Teams operating in all areas of elite sport are often reluctant to embrace leading-edge technology. While innovation can help generate a competitive advantage, it can also increase risk – it’s for this reason that CIOs of sports teams often choose to focus on operational concerns. Yet Gary Foote, CIO at Rich Energy Haas F1, has a subtly different brief.
The team, which started racing in Formula 1 in 2016, has a considerably smaller budget than manufacturer-backed rivals such as Mercedes and Ferrari. As a result, Haas F1 looks to embrace digital systems and services that might lead to higher race finishes. For Foote, this willingness to support internal creativity and to source external expertise is a break from the standard approach, not just in terms of elite sport, but also in technology leadership generally.
“The management team here really respects the power of technology, and I’m incredibly lucky to have that support,” he says.
“Technology is seen as an enabler for the business. I know that’s not always the case for all CIOs, who face an executive team who hold a traditional position, where IT is seen as a consumer of time and money and not much else. We don’t have that, we’re really lucky, and that allows us to flex our technical muscles a little bit.”
Taking pole position
Foote is a technology graduate with a long career in motor racing. He started by working for the Cosworth Technology business and then for Honda Racing F1. Foote says his experience of using technology systems trackside at Cosworth provided crucial experience when it came to moving into F1.
“It is a bit of a trick,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to work effectively in those environments, often with very low sleep levels, and still be able to react. It’s challenging but exciting.”
“The management team here really respects the power of technology and I’m incredibly lucky to have that support”
Gary Foote, Rich Energy Haas F1
After spending three years with Brawn GP, Foote worked with Mercedes Grand-Prix for five years before becoming director of IT at Haas F1 in March 2016. He was promoted to CIO in January 2017 and has overall responsibility for all IT systems, services and staff in the Haas F1 team’s global operations that span UK, US, Italy and trackside.
“Mercedes is a great company. I only left because the opportunity at Haas provided a really unique challenge that rarely comes up in this sport,” he says.
“It was a company that was ingrained in US car racing and was moving into F1. I was given the opportunity to move into a greenfield site and build things up my way and to my vision.”
Foote recognised the opening provided a big break, yet he also knew the move wasn’t without risks.
“The last few teams that joined F1 hadn’t ended so well and I was leaving a very good company,” he says. “But this, as I said, was a unique opportunity – and I just knew I had to jump at it. And we’ve been really successful.”
Creative solutions to business challenges
While Haas F1 is now looking to explore leading-edge technology, Foote says his approach when joining the firm was quite traditional. Rather than dabbling in innovation, the IT department focused on systems it knew worked and would be effective.
“We lowered the risk because we had to help the team get a car on the grid in March 2016,” he says. “The remit from the company was simply to help get two cars across the finish line. It wasn’t to win races or even to be the best IT crew. It was more about our whole business pulling together, with one single objective: both cars finishing in [the first race of the season in] Australia.”
That first goal was achieved and Foote was able to gradually build on top of this platform. He says the team is now in a position to start thinking more creatively in its technology. In terms of his own successes since joining the team, Foote points to key leadership and strategy accomplishments.
“Putting in a service level agreement-driven team and making sure we’re running like a business, rather than a race team. We’ve got the ability to spend when we need to, but I want to make sure that when we do, we make intelligent decisions. F1 is inherently a finance-heavy and reactive sport – I wanted to do things a little bit differently and work more proactively and smarter,” he says.
“I’ve set up business committees that you can’t do when you’re simply focused on getting a product out the door. One of those committees, for example, was on business continuity – now that’s an ingrained process throughout the company. We’ve been able to go to the business and say, in areas like high-performance computing, we can do something different and add value. And those approaches have turned out really well.”
Delivering results for the business
Foote says his IT department has two key priorities. One is the underlying service, which allows people across the rest of the business to work. “The technology we put in shouldn’t become a blocker,” he says.
Foote says security products can be a hindrance here – by the nature of their job, they try to stop people doing certain things. So across the technology stack, his team aims to make sure that the people at the front end of the racing team are able to work to the best of their abilities without worrying that technology might stop them.
One of the key technology partnerships Foote has developed is with security specialist Nominet. Haas F1 uses Nominet’s NTX cyber security platform to help keep the team’s data networks secure. Foote says the technology analyses domain name system (DNS) traffic to predict, detect and block threats to the network before they cause harm.
“Our business model as a company relies on that kind of trust. We use outsourcing and have to go to experts in their field, be that Ferrari for engines, Dallara for carbon parts, or Nominet for security,” he says.
Foote says his second key priority is using technology to bolster the team’s success on the track. As a sports team, he says Haas F1 is characterised by its differences, particularly when compared to its manufacturer-backed and cash-rich racing rivals. These differences include a low headcount of about 190 people, which is about half the size of other smaller F1 teams.
“We turn our smaller size into a strength,” he says. “We use smart technology and an agile approach to deploy systems and services quickly. In a competitive sport, everybody’s looking at what everybody else is doing. So we almost need to be one step ahead of the game.”
Using technology to add value
Foote recognises that delivering both operational certainty and leading-edge innovation requires a careful balance. “Both matter – but, ultimately, if you’re not doing the groundwork right, then there’s no point doing the shiny stuff,” he says.
Gary Foote, Rich Energy Haas F1
Haas F1 is a young business – while the firm is maturing quickly, it’s only been racing in F1 for just over three years. As Foote mentioned, the early days of the team were focused on the core service. During the past 12 months, the team has entered a new phase.
“We’ve established the foundations now,” he says. “Sure, there’s some polishing to do and improvements – it’s a continuous evolution. But we’ve also got some capacity, so that I can challenge my team and ask them to start innovating and thinking about how we as an IT team can add value to the company.”
Foote says some of the leading-edge areas his team are beginning to investigate include artificial intelligence and machine learning – both areas that can potentially provide a significant advantage in manufacturing processes.
“Once again, the remit of the company is to keep its headcount low,” says Foote. “I have to exhaust every possible avenue before I go to my boss and ask for extra people. We’re in the fortunate position that the board trusts us to have done the due diligence before we go and ask for additional human resources.”
Heading to the front of the grid
Haas F1 came fifth in last year’s Constructors’ Championship. Foote says success for the team is to keep moving upwards: “If we can do steady increases, that would be great.”
Changes being introduced into the sport in 2021 will have a significant impact. New rules, a new governance structure, a new revenue distribution strategy and new cost controls will make a big difference. Foote hopes these rules will help level the playing field in Formula 1.
“We see ourselves as well placed because we’re already working towards relatively strict budget guidelines. Over the next 24 months, my plan is to make sure we’re gearing ourselves up for the change in regulations, even though we can’t be entirely sure what those regulations will entail,” he says.
“By staying lean and agile, we have a strength – and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want legacy systems that will be tomorrow’s Achilles heel. We’ve got an opportunity to limit that legacy the best we can.”
As an example, Foote and his colleagues in IT pushed hard for the business to move from Microsoft Windows 7 to Windows 10 as soon as it was a stable platform. There are now no Windows 7 devices at all in the business. It’s a disruptive approach that Foote says characterises the team’s approach to IT, and he hopes it will pay long-term dividends.
“Ultimately, it could be seen as a more risky strategy and we know that – the business model is a little bit more risky,” he says. “But with risk comes reward.”