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After 33 years in Formula One, and 24 World Championships under his belt, Geoff Willis returns to sailing to join INEOS Britannia as Technical Director with the goal of bringing the America’s Cup back to England.
“To win the America’s Cup for Britain would be incredibly special. I've been very fortunate to be part of winning many World Championships in Formula One which has given me a huge reward. To be part of winning the America's Cup for Britain for the first time ever would be a very big cherry on top of that cake.”
Geoff grew up on the South Coast of England, in Southampton, as many who find themselves in the sailing industry do. His first memory of sailing was out on the Solent, on a family friend’s classic cruising yacht. His next sailing memory was 20 years later when he worked on the 1987 America’s Cup Campaign, his first foray into the world of the America’s Cup.
As a child, Geoff found himself fascinated across multiple subjects: at school he enjoyed the traditional maths, physics, chemistry but also very keen on geography and Latin An avid Airix kit builder and tinkerer with all things mechanical as he grew into his later teens, electronics captured his attention, and a lot of time was spent working on motorbikes. Before university, Geoff spent a year working as a consultant for a civil engineer design firm. “It taught me I didn't want to be a civil engineer, but it confirmed that engineering was what I wanted to do.”
Geoff therefore completed his undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, studying Engineering, specializing in the more mathematical subjects of aerodynamics and thermodynamics. Although accepted there for a PhD, he decided to leave the academic world and took a post at the National Physical Laboratory. The PhD turned out to be merely postponed and not abandoned as he used his work in hydrodynamics to complete an external PhD with Exeter University. Always interested in maths because, “it's the language of a lot of science his PhD work took him into the world of mathematical and numerical modelling. Having a rational, analytical approach and understanding, as well as an interest in trying to understand how to do things is key.”
After university, his first job was in Oxfordshire working on CFD software development on one of the first super computers. One day, Geoff was contacted out of the blue by someone who was looking for a hydrodynamicist to work on an America’s Cup project. “I knew nothing about it, but thought, ‘what a fantastic opportunity’.” Geoff has been involved in competitive engineering ever since.
Geoff joined the America’s Cup Campaign of 1987 during the Blue Arrows syndicate, Unfortunately, there was a dispute between the New Zealanders and the Americans, resulting from NZ deciding to challenge in a 90 foot monohull and the US choosing to defend using a catamaran, which resulted . in a Deed of Gift Match, and as the British were the additional challenger, they never got the opportunity to compete. “However, during all the negotiations and legal arguments we spent much time thinking how a monohull could compete against a catamaran. and we came up with the fantastic concept of the Blue Arrow Foiler.” Part of Geoff’s role was designing the foils for the foil stabilized monohull; a very thin hull with two pairs of T-foils that provided all the righting moment. “It worked, and it was quite impressive.” His role at Blue Arrow had been hyper-focused on aerodynamics and hydrodynamics including towing tank tests, building up the first of the CFD, the panel codes used for estimating loads on the foils, keel and hull, and writing the VPP.
Whilst the America’s Cup campaign did not go the way Geoff had hoped for, the toolbox of knowledge that he had built for himself helped get him his first exposure to Formula One, where he was interested to see if he could use those same tools on a Formula One car. Geoff started some consultancy work with the Leytonhouse March team located in Bicester, where, Adrian Newey was Chief Designer. After a few months, Adrian moved to Williams, and Geoff followed suit. That was the beginning of Geoff’s Formula One career.
When Geoff first started working in Formula One, he was very involved in the technical detail. “I really enjoyed writing the software and designing parts to go in the wind tunnel and if successful yousaw these parts go on the car, which is a great balance from the constant pressure to find performance.” Formula One is all about great days and disastrous days, it's in your face all the time, and that is what he initially found most exciting. As he spent many years with various teams, however, over time he came realise that it is the people you work with that are most important. “There is a lot of reward from getting a group of clever, motivated people aligned and allowing them to grow. Over time, it's become more and more clear, the real challenge is getting all the clever people singing to the same to the same song book. And when it works, it's really rewarding.”
After a career in Formula One, through the team’s partnership with Mercedes-AMG F1 Applied Science, Geoff now finds himself returning to the America’s Cup as INEOS Britannia’s Technical Director. While this role can change daily, his immediate task is to bring the resources of the Mercedes F1 team to be used in the right way to support and make this America's Cup campaign as successful as possible for the team. “We are a very well-established engineering organization. We've worked out how to be successful in the world of Formula One, but we’re not sailing people. My task is to work out how to get the best of the Formula One world, to combine it with the best of the sailing world and support it.” The engineers and designers of Formula One need the experience and the skill set of the of the sailing team to be pointed in the right direction. “If we can get that mixture right, then I think we can be in a really strong force in Cup competition.”
Geoff Willis introduction to INEOS Britannia started a few years ago, when Ben Ainslie visited the Mercedes F1 team’s Brackley site during the 36th America’s Cup campaign. “I was only peripherally involved in in AC36 where I sat in on a few performance meetings, but as the relationship deepened between INEOS and Mercedes F1 it became very clear that there was good alignment in the types of skill sets. Suddenly, there was this opportunity, I was asked, ‘Would I like to take on this responsibility?’ And I thought, yes, what an opportunity! After I've achieved all that I have in Formula One, an opportunity to go back to where it all started is fantastic.”
Over the past few months, Geoff has been working to build the team and implement processes that work. “We are trying to make two different groups both feel part of one INEOS Britannia, we want to find where the skills overlap and where they reinforce each other, the non-stop task of team building and team refinement.”
Whilst there is a lot of overlap, one unique element of the America’s Cup, in comparison to Formula One, is that several years’ work builds up to the Challenger Series, and then to the Cup itself. “This is new for us in Formula One, where we have a season with 23 races; there are a lot of punctuation marks or key milestones and you get continuous feedback on your performance. Within the Cup, there is a long build up to the key moment of having the race boat on the water and then another long period of testing and working up to the event itself. To do that, the team has to be built up and we have set ourselves the task of designing and manufacturing a test boat to be put out on the water first. The test boat is there to improve and validate our tools as well as test the team itself. These key moments are going to continue to happen every time a new piece of material goes on, systems are installed, and masts go up, the team will begin to see how the boat is starting to come together.”
What makes the America’s Cup so unique, particularly for aerodynamicists, like Geoff, is that it's completely dominated by aerodynamics or hydrodynamics. “I love sitting in on meetings talking about foil design, rig design, the simulation, the dynamic simulation, and how we're going to optimize the optimization tools we're building. I come out with a buzz every day.”
As Geoff moves back to the America’s Cup again, he’s been able to see how remarkably similar the two businesses, America’s Cup and Formula One, are. While sails are very different from engines and tyres, the engineering challenges are very similar, In fact, Geoff believes that the Cup shares more similarities with F1 than F1 does with lower motorsport series. “The similarity is the fact you've got a very difficult technical problem, you've got a lot of resource, but huge time pressure, and you put all those together and you end up realizing you've got quite a similar cultural and competitive environment.”
When Geoff was asked what he does in his free time, he responded, “I’m very much a doing person.” Staying active and taking his brain away from work has always been very important to him, whether that is physical activity and sports like cycling, hiking and winter sports or hands-on tasks such as house extension projects or even helping to look after his son’s classic Land Rover. “When you've got a stressful job that takes up lot of your time, being able to have physical distraction resets you and allows you to keep going at full throttle.”
Reflecting on his successful career, Geoff has always taken all opportunities thrown at him. “You almost always regret the things you don't do more than the things you do. I've been very fortunate with the opportunities I have been given, but I’ve always kept my mind open. If you see something that's different, even if you feel a bit unsure about it, sometimes you just have to jump in. When I was in school, I didn’t know my job existed. Now, having been in it, I can't think of anything I'd rather do. It's hugely rewarding. Stressful, for sure, but when it all comes together, you just get such a buzz.”
To win the America’s Cup for Britain, would create an immense amount of pride for Geoff. “Some parts feel harder than Formula One as we have a bigger design space and we only get one go at it. Anybody that's involved in the America's Cup should take a huge amount of pride in that. It’s a really tough thing to do, but in the future to sit back and you look back, you can say, ‘Yep, I was part of that. That's what we did.”