Driver-engineer relationships are key for success in motorsport, and this year’s Formula 2 champion Felipe Drugovich benefited from rekindling a winning partnership to turn into the driver to beat
MP Motorsport has been moving up the grid in Formula 2 and FIA Formula 3 over the past three years, and it’s primarily been down to a hiring spree that has not only brought in top technical talents, but also a different philosophy to the team.
Conversations with MP personnel in late 2019 and then in 2020 pointed to the change (particularly in the team’s competitivity) that would be happening now that ex-Prema man Paolo Angilella was setting the technical direction in F2 and F3. Internal ambivalence about if there would really be a radical change to proceedings turned into confidence, and when the COVID-19 pandemic-delayed 2020 F2 seaon began it was clear that things were on the up.
The wins in F2 that year helped bring in new sponsorship but also convinced the Alpine Formula 1 team of the potential of the three-year project was underway at MP, and it placed its juniors in the team’s FIA F3 line-up for 2021. That proved to be a trickier season across both championships, but top talents were still attracted on the driving and engineering side for 2022.
Last December, Angilella managed to convince his superiors to hire two people he wanted to reunite with and thought would deliver MP a heap of success for the next year. The first was Mattia Oselladore, technical director of Prema’s title-hoovering FIA European F3 programme back when Angilella was a race engineer there, and the second was Felipe Drugovich. In 2020, Drugovich had won three races as an F2 rookie with MP, but had moved to Virtuosi Racing in 2021.
Angilella’s MP story began two years earlier, as team principal Sander Dorsman contacted him asking “if I could help him to, let’s say, bring the team in the new way of motorsport”, he recalls to Formula Scout.
“So yeah, I accepted the bet let’s say, the challenge more than a bet. The first thing I found was a lot of people very, very, very motivated. And this is still there. It’s one of the keys of the speed of the growing process of MP, because everybody here put their heart in front of everything. And then I just brought some system and methodology, this kind of stuff, trying to apply a bit more scientific way of working than I expect what they were used to in previous time.
“Year-by-year I’ve finetuned the team, trying to attract people that I knew, that were fundamental for the process. And of course we had ‘luck’ to get Felipe in the first year, because he was good from the beginning. We were rookies. I was a rookie for working in F2, he was rookie as well. We had done a great season, then he got the decision that was understandable at the time [to leave].
“Finally we tried again this year, because he was not satisfied by the previous year, and he’s done well. The going is never, never, never ended, there’s still a lot of jobs to do. But I’m still surprised about, I say at least from outside, the jump that we have done in only three years. Because in only three years in honesty we sought to challenge [for wins], and consolidate the team for years and years and years.
“The idea was because when I spoke to Sander [in late 2019] I said ‘at least three years to see the first shadow of improvement’, and of course so far we have overtaken that first expectation.
“We are all very happy. But we have to still have the foot stuck on the ground, because still a long job. My original plan was three years, then I found, finding and I’m feeling so comfortable here, especially from the human side, that I decided to extend. My plan is this to be the last team of my career, because I’m already 50. So OK, so hopefully I don’t need to work until 85! I hope it will be my last one.”
But with the success that Angilella was having each year with Prema, which is the Italian’s local team, what really motivated him to join a very different Dutch outfit?
“It was something really personal. I was very, very comfortable in Prema in 2019. I’m still in fantastic relationship with all the [managing] Rosin family especially, and with all the people there, we’re all friends. And I’m living just one kilometre from Rene [Rosin].”
Angilella plans to stay at MP for a long time, but he lives in Vicenza in Italy (and plans to do so for years to come) as he is unwilling to relocate his family to the Netherlands. When the F2 and F3 schedule is intense he tends to do his workshop work remotely, “but in the winter time or calm time, I go every week; maybe not full week, but every week I go there”.
“The fact was, let’s say, after six, seven years, the structure [at Prema] was quite fixed. Of course I wanted to jump in F2, and at that moment there was no space. But mainly was a challenge of the role. Because in Prema I was not in charge of the team. So I wanted to prove to myself if I could have been able to basically build a team around me and going together. And oof, I’m struggling, but it’s going well. I find it really difficult to follow both [F2 and F3], because I’m in charge of both teams. So I’m still struggling.”
But Angilella anticipates the struggle to manage the workload now will pay off for leading both operations in the future.
“The [F3] team needed to be built and be fully autonomous to then just overview. And we are still in this process. So at the moment it takes me quite a bit of effort to follow both. Especially this year. Last was much easier, because it was one weekend fully focused on F2, one weekend fully focused on F3, and I could do much, much better and it was much easier. This year is more difficult but of course I’m trying to do my best.”
Having the overview of two series helped Angilella convince former Prema colleagues to follow him to MP, as it provided opportunities across two programmes. Veteran F2 race engineer Daniele Rossi was the first to “let’s say, accept the challenge with me” and join, then Carlo Sterrantino – formerly the chief engineer and team co-ordinator at RP Motorsport – and Oselladore arrived last Christmas but in smaller roles than they had previously been used to.
“So Mattia became available, just at the end of last year. I spoke to Sander and I said: this is the guy we need, we must get. I was at the beginning maybe a bit worried because we would have inverted roles compared to what was in Prema, but so far I’m just finding benefits from that. He was the technical director, I was a race engineer. And now I’m the technical director, he’s a race engineer. But so far we have really worked well together, with no problems.”
In addition to convincing new hires of MP’s ambitions, Angilella also had to communicate his plans to the exiting staff at the team and one of the first to pick up on the direction that he wanted to take the team in was Nicolas ‘Kiki’ Pipet.
“Nicholas is the performance guy here. He was engineering in F3 in 2019. He was the first guy that was already in MP really following me by day one. In fact when I started, I was not let’s say officially employed in MP when it was the 2019 Macau Grand Prix, so Kiki was engineering Richard Verschoor and I remotely assisted, and we worked together, and the beginning [of that relationship] was super, super good because winning Macau is always something that is quite impressive.”
There is another Angilella-influenced hire that is primarily workshop-based and is “specialised in coding and programming”, then Thomas Leroy is now the chief F3 engineer after previously engineering MP’s Formula Renault Eurocup programme. He was an F2 performance engineer last year, before Angilella moved him to become “my first reference in F3”.
“He’s super good, he’s young so of course he needs his growing process but he’s super good [already]. We introduced Thomas Tessorre last year from Hitech [as a F3 race engineer]. Super good guy, super nice as well. And this year we bring Carlo, who was Felipe’s engineer in Euroformula. So he had a hard recommendation from Felipe, and he was right because we are feeling well. So from the engineering group I think we are OK. We just need to keep working, keep pushing.”
It’s not just been how people have been used within MP that has led to a bigger return in results, but how its resources have been used too.
“If we start from 2020, of course it was a kind of priority. So it was first to have let’s say the set-up tools, the electronic set-up tools, being used properly. So be confident in the numbers that you are reading. This was the first step. Then we approached the simulation world that of course is needed [these days]. This is the year we added the collaboration with MegaRide [an applied vehicle research firm] for tyres. It’s a company which is advising in tyre-wise, and provides that service to a few teams in F2 already.
“So year-by-year, when I’m happy with everything, you cannot start with putting a bomb, because it never works. You start with priority things. When these things are working properly and automatically, then you do the second step. And then the third one. Then you go more and more and more, but in a fluid way. And regarding the group, you can get the best people that you want, but then the key is, from my side, to make them work together and especially use his one for his skill.”
Angilella thinks how labour specialisation has been applied at MP is not common elsewhere in the F1 support paddock.
“If you are let’s say good in statistics and bad in aerodynamics, and another one is the other way around, of course I have to ask you to do statistics and to him to do aerodynamics. If I ask to do 50% of the job both, I’m not using the full potential. So even, especially in winter and for the tools, because everyone in this paddock has tons of tools for everything, especially in the winter I use F2 and F3 as a group.
“We have all the same, so we develop all the same, and of course it needs adaptation from one category to the other. But so I can then have the support and the help from double the people. So this is quite important, this is something in my past I never saw. I always saw the categories maybe had something in common, okay, but then the categories were quite separate [in staffing]. Here, F2 and F3 are in the same office, the same garden, and we really work as a group. So a lot of time there is one guy of F3 developing something from F2 and the other way round.”
Alpine junior Caio Collet, one of MP’s F3 driver for the past two years, said to Formula Scout that he felt the benefit of work that went across both series. Fellow Brazilian Drugovich has also raved about the team’s improvements, and reuniting with Angilella this year after he was engineered by him in 2020 has been the core of his F2 title success.
Angilella engineered two of Prema’s F3 champions, and has worked with a lot of drivers over several decades. Having keyed in a technical philosophy to the garage staff, has he done the same with his drivers?
“This, it’s not always the same, because it depends on the character of the driver and of course of the engineer. There are drivers that are very interested, some of them clearly too much. Which is something that I don’t really like, because then I have the feeling that while they drive, instead of just feeling the car, they are thinking about what the diff is doing, what the damper is doing, or whatever thing. This means it makes their ship burst, you know. And the ship when it’s busy, then it’s lower. So I don’t like that.
“I like when the driver drives, and that’s it. And the other way around, so driver that has no idea and they don’t even ask. They say ‘OK, give me the tyres and I go’. Then there is the average. So speaking about the one I know better, which is Felipe, because it’s two years. The first year was very nice, because we were both rookies, and so we were really, really working together, the experience in testing was we were really one-to-one. And of course the last call in technical is mine, and then he needs to drive. Te collaboration was just amazing. He helped me a lot to have a first baseline of the car and to go with this.
“But now it’s another story, because now he has two more years experience. We don’t’need anymore so much development, it’s normally fine-tuning and to do the last dressing for the specific track. We’re still working together, but it’s not first catch. It’s already from base. He’s involved as well [elsewhere], he helps a lot strategy-wise etc. When you have the luck to have such an intelligent guy, then it’s a very good help.
“So in general I always involve [drivers], as team philosophy, I always involve the drivers to participate, to get involved to the technical and decisions maybe, without telling tools of the tale, because still they don’t need it and it’s just useless [extra information]. But I’m quite clear about what I’m going to do, why I’m going to do that, because then we can learn together. And they have to know what we have done, what is the actual reaction to the action we have done.”
The approach to the F3 drivers is the same as F2, and last year’s split calendar where the two series didn’t share weekends helped in thorougly applying changes to both squads.
“But the other thing of course, that I forgot to say, is trying to create an atmosphere which has to be a good balance between enjoying and be a bit funny, but serious,” Angilella explains.
“Because the atmosphere in the team, even between team-mates, they can be worst enemies in the truck, but out of the truck they need to be best friends. Because it’s better then. This is difficult to happen, but it’s better than to fight P1-P2, but having helping each other to arrive there, than hiding [data] which is quite common, to have the worst enemies even in the truck and so hiding the things from your team-mate, and the other one doing the same. So no one grows. It’s just not clever at all. It is difficult to make the drivers understand this. Depending even who they are, if they have a good feeling with each other, then it’s easier. It’s another key point, and not always works.”
Fortunately for MP this year, Drugovich and team-mate Clement Novalak have a bond that has been said to actually ease any tension in the team. There will be a new line-up in 2023, and MP is now higher up the list for drivers looking for the most competitive seat in F2. But the driver-engineer relationship really has been key to winning the 2022 F2 title, and Angilella gets philosophical about what it means for signing MP’s next drivers.
“This is the kind of loop, with a big inertia, to make people convinced that the things are changing.
“There are, let’s say, very famous teams that for years have not had good performance that are still on that top list of people. And there are teams, as us, that to me was quite clear even in 2020 that we had a good potential. One thing is still happening for some reason is that in all the three years we had one driver much faster than the other. And this is not a good thing for a team, because this shows that one driver is good and the other is obviously average and the team is there.
“So I’m pretty sure that the feeling from our side is regarding MP in 2020 was that Felipe was a phenomenon. He is a super-good driver, I’m not saying he’s not. But that was only between us [two]. The year after he went to Virtuosi and he was beaten by Zhou every single qualifying bar one. [The success was] between us. So it was not only him.
“So we have to arrive to the moment to have two cars constantly on the top for two, three, four years in a row, and then yes, then you will live off this nice loop, because of course then you can choose [drivers], you can ask more [budget from them]…”
The gap between drivers within a team can be down to differences in driving style as well as ability, but it’s not easy to get a driver line-up with similar styles when you only have one post-season test to ‘audition’ candidates, and normally taking place at a time when the drivers for next year have already been signed, but not announced.
“Normally you do your study. You do your baseline looking for the best performance you can have. Then there is the balance, which is a different thing from the performance. And the balance needs to be adressed a bit on the drivers. We have the baseline car which has the performance, [from] the philosophy of the car. And then there is a small adaptation for the driver.
“Maybe one wants the rear a bit more stable, one wants the front a bit more aggressive, there is a small range that you play with this. But the baseline is pulled by normally the fastest driver of the team. Every team I think [has it] like that. I don’t think there is any F2 teams that have one car completely different to the other. Maybe there is, I don’t know.
“So this is the baseline of work. But then there is another thing. For example if you want to maximise the performance of your car for straights, you do your set-up, you develop for years and years the best car for brakinf as late as possible. It doesn’t matter what happens then in the corner.
“Or you develop your car for maximum cornering speed. Two different philosophies can maybe do exactly the same laptime, but when you put one driver who is used to by instinct to be fast into the corner, so maybe braking not super late but really easy on the brake and carrying the maximum speed he can, then he will be super fast with a car that can roll into the corner.
“If you put this driver in the car that is done just for braking as late as possible, he will never brake as late as possible. He will try to do his driving, and he will be slow for that.
“So it depends. When you change drivers year by year, you have to be quick to understand how much you can push the driver to your way, or how much you have to give to him. It’s a balance of things. And quicker you are to understand, and to get a result if you are lucky and you are able to get a result, the better it is.
“There are drivers who jump in our, let’s call it, ‘standard’ car and they are immediately super happy, and some say ‘fuck that, it’s not doing this, bla bla bla, it’s impossible, etc. And basically the potential is finally to do the same laptime because then you see there is 100, and between cars, and then maybe are done with completely different targets.”
Novalak has spoken to Formula Scout about the contrast between his driving style and what the Dallara F2 2018 and its Pirelli tyres tend to require, and Drugovich has outscored him by over 200 points this year.
Both drivers have been treated equally, but Angilella’s point is that when changes have been made to both cars to try to make them both go faster, Drugovich’s driving has influenced the direction of those changes more purely because it’s his laptimes that have more frequently provided the ‘performance limit’ of the car and therefore highlighted what needs to be improved upon. But, as has occurred at Red Bull this year in F1, eventually it can become a self-fulfilling cycle if the faster driver only ever reinforces their advantage with those car changes.
There’s still one more round of the F2 season to go, before the attention switches to winning in 2023.
Words by Ida Wood. Interview by Roger Gascoigne
Read more from MP Motorsport Week
Drugovich: What the F2 paddock make of their new champion
Why Novalak has had to change his driving style to progress in F2
Book review: How MP Motorsport grew from its FFord origins
How MP adapted to Angilella’s ‘new way’