Force India F1's announcement that Mark Smith was to replace the departing James Key as technical director has been put into firmer focus by Sauber's announcement that the Briton is to take over from veteran Willy Rampf in a similar position from the start of April.
The change has been long in the planning, with Rampf having already served ten years at the head of the Hinwil team, and already trying to step back two seasons ago following BMW's taking control. Now, however, the 56-year old has found a suitable replacement in the form of 38-year old Key, who leaves Force India having served under four different owners since Eddie Jordan first hired him in 1998.
Rampf will leave Sauber entirely at the end of April, while Key will assume his new position from the start of the same month.
“When you're technical director of an F1 team, the job comes first and everything else is subordinate to it," Rampf explained, "Peter Sauber gave me the chance to enter this league of motorsport and I greatly value all my years spent working with the team. I have done my job with a passion for ten years, but now it's time to hand over the baton.”
After two years as a designer with Lotus, Key launched his F1 career as a data engineer with Jordan, where he went on to become Takuma Sato's race engineer. After a year in the aerodynamics department, he was made head of vehicle dynamics and, soon after the Midland Group took over the team, was appointed technical director ahead of the 2005 season, at the age of just 33.
He retained this position when the team became SpykerF1 and, ultimately, Force India, and oversaw the VJM02 which the small privateer team took a pole position, a podium place and a fastest race lap in 2009.
“Despite his young age, James looks back on more than a decade of experience in F1 – and the 2009 car in particular proved quite a revelation," team principal Peter Sauber commented, "James comes from a private team and knows how to work around a limited budget but, with us, will enjoy high-level technical opportunities. Willy and James will be devoting April to the handover.
"I have known about Willy's plans for some time, of course, and fully understand his decision. He has achieved great things for our team since I managed to get him on board as race engineer for the 1994 season. In 1998, he temporarily left the team to pursue his Paris-Dakar Rallye dream and ran BMW's motorcycle involvement – a successful interlude, as we know - but, in 1999, he returned to the fold with the clear aim of becoming technical director. It was practically his first F1 car that was out on the grid in 2001, and we finished fourth in the constructors' championship as a privately-run team. We have Willy to thank for a great deal.”
Key, a graduate in mechanical engineering from the University of Nottingham, is currently preparing to move from Warwick to Switzerland, but had no doubt that Sauber was a team he wanted to work for.