If there’s a scoop from our interview with F1 journeyman Rob Smedley, it’s this: the 44-year-old race professional definitely does not want to drive the high-speed vehicles he maintains.
“I have no interest whatsoever in cars or driving fast,” Smedley said during the Singapore Grand Prix. “If I did, I wouldn’t work in F1 — I’d watch it.”
From Smedley’s perspective, the thrill of motorsport is in the technical challenges that he and the rest of the Williams Martini Racing team solve on a regular basis. He enjoys the scientific and engineering aesthetics of car racing — the speed is just a fun byproduct.
“Even if I did want to drive the cars,” he qualified, “I don’t think I’d be able to. Think of the guys who send rockets to the moon. They don’t get in and fly them.”
There have been 11 editions of the Singapore Grand Prix since the inaugural 2008 event, and Smedley’s been to all of them. Boasting a 21-year career with Formula 1, Smedley today finds himself Head of Vehicle Performance for Williams since 2014. He’s not the “brain” of the team, but he’s certainly part of the brain: each area of the car has a dedicated team working on it, and it’s Smedley job to talk to the heads of those teams. But 2018 is a different type of season for Williams, and Smedley’s job right now has more to do with maintaining team morale than it has to do with winning races.
The Williams team went all-in on a car concept this season that simply isn’t cutting it against the competition. It’s a season of unremarkable results. Tongue in cheek, Smedley identified his low point of the season: “from the time we put the car on the ground in Barcelona until now.” He readily acknowledges that expectations are low for the team because of where they’re at, and contextualizes 2018 as something of a “reset” for the team.
Generally speaking, the attention and energy of the Williams Martini Racing technical team is being aimed at next year. They’re focused on learning as much as they can for next year’s car, and plan to get as far ahead on those specifications as possible in order to hit the ground running for a more favorable position. “You have to be a kind of eternal optimist in F1,” Smedley said. “It’s not enough to be thick-skinned, you have to be all skin.”
After 21 years in F1, Smedley is all skin. He still talked about that weekend’s pending race in competitive terms, and dished a little bit on race strategy: “The nature of a street circuit like Singapore is maximum downforce. They’re low-speed circuits dominated by late-entry mid-corner understeer, so we’re always working on the front end of the car.”
Though F1 drivers talk about traction “incessantly,” Smedley says it’s less important than they think. He furthermore acknowledges a different relationship with Williams drivers Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin than he had with the drivers he started out with many years ago. “Our drivers are at the very advent of their career, they’re very young,” he said. “My relationship to them is much more paternal and comes from a standpoint of being in charge.”
Those paternal instincts are strong outside of Formula 1, a pursuit that Smedley comfortably identifies it as his day job. “My family is the be-all-end-all,” he said. “I’m lucky that the team allows me to bring them places, but it still takes me away. That’s part of why I have a love-hate relationship with F1.”
Top image: Rob Smedley, Head of Vehicle Performance, Williams Martini Racing, on the pit wall at Suzuka Circuit, Suzuka, Japan, 2018. ©Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1.