Rob Thomas, COO of Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team, reflects on the highs, lows and continuous quest for excellence with Danielle Champ 

It’s the end of the racing season for 2023, and Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team (Mercedes-AMG) snatched second place in the Constructor’s Championship, and third in the Driver’s. It’s been a turbulent year for the motorsport group, and as teams head into the winter season, Manufacturing Today had the opportunity to sit down with the COO, Rob Thomas, to discuss the year gone by, and what to expect from the team next season.

To get the ball rolling, we take a closer look at the COO’s career to learn about how he came to hold one of the highest positions within the business. “I’ve been in Formula One for about 18 years now,” he begins, “I’ve worked in automotive, oil and in aerospace, and it was only when I was with GKN Aerospace that I received a phonecall about an opportunity in Formula One.” Although Rob knew next to nothing about working in the sector, he was definitely interested. He then went on to work at Mercedes-AMG’s sister company, High Performance Powertrain, before moving over to the Brackley site in 2010.

For those who have followed the races throughout Rob’s tenure, you’ll know that the cars have undergone significant structural changes – the most significant being the installation of the hybrid power unit in 2014, according to Rob. Considering the pace at which the adjustments are made, being a leader in one of the most dynamic and fast-paced sectors requires a level-headedness to adapt to the ever-changing environment. “For many years, we started as BAR then we went to Honda, and really underperformed as a Formula One team. In 2009, Honda pulled out and Ross Brawn then went through a management buyout in the same year – they actually had a brilliant car. I was up the road in the engine place, and we got a call to say, ‘Honda are going, can you give us an engine please?’ And we had to try stick a Mercedes engine on the back of this Honda with no time at all. Additionally, because Honda pulled out, there was no money and they let 40 percent of the team go. But the car was really quick, so they actually ended up winning the 2009 World Championship.

“I then turned up in 2010 to make sense of a team that was subsequently quite fractured. Mercedes had just stepped in to help them. There was no real structure, and there wasn’t any organization. So, we started to build up the company from that point. The 2010 season was really hard, but 2011 was better. Then 2012 was slightly better, and in 2013, we won some races, and we won the Championship in 2014. So, in addition to the car’s changes, the company’s story has been about building up the team. Toto Wolff joined in 2013, and in every aspect, we just kept growing. Then we won eight years in a row,” Rob explains.

Of course, the catalyst that instilled the biggest change – and possibly the biggest hurdle – was the cost cap, an FIA regulation that forced teams to work to a budget. “Although it wasn’t new to us, it came down to a level that was painful – not eye-watering, but painful nonetheless. Then the pandemic hit, and other teams lobbied for it to go down further. For a company like ours, it was a massive reduction. So, we had to reassess how we operated,” shares Rob. The team proceeded to make distinctions between F1 work and non-F1 work in order to balance the cost. “It’s brought us to a level of efficiency we never had, and the manufacturing is much higher than it ever was.”

Up until 2021, Mercedes-AMG was the team to beat, now it’s Red Bull Racing, and Rob’s new challenge is establishing the winning formula to get the business back on top. “That’s what motivates everyone. When you’re winning every year, you’re always being chased, then the pressure is whether we can win it again. It’s a different motivation. And that’s quite exciting; that’s what motivates the whole team,” Rob shares.

Considering the agility required of the entire team, Rob notes that working for Mercedes-AMG is unlike any place he’s worked at before. “Some of the things we looked at very seriously in those first few years was the culture, which we’ve since worked on. Our key values are based on what we call PRIDE: Passion, Respect, Innovation, Determination, Excellence. If people don’t perform, that’s what they get marked against. We’ve now become a group of very driven people, there’s loads of support and humility, and nobody’s bigger than anyone else. We kill status and hierarchy so that there’s space for ideas to be shared, because, at the end of the day, we’re trying to be the best in the world, so we all need to do our bit to contribute.

“However, we’re also aware of this cycle where the team works incredibly hard in the winter season, then recovers over the summer, and then we rinse and repeat. And if we’re not careful, we forget to enjoy the wins because we constantly looking for the next thing to improve, so we’re also working hard to balance that aspect where we also celebrate the successes – we’re not always great at it, but we’re getting there,” Rob shares.

Speaking of which, the teams are now heading into the winter season, and for Rob, there’s a strategy to reassess what can be improved and what needs to be changed. We ask Rob about how the leadership team works to keep the team motivated, especially after a season as nail-biting as 2023’s, he says that it’s not as tough as one might think. “It’s always an interesting time because it’s a period of working six days a week, they’re long hours, it’s dark and cold. However, what we generally find though is the excitement builds as we progress. It starts in design and that design then goes into manufacturing or purchasing. And then you start seeing bits of new car appearing everywhere, which gets people talking.”

He then adds: “We make big events of the key milestones. Firing up the car, for example, is massive and then we do the first test, and we communicate very regularly with people on the program. Otherwise, it’s just a long slog for six months. But those wins are so worth it. We’re all part of something bigger, and that emotion, you just don’t get that anywhere else.”

From what we’ve heard from Rob, the Mercedes-AMG team seems geared to take on whatever hurdle comes its way in the new year. It takes a certain inner strength to get back up and dust off the losses to keep going. In closing, Rob shares that the team is really what makes this work worthwhile. Furthermore, Rob loves that the work is continually evolving, and as a result, the team will always be pushed to be better than the season before. “No two days are the same. I think that’s what keeps us fresh, and with that sort of motivation that we have to get back to winning again, you just don’t get that anywhere else. We’ve had some ups and downs this year, but we’re on the right path, and I just want to say a massive thank you to the team – let’s keep going!”