While IndyCar Series chief executive Randy Bernard continues to resist calls for the resignation of his embattled race director Brian Barnhart, a leadership expert feels that keeping the status quo might be causing unwanted and serious side-effects within the organization’s rank and file.
John Wright, president and managing director of the Canadian Management Centre, looked at two recent incidents involving IndyCar race control in New Hampshire and Baltimore, the statements made by the people involved in the controversies, and the actions taken by the series in response. He came away with some concerns about the leadership being displayed by Barnhart, which may be creating a climate within the organization that erodes trust and integrity.
“When you are a leader — especially of something like this — there is an assumption of a high level of expertise and confidence and that’s why you can make those decisions,” Wright said.
“So, you are expecting that person is going to be able to make the call and if something goes wrong, either because they personally made a bad call of somebody below them made a bad call, they will take full accountability for it.”
“That’s the model of leadership: You may not be responsible for everything that happens, but you are certainly accountable.”
Bernard has repeated his support for Barnhart on several occasions, saying he is 100 per cent behind his man in race control, who is also the vice-president of operations for the series.
Wright reviewed the statements by Barnhart, who is responsible for ensuring on-track safety, after he made a call to restart a race last month in New Hampshire during a drizzle. The result was a five-car pile-up once the cars accelerated to take the green flag. The decision was made despite protests from drivers and teams that it was too wet to race safely.
After the action in New Hampshire was ultimately red-flagged, Barnhart went on the television broadcast to explain that he was accountable but went on to add that he didn’t get any new information about the conditions from the IndyCar officials who liaise with the teams or the pace car driver which would have helped him see that a restart was ill-advised.
“He repeatedly made comments that he was accountable for the decision, but he certainly deviated from that by indicating who might be at fault and not directly taking full accountability for it,” said Wright, who insisted that any blame for poor decision making and the consequences that follow, must be borne by the person in charge.
“They are dealing with people’s lives — I don’t think it’s any different than what a surgeon does in the operating room to make sure that everything is happening properly, or what a pilot does when they are flying a plane.”
Although many drivers have shied away from commenting publicly on the Barnhart situation because of possible fines or suspensions, Penske driver Helio Castroneves let fly on Twitter after the IndyCar race in Japan on Saturday where he was penalized by race control for a late pass in a corner where a local yellow flew. He dropped from seventh at the finish line to 22nd in the race classification after the penalty was applied.
“It is sad to see one person being responsible for bringing down an entire series,” Castroneves wrote.
“Brian Barnhart is inconsistent and even changes the rule book when it is convenient for him, and his own personal interests.”
While he made his point differently, Wright felt the atmosphere likely created by the boss’ failure to take responsibility for decisions and incidents is one that’s not conducive to high performance teams.
Also troubling for Wright was the fact that Barnhart escaped unpunished from the New Hampshire despite saying he was fully accountable for his bad decision, while a truck driver who admitted an error at a few weeks later in Baltimore was suspended for two races for his mistake.
“It points to a double standard,” Wright said. “There is definitely something wrong when someone makes an error two weeks later and is penalized.”
Bernard said there was “serious evaluation” of what happened in Baltimore and in that process the series determined that the safety driver made a mistake.
But when asked about the lack of punishment for Barnhart after he also admitted a mistake with his disastrous call in New Hampshire, Bernard fell back to the refrain that his race director didn’t get the facts he needed to make the right call.
“We had ran laps that were slightly misty before and that was the same type of information they were still receiving. You don’t think it has happened in NASCAR? That exact call has happened in other motorsports,” he said.
“I am going to make decisions in IndyCar that are consistent and fair, I believe there were parameters in the Loudon event that for why I made the decisions and I have factors in the Baltimore event that were why I made that decision.”
The more appropriate reaction, especially considering Barnhart escaped punishment for his mistake would have been a reprimand and then coaching for the safety truck driver who made the error in Baltimore, Wright suggested.
In the Baltimore incident, a safety truck streaked into its position as the field rounded the first corner following the green flag. Driving in the wrong direction, the truck narrowly missed colliding with Ganassi’s Graham Rahal. Apparently the driver went to his designated position at another corner only to find it already occupied, so he sped to another location without informing race control.
“From a public relations perspective, I thought it was kind of interesting that in both circumstances, it wasn’t clearly articulated what was going to be changed or done differently so those circumstances wouldn’t recur. That’s what I would expect to see as a business leader,” Wright said.
“And also to benefit the organization, not pointing a finger but saying: ‘We are all in the solution game and we’ve quickly assessed this and this is how we are going to make sure that these types of things won’t happen again.’ Then you close the door and have the conversations you need to have with the individuals.”
Canadian drivers in tough in Europe
A pair of Canadians vying for high-profile driving titles in Europe found only bad luck in their respective series as things get down to the nitty gritty.
Robert Wickens, of Guelph, Ont., saw his lead in the World Series by Renault 3.5 championship shrink to a scant two points after a disappointing weekend at the Paul Ricard Circuit in France. He managed a second place finish in the first race but then a puncture caused by another driver put him 19th in the second. Meanwhile, his only title rival, teammate Jean-Eric Vergne, scored a win and a third place finish. Drivers get 25 points for a win. The World Series runs two races per weekend. The pair will hit the track again in three weeks at Barcelona in a winner-take-all showdown for the 2011 title.
In Oschersleben, Germany, Mercedes driver Bruno Spengler’s DTM title challenge hit a speed bump after mechanical issues forced him out of the race. The St-Hippolyte, Que., native looked to be cruising to a second place finish ahead of title