to be hands-off. Sometimes you want something to be done a certain way and you're getting feedback from the guys that it's not quite right.
"You think, 'If I just did this myself it would be easier'. There are only a few occasions when that happens, but I find it quite difficult."
Inevitably, having a background as a race engineer makes Key want to get involved with the drivers.
Sauber has the least experienced line-up on the grid, with Kamui Kobayashi in his second full season and Sergio Perez in his first, so driver development is naturally a big part of the team's success.
Key admits that this is an area that he would like to get more involved in. But it's just one of the many things that he would like to do were there 48, or even 72, hours in the day.
"It's probably a bigger part of the job than I give it at the moment," says Key.
"I should perhaps get more involved with the drivers, but race weekends are incredibly busy periods with so much going on. So I tend to be quite distracted.
"It's good to leave it to the race engineer because they know their driver best. But for me there is more I could do given more time. Maybe a pep talk or being someone they could bounce ideas off.
"A lot of this sport for drivers is psychology, keeping their confidence high and seeing the world in a positive light. There's definitely a role for the TD to do that and maybe bring in some discipline as well."
But while the engineering side of the team intersects well with Key's skill-sets, the aero department is also an important area for him to oversee.
Aerodynamics is where the majority of the on-track performance of a race car comes from, so ensuring that development targets are correctly laid out, resources are in place and the staff are able to deliver is another crucial part of the job.
"I spend a fair bit of my time with aero specifying what we do and with the performance guys saying what we're going to try next, how the tyre models are working, how we go about developing the car, and less time with the design side of things," says Key.
"I've got a good bunch of designers, so it's not a problem."
All of that adds up to a massive job. Other than during the mandatory two-week factory shutdown that happens this month, it's a job you have to live 24-7.
So it's no surprise that Key, who relocated to Switzerland with his family to take up the Sauber job, has little time to relax.
"Some people do switch off when they go home, but that's not happened for me," says Key.
"It drives my wife mad! Sometimes, at the end of a week, if you've had a race weekend you've worked for two weeks solid and you're looking forward to getting away early on Friday.
"'Early' means seven o'clock... and then it's nine o'clock and you've still got a load of work to do! It's pretty intense.
"When my family wasn't in Switzerland, come a weekend I'd be in all day Saturday just catching up on everything and getting the house in order before Monday.
"It's very easy to get into a backlog, so half of the job is keeping everything rolling. You just have to sit down, work through it, go through the stacks of emails and reports, getting back to people...
Taking responsibility when things go wrong is also a requirement © sutton-images.com
"You have to go through everything otherwise you might miss something really important. It's a big workload."
The pressure is constant. If the car is uncompetitive, you are to blame. If it gets disqualified from sixth and seventh places in the opening race of the season - a fate that befell Sauber this year - you are to blame.
But if it's a success, as the Sauber has by and large been since Key came on board, a big chunk of the credit lies with you.
"It's a great role to have and a great challenge," says Key. "But it's also very difficult. What I didn't realise before I started is that you stick your head over the fence and it can be a pretty scary place.
"You are the person responsible for the car. If it's slow or unreliable then it's you that gets chucked out.
"As soon as you step up for the role, it dawns on you that this has got to work. It can't fail because if it does it's my responsibility.
"It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's a role where it's tremendously rewarding when it's going right, and tough when it's going wrong. That's all part of the job."
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