How two driver-turned-managers are tackling Formula E's challenges
The new Gen3 era of Formula E carries numerous trials for the teams to keep on top of, but the sweeping brush of change isn't limited to the cars and driver lineups. Two squads feature former drivers settling into challenging new management roles. Here's how McLaren team manager Gary Paffett and Maserati MSG team principal James Rossiter are faring
In motorsport, the usual path to management is thus: start out as a junior employee, work your way up, and eventually you can earn the keys to one of the many kingdoms of racing.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, as the likes of new Ferrari Formula 1 boss Frederic Vasseur earned their keep by running their own race teams before earning a move into the top flight. Christian Horner did the same, starting up the Arden squad in F3000 with father Garry to ensure the younger Horner could keep his racing career alive. Eventually, he hung up his helmet to focus on the day-to-day management of the team, which brought him to the attention of Red Bull when it embarked on its journey as an F1 team in 2005.
To make the journey from race driver to team principal is an increasingly rarefied one in motorsport; while ex-F1 team principals who dipped their toes in the ocean with their own teams may have been racers in the past - Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost being examples in the past 25 years - it’s become more of a specialist role in modern times.
Compare that to football, where the overwhelming majority of managers are ex-players who have gone off to do their coaching badges. There’s a smattering of those who never played the game professionally; in the Premier League, Brentford boss Thomas Frank was only ever an amateur, while Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers played youth football before a knee condition ended his hopes of making the grade.
Perhaps it’s footballing management royalty Arrigo Sacchi who summed it up best, having never embarked on the journey to become a footballer: “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”
Just as non-playing managers are becoming more common in football, particularly as the game becomes more technically minded, motorsport is perhaps experiencing the reverse as top-line ex-drivers entering the management game becomes more frequent.
In Formula E, there are two such examples: James Rossiter became team principal at Maserati MSG, taking over from ex-F1 driver Jerome d’Ambrosio as the team transitioned from Venturi, while Gary Paffett now works as team manager at McLaren under principal Ian James.
James Rossiter (right) transitioned from racer to team boss this season along with Gary Paffett
Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images
There are common threads in the racing careers of Rossiter and Paffett; both had promising careers in F3, before embarking on F1 test driver roles with BAR/Honda and McLaren respectively. Both also had opportunities to race in the championship too with prospective new teams, before their entries faded away; Rossiter was signed up to race with the abortive US F1 effort in 2010, while Paffett was a shoo-in for a Prodrive seat before David Richards elected not to enter.
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They had success elsewhere; Paffett won two DTM titles in a 15-year career in the German tin-top series, while Rossiter had an on-off career in endurance racing punctuated by title tilts in Super GT. Paffett then raced in Formula E with HWA before moving upstairs at Mercedes, while Rossiter was a reserve for DS Techeetah before becoming its sporting advisor.
Now, they’re management types; the white-water rapids they ride these days is done sitting on the Formula E equivalent of the pitwall. Steering a racing car is one thing; steering a whole ship is quite another.
"The years as a sporting director at DS shaped me hugely. The things that I learned from Mark Preston as team principal and from Thomas Chevaucher [mean that] I feel that I'm fairly well prepared to take on this quest" James Rossiter
Rossiter has largely found that out the hard way in his first few races in charge of Maserati MSG’s fortunes. In testing, the team enjoyed a confidence-boosting week in Valencia as new charge Maximilian Guenther headed the times in five of the seven timed sessions, but the season proper has been a much tougher ask. Ahead of Cape Town, the Italo-Monegasque squad has a scant three points to its name, courtesy of Edoardo Mortara, after a chastening first quarter of the year.
Regardless, it was a challenge that Rossiter has craved for some time; having been signed up to drive in Peugeot’s return to the World Endurance Championship as a driver, he elected to hang up his helmet once offered a team principal role.
“It was probably bigger leap than I expected, to be honest,” Rossiter told Autosport ahead of the Mexico season opener. “It was a goal of mine [to lead a team] since the end of 2019. I'm very proud to be here, to be a team principal, and to be a team principal of Maserati MSG, it is a huge challenge - that's for sure. But it’s a very exciting one at the same time.
“[Was it a hard decision to stop racing?] No. It's an interesting one. I've had a lot of, uh, people who are a bit surprised at that! I had a very nice contract in place with Peugeot for another year and a bit, and I was very grateful for the opportunities I had inside Stellantis with DS, with Peugeot, and those things in the past.
