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The motorsport world is full of dreamers. And then there are people like Sam Michael. From the moment he converted from a love of two wheels to four, his dream of moving to Formula 1 was set in motion. And not as a driver but as an engineer.
When he was young it was all motorbikes. He tinkered and he played with them, he liked what he could do with two wheels. Then around the age of 10 his family moved from Geraldton in Western Australia to Canberra and a few years later he was playing around with rally cars with Rick and Neal Bates.
“To be honest, I was completely into motorbikes, and then when I started working for Neal and Rick they would bang on about cars all the time,” says Michael.
“I was just not interested, though. Then one day Neal said, ‘Come out to get in the car’ and when I did I couldn’t believe what you could do in a car. I was probably about 14 at that point and then I was into cars.
“So I started in rallying, then when I went to study mechanical engineering at university in Sydney I got a job with Greg ‘Peewee’ Siddle and Mark Larkham working on open-wheelers.”
Here his passion changed yet again, but this time it took on its final form. From motorbikes to rallying, he was now firmly entrenched in the world and concept of open-wheeler cars and the purity of what was on offer. As an engineer he had found his nirvana and the next two decades were going to be filled with the hunt for speed.
“I knew 100 per cent what I wanted to do when I was a young kid; I was crystal clear,” says Michael.
“The advice I give a lot of young people is you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to do because it’s much more powerful when you’re going through university or trying to get a job. If you’re in that scenario and you don’t really know what you want to do, what is your passion, it’s going to be a lot harder for you to progress and do things.
“I fell in love with open-wheelers very quickly and probably because I saw Formula 1 as the best of the best, so I thought I wanted to work with the best engineers on cars that are specifically built for racing. You’ve got to remember that when I was here in the early days, the touring cars were road cars with roll cages in them, they weren’t like Supercars are now, and that held little appeal.
“A Formula 1 car’s a full-blown prototype; a continuously evolving R&D piece of equipment and never runs the same way twice. It’s unrestrained.
“Yes, you’ve got set regulations, but you don’t start with something and then mould around it, you design for a purpose, so that was really where my passion lay. That really pulled me to Europe and a lot of people I was connected with around here, like Mark and Greg, said, if I wanted to do this I had to get to get to Europe.”
Peewee had some connections and when Michael’s time with Larko was up, and the university degree was stuffed in the back pocket (second-class honours and a high distinction for his thesis on simulation in race cars, developed on a program for Larkham’s Reynard 90D), an introduction to Team Lotus changed his life. Formula 1, even for a small team, was more advanced than anything he had seen and this was what he wanted.
At the Adelaide Grand Prix he had glimpsed it when he was working with Larko – “I remember walking up and down the pitlane and walking past Larrousse and Minardi and even the teams right at the bottom were something else; you just looked at their cars and the cleanliness and the perfection of everything... you’ve got to remember even the worst Formula 1 teams are bloody good, especially now” – but nothing prepared him for what he was entering.
Larkham’s team was pretty well funded but it was barely running on lunch money compared with Formula 1, where a small budget may be 100 million pounds a year. Team Lotus was about 60 people at that stage (about the size of the biggest teams in Australia now).
“Lotus were small but they were obviously struggling, however for a young guy coming into Formula 1 it was fantastic,” says Michael.
“Throughout the 12 months that I was with them I got to work in wind tunnels, work in the R&D labs, go to the races and go to the tests to help run the cars.
“I was actually employed as a design and R&D engineer working on vehicle simulation because they didn’t have one. So we built the first vehicle simulation for them during that year, but because of the state of the company you basically had to become a jack of all trades. I remember – and I’m not a mechanic – but we were in a situation where I was mechanic-ing sometimes at tests.
“It was fantastic but even I knew that there was something not completely right and six months later they pulled out of Formula 1. But it was very good for me, it was just a fantastic year. I got paid £12,000 a year and I didn’t care, I couldn’t care less. I would have done it for nothing.”
At the end of the season, which was Adelaide, he stayed around for a couple of weeks and the rumours started to swirl. He called headquarters before getting on the plane to Detroit for a conference to be told everything was okay. And when he finally made it to Norwich a few days later, there was nothing. No team. No job.
