James Key

© Sauber, 10 February 2011

© Sauber
Technical Director, Sauber
Nationality : British
Date of Birth : 14th January, 1972
Place of Birth : Chelmsford, UK

Already James Key can look back on a remarkable career, one that is distinguished by a steep ascent and strong corporate allegiance – a rare blend in Formula 1. At the age of 33 he became one of the youngest technical directors in F1 history. His career began in Nottingham, where he took a degree in Mechanical Engineering financed by a scholarship from Lotus Engineering. “I’ve always been interested in engineering and automotive technology,” he says, “and thanks to the backing from Lotus I was always closely involved with the world of cars. Plus, mechanical engineering is a very broad-based subject that touches on a lot of related disciplines, and that really appealed to me.” One of his end-of-year papers was on race car data acquisition.

Watching car racing has always been a passion of his. As a youngster, Key would be taken along to rallies by his father. By the time he was 10 he had developed an interest in Formula 1, and it was around the same time that he resolved on a future career in F1. That desire steadily grew and eventually came to fruition.

After two years of working as a designer on Lotus’ GT programme, James Key embarked on his Formula 1 career in 1998 as a data engineer with Jordan, where he subsequently became race engineer to Takuma Sato. After a year in the aerodynamics department, he was appointed Head of Vehicle Dynamics. In 2005, not long after the team was taken over by the Midland Group, he was made Technical Director, a post he continued to hold during the team’s transition to SpykerF1 and eventually Force India. Key was responsible for the VJM02, with which the private outfit claimed one pole position, one podium finish and a fastest race lap in the 2009 season. “Those were very rewarding accomplishments,” he says, “but there had already been a few high points before then.” His first victory with Jordan in 1998 was clearly one of them. He also looks back fondly to the 1999 season, when he was Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s data engineer. But not all the great memories are down to points: “Success is when you do better than expected,” he believes. “In Formula 1 we’re all aiming high. Not being successful simply isn’t an option around here.”

He knew the facilities at Hinwil would grant him scope for development. On 1st April 2010 he was appointed the team’s Technical Director, though initially there was no room for “better than expected”. Cautiously but confidently, he identified the weaknesses of the C29 and outlined the requisite measures and structural modifications. For Key it is crucial to have a “productive culture” – in other words, positive cooperation between highly skilled people who can communicate properly and always aim for the maximum.

Key is a keen traveller and an insatiable reader. On his trips to foreign parts he will pick up even the most fleeting insights into the various cultures he encounters. During long-haul flights he likes to immerse himself in thick tomes. On the fiction front his preference is for page-turning spy thrillers, while his non-fiction reading tends to revolve around the sciences. He is fascinated by what is happening around us and what holds the world together. 2011 will see the entire Key family settle in Switzerland, with his wife Sally and their three children joining him from England. It could mean a revival of those husband-and- wife tennis matches that help him chill out. “That’s one area where I’m not obsessed with winning,” he says with a grin.

 

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Related: 2011, Sauber

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