Rossiter (right, with former DS team manager Nigel Beresford) has held off-track roles in the FE paddock for several years
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
“But in stepping away for this opportunity, there was no hesitation whatsoever. It was very clear in my mind that this is a dream opportunity. And I was there from day one on the Peugeot project. Having lived through that as a development driver and then racing the car as well, it suddenly gave me a different insight.
“Obviously the years as a sporting director at DS shaped me hugely, the things that I learned from Mark Preston as team principal and from [Stellantis motorsport chief] Thomas Chevaucher, I learned a huge amount from them standing alongside them in the garage. I feel that I'm fairly well prepared to take on this quest.”
In an extensive racing career that’s spanned the full gamut of British circuits in Formula Renault UK, international venues in sportscars and F1 testing roles, and the cast of legendary tracks during his time in Japan, Rossiter has much experience to lean on. In that time he’s worked with many of the big hitters in management, including Richards and Aguri Suzuki, each offering their own styles to absorb and assimilate into Rossiter’s own oeuvre.
But there’s one name whom Rossiter understandably holds in the highest esteem: Ross Brawn, whom he’d worked with during his Honda testing days.
“One of the standout ones was Ross; I was a test driver at Honda when Ross joined,” he says. “And certainly I learned a huge amount from the way he shook up the management of that team, and the way he kept the same personnel, but defined roles. He had a big impact on my early career in terms of looking at how everything should be done.
“And then there's been so many different teams. I'm very fortunate to have had a very diverse career from racing in America, in Japan, in world championships. I think there's something to take from all of those experiences and pull them together, and try to create the dream team.
“He really came in with a very clear vision. And when you come in with a clear vision, you sit down and you spend the time with each person and you see what they want to achieve as well. And then you help them achieve their goals. If everyone's achieving their dreams, then you can end up with the best possible team. And he's shown over many decades that he's a genius at that.”
Even after a tough start to the year, it seems that Maserati MSG is beginning to turn the corner. The pressure was always upon its transition from a Mercedes customer outfit to a manufacturer squad, given its excellent form over the past two years. Qualifying form in Mexico suggested that the team had not quite been able to find the window of the Hankook tyres, and a pair of crashes in qualifying for the opening Diriyah race set the team back even further.
Maserati MSG's season is beginning to turn around under Rossiter after a tough start in 2023
Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images
Guenther had suffered a heavy hit at Turn 11, moments before Mortara then slid into the wall at Turn 17 to put more work on the Maserati MSG mechanics’ plates. The TV cameras flicked onto Rossiter’s reaction of disbelief; he was barely able to fathom what he was seeing. Although the Swiss was able to get going in the race as a new rear end was bolted on, Guenther’s front suspension had broken at the tub and required an entirely new car for the second day.
The pitfalls of team principal-ship were thrust upon Rossiter. One gets the impression that he would have reached for the spanners himself had the strict rules on mechanic numbers not existed, but instead, Rossiter found other ways to lend a hand. To ensure his team were fully fuelled for the overnight shift, he took it upon himself to scout out sustenance from the nearby concert concessions stands.
“We had to salvage a huge amount from the damaged chassis,” Rossiter explained ahead of the Saturday Diriyah race. “So it made the process very complicated. It took the guys from when we got the car back after qualifying and all the way through the night. I was here with the guys until almost 3:00 AM, eating hamburgers in the garage at 1:30 in the morning!
"I can understand emotionally how they would be feeling at that point and how hard we can push them because – in understanding different drivers, you learn how hard you can push each driver" Gary Paffett
“I wasn't sure I was going to experience that, but now I have! And what an amazing group of mechanics that we've got in this team. I couldn't be more proud of the team morale and the spirit and the way they went about rebuilding the car and putting it out there [on Saturday] morning in perfect condition.”
Paffett’s remit in his McLaren role is slightly different, as he falls under team principal Ian James – effectively carrying out a similar job to Rossiter’s at DS Techeetah. With extensive racing experience, Paffett can be leaned on for any advice and assists with the running of McLaren’s race team, which has carried over from his role with Mercedes last season.
This calls back to the beginning of his brief foray as a Formula E race driver back in 2018-19, when Mercedes prepared for its three-year spell in the championship under HWA’s proxy entry. Once Mercedes joined the field for 2019-20, Paffett stepped back to a reserve role when Nyck de Vries was signed but was handed additional duties alongside that.
“The role itself is pretty similar to what I did last season with Mercedes, which was a role that kind of evolved over the last few years,” Paffett explained to Autosport at the start of the season. “In season five I raced [with HWA], and in season six I was reserve driver, but also an advisor for the team. My role and involvement on the management side of things has just developed from there really.
“The team manager position opened up for last season for season eight, which I took on. My responsibilities and everything within the team is developing year on year really, so taking on more responsibility with regards to the whole supporting side of the team and the running of the team on the race weekends.”
Paffet's role at McLaren - with whom he acted for years as a reserve drive in F1 - follows on from what he did with Mercedes
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Equally, the Bromley native acts as a link between the drivers and the management owing to his own experiences of driving. He says that this was vital to understanding the needs of previous duo Stoffel Vandoorne and de Vries, and that he’s now on the path of working out how to get the best from the new pairing of Rene Rast and Jake Hughes.
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This is something that Paffett concedes will take time, particularly as the two drivers have very different characteristics; Hughes entered Formula E with little fanfare but has confounded any critics with stunning performances, while Rast has conceded in the past that he requires a little longer to properly spool up before feeling totally comfortable.
“That's been a big part of my involvement with the team over the last three seasons, my ability to understand what the drivers need, and how the drivers work,” he says. “It's been especially important during live situations, during races, assessing the situation in the race and how they're feeling - and it even comes down to how we talk to drivers during the race, what we do.
“I can understand emotionally how they would be feeling at that point and how hard we can push them because – in understanding different drivers, you learn how hard you can push each driver. And that's certainly something which we did over the last few seasons with Nyck and Stoffel.
“We're still doing it [with Rast and Hughes]. We've only really started; it takes a long time to understand what a driver needs really. We've been working with Jake for a couple of seasons as our reserve driver, so he has a good relationship with the team, but we hadn't seen him in races really in this car. We're learning what he needs and where his strengths and weaknesses are.
“It’s the same with Rene. We know a lot about him, he's been here in Formula E, and we know what he can do. I've raced against him in DTM, I know what he can do. But as a case of working with him in a team, we're still very much learning what he needs to get the best out of him. We're at the very start of that process, and that's going to take time.”
Although McLaren is at the start of its Formula E journey, it has managed to eschew the usual growing pains of a new team after buying out the core of a two-time title-winning team in Mercedes. While the drivers are new, and some of the Mercedes personnel have moved onto pastures new, the main group of engineers and mechanics offer much needed continuity.
That’s something that Paffett can offer insight into too, given that he was in the fold since the beginning with HWA’s from-scratch entry five years ago. The differences, he says, are incomparable – but that hasn’t completely sheltered the McLaren squad from a steep learning curve with the Gen3 package.
Paffett was an integral part of setting up the team now known as McLaren when it was a new entry under the HWA Racelab banner
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
“The guys talk about the first race in Saudi in season five, and it was just college [a learning experience],” he says. “Even the guys we had involved were so experienced in motorsport, but just the difference Formula E brought us compared to anything else we'd done was a shock.
“The team has a lot more experience under our belt, but this has been a tough period coming into Gen3, you know it’s been very difficult for all the teams with regards to getting the cars finished and with regards to the reliability of the components and stuff. So it's been a very testing process. It's the third change of colour and change of brand. But most of the core team are still here, still involved that were here in season five.”
Rossiter gave up racing to embark on his new destination, and while Paffett still admits to having a few racing itches he’d like to scratch “if opportunities come up and if they fit within the schedule”, he’s happy in his role on the pitwall
In any sport, those involved in playing and competing often reach a point at which they consider the next step in their career. It can be hard for many and, although many land on their feet with punditry roles, others fall outside of their discipline and are compelled to start afresh. While players-turned-coaches are common in the multiple forms of ball sports, it’s still a novelty to see it in motorsport.
Rossiter and Paffett are showing that the transition can be made in a top-level racing category too and, although they’re at the start of their managerial journeys, their passion for a new challenge is palpable from speaking to them. Rossiter gave up racing to embark on his new destination, and while Paffett still admits to having a few racing itches he’d like to scratch “if opportunities come up and if they fit within the schedule”, he’s happy in his role on the pitwall.
If both can succeed in their jobs, it might empower a few more drivers to consider an alternative pathway as they reach the end of their racing careers. A TV job is still a high-wire act after all, but management is a very different challenge altogether.
Paffet's ability to understand what drivers need has been a huge part of his involvement with McLaren, but he doesn't see himself as a retired driver just yet
Photo by: Andreas Beil
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