‘Hey Peewee?’ was the next call and that pointed him to Jordan for seven years. He started in the back room as a vehicle-dynamics engineer and then after six months he was in the race team as a data engineer. A couple of years later he was bored, so he convinced the bosses, including Eddie Jordan, to create a R&D department.
“We set up the team’s first seven-post rig and then worked on a lot of active programmes, like power steering, active differentials, active gearboxes... I definitely got involved in a lot of different things. F1 was still at a point where you could spread yourself across the business. It’s not like that at all anymore, it’s extremely specialised.”
From 1994 to 1998 it was all about the development, then he stepped in to engineer the car for Ralf Schumacher and it all changed. The following year he looked after Heinz-Harald Frentzen as the team reached its peak: third in the constructors’ championship, two wins for Frentzen and third in the drivers’ championship. But then the team started a downward slide on its way out of the sport. Michael wasn’t into that, so he joined Williams. His wage had gone up, but that was never a factor.
Australians have had a soft spot for Williams since Alan Jones won the world drivers’ championship in 1980. Michael came on board as the chief engineer and then, when Patrick Head stepped back a bit, became technical director. He spent there 11 years there.
“Formula 1’s a 24/7 sport,” explains Michael.
“I’d start in the wind tunnel and get to the aero guys and understand what they did in the last 12 hours overnight. You’ve got to remember, in Formula 1 things change so fast that what you thought was fact at 7am is fiction by 7pm. It’s so fast changing, it’s such an agile sport and you have to get used to change or you won’t survive in Formula 1. It’s a change-management industry, everything’s changing all the time.
“Relative to the real world, budget wasn’t an issue I had to manage; you know if you’re working for a team with people like Frank Williams and Patrick, or Ron Dennis when I was at McLaren, they’ll spend whatever it takes to make a car go faster.
“The people in the team, they’re basically like heroin addicts – especially the aero guys – and their drug is speed and they want more. So if you put money in front of them, they’ll grab it straight away.
“That’s basically what F1’s all about; it’s about lap times, and the best team bosses will just find a way of paying for stuff. That’s their job. Of course, you have to meet a budget and do those things, but you can stretch. You can do a lot of stretching as you work with that.
“Now there’s also a great beauty in that Formula 1; for all its politics and showbiz, and all the money that flows through, it’s still dominated by Newton’s laws of physics.
“You can’t get away from that, so you can go out and tell any story you want but your car is dominated by F=ma and, because of that, it grounds the entire sport.”
All teams go in cycles and eventually Michael left to join McLaren when Williams was on a downward trend. Once he’d done the rounds of the best in the UK, he started thinking about what was next. It was either return to Australia then or never.
So the family packed up shop and opted for a simpler life, one where Michael could be a father and husband, where he could sit at the table without lining up his peas like some sort of engineering exercise. When he did make the move he realised how much intensity there had been in two decades in Formula 1.
Before he left the UK he set up a software business that specialised in applied machine learning and arti- ficial intelligence, although he had to sit idle for six months to round out his McLaren career. He did just that and then worked on the software company until Triple Eight Race Engineering’s Roland Dane started knocking on his door.
Dane did so a few times before Michael relented and went to visit the factory, where he was convinced to take on a part-time consultancy-type role.
He says the role is more engineer mentor than any- thing else. He doesn’t get involved with the nitty gritty but he is a sounding board, maybe even a bit of ‘have you thought about this or that’ but not much more.
The technology has surprised him. He views that Supercars are a bit like an open-wheeler now with a body shell. He’s given some input from his knowledge around turbo engines, helping on technical issues around heat and the like, but also in making sure they don’t make the engine sound flat like an F1 engine.
So Michael came home to get out of racing, and then he snuck back in.
“I guess it never gets out of you, if you’re competitive it never will,” says Michael.
“People who are in competition, like Formula 1 or Supercars are, as I said earlier, just in change management.
“When you go and ask someone to change something in racing, they’ll change it, because they know you’re trying to make it more reliable or faster.
“Go into the normal world and you ask people to change something and it’s like you’ve just started World War II. Sport demands change. And if you don’t change you are dead. I need that in my life.”
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