You know you must be pretty good at your job when you and your colleagues are able to win the greatest award in motorsport consecutively for three years…
Lead Engineer at Mercedes AMG F1, Dan Milner, has taken the time to review his year in motorsport exclusively with katyfairman.wordpress.com and talks about everything from being in the crowd in Spain when the two Mercedes collided to Rosberg’s shock retirement. All views in this interview are all his own.
Katy Fairman: How challenging is it to keep seeking new designs and superior technology with your work?
Dan Milner: That is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of the industry! There is obviously a continual drive to gain an advantage over the competition in the pursuit of lap time. Often it isn’t actually the ideas generation that is the difficult thing – the real niche is applying it, integrating it and making it reliable first time out. There is no point in making the car quicker if it results in a breakdown, failure or precautionary change of a regulated assembly. As the adage goes – ‘to finish first, first you must finish’. Unfortunately the compromises between performance and reliability are not always correct and stoppages can and do happen – and it is invariably those events that make the headlines, not the successes. Once you’ve experienced the pain of watching a race and seeing a car stop due to a failure you’ve got some responsibility for, it is a feeling you never want to repeat again!
KF: January brought with it a new year and new challenges for you away from the racetrack. You announced you had a baby on the way and started your training for the London Marathon, which you completed in April. What else do you enjoy doing with your time away from Formula 1?
DM: I really enjoy running and playing football, but it does become difficult to fit those in during the winter months and so a strong mindset is required – I struggle to drag myself out when it’s busy inside and cold outside though! It’s important to maintain an active lifestyle when tied to a desk most of the week and it definitely improves output. We are privileged that there is a fantastic gym and on-site facilities at Mercedes HQ and there is a big fitness vibe as a result. I took on the challenge of running the London marathon this year to try and achieve one of my lifetime goals which was a sub 4hr effort, as well as to help to raise money for the Air Ambulance service. It was very satisfying to achieve both! Another hobby I have is karting; I was a late starter and so will never give our drivers a run for their money but I do race in a national ‘Arrive and Drive’ series called Club 100. It is a fantastically organised championship and I’ve met some great people through the competition. All of these things are willingly taking a back seat at the moment however as I’m loving spending as much of my time as possible with our new baby boy – he’s a little star!
KF: I would imagine March is one of the busiest months for you as that is when the Formula 1 season starts. Is this correct? If not, when do you find the craziest times of the year are?
DM: Although the cliché of “it never rests in F1” is true, different areas of an F1 team ramp up at various times across the year. Ironically, although the races often begin in March, this isn’t the busiest time for a Design Office. That honour is usually saved for November and December! The month of March will consist of finishing the pre-season tests (by which point hopefully all of the niggles have been ironed out!) and packing up for the freight to Australia. There is often a very big push in April to get the first big upgrade of the season ready for the European race towards the end of May, but until Q2 of qualifying, the absolute pace of the competition is not 100% known, so it is a strange period in “no-man’s land” until we find out what is fast and what is not…
KF: In May you found yourself at the Spanish Grand Prix, however you weren’t there with work, you attended the race as a fan. How was that experience? Also can I ask how you reacted when the two silver arrows collided?
DM: This was actually the first race I’ve attended as a fan since Spa 2007, so long overdue! My wife and I went for a long weekend break in Barcelona with a couple of friends, the aim of taking in GP as well as some good food and beer (all boxes were ticked!). Circuit de Catalunya is a fantastic circuit to view cars from and, despite some prior scepticism, the organisation was absolutely top notch. There was a coach transfer from the city centre to the circuit every 10 minutes for example, for a ridiculously cheap fare when booked in advance. My one tip though is that the €7 Cerveva’s are actually alcohol free but the small print is very small indeed – the whole circuit is dry but many fans seemingly didn’t realise this fact. The placebo effect is strong!
From our grandstand seats we could see Turns 1 / 2 and Turn 5; I remember being delighted that we got two very good starts and over celebrating that fact. I actually heard the incident and a huge cheer from the crowd, and it was only when I saw Max and Ricciardo leading the field out of Turn 5 that I actually computed that both our cars were nowhere to be seen! The incident was then fairly rapidly replayed on the big screen for all to see. After being glum for 20 laps or so, it actually turned into a fantastic race to watch as a fan at the circuit – with no commentary it was not clear which strategy was going to win out. After the chequered flag the whole crowd went Max crazy which made for a great atmosphere.
KF: What did you get up to in the summer of this year?
DM: In Formula 1 there is a mandatory “summer shutdown” lasting two whole weeks. When this rule originally came out I was very much against it – it is the time of year when school holidays mean prices go up! I really enjoy skiing for example, and its rather difficult to go chasing snow in August! But as time has gone on, I’ve come to really appreciate the enforced downtime. It is really refreshing to have such a long time away and go back to a clear inbox. This particular summer was not very rock and roll though – I finished some building work in my garden, and boarded out the loft!
KF: The last couple of months have brought with them great victories, most notably the third consecutive constructors’ title for Mercedes AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team. What was that day like at work? How did the team celebrate both on the day and when the drivers made their way back to the factory?
DM: The team does a fantastic job of celebrating each of our successes. It is so important to acknowledge and savoir every podium, win and championship. The demands and sacrifices that come with working in the industry are huge and the reality is that the majority of us are fans at heart and the reason we make the commitment is for the sense of competition and victory. I’m not going to go into details of the day but there were a number of special touches laid on for us. However it is probably fair to say that the day after the championship win is the one working day of the year when there is not a 100% drive to complete the day’s tasks!
KF: What have been the highs and lows from the year, both at the factory and what has happened with the team at race weekends?
DM: We were privileged to have at least nineteen high points of the year, and these culminated in a new and deserving champion being crowned… which also leads on to the low point for me. Finding out about Nico’s retirement was a huge shock at the time, especially coming so soon after the buzz of an exhilarating finale. His contribution has been huge and whoever is destined to replace him has very big shoes to fill.
KF: You are always posting positive and motivational quotes on social media. Has there been one that you’ve read this year that has stuck with you?
DM: My two favourite phrases from the year have been “if you chop your own wood, you heat yourself twice”, and “everyone seems to have a right but not everyone seems to have a responsibility”. I think these two phrases characterise two key ingredients to achieving great things. You should never be afraid to roll you sleeves up, and never think “that’s OK, someone else will do that”. There is however a delicate line to balance in terms of delegation and in terms of prioritisation – it isn’t right to do nothing but it equally isn’t right to do everything – and I’m still learning and improving on how to strike the right balance on that one with each car year that passes.
KF: What will be the big goal for you and the team next year?
DM: I can only speak for myself here – at some point the record breaking will not be sustainable, but I hope to be a four-time-consecutive constructor’s champion after a thrilling season. That has been done by many before, but no team has won championships over a major regulation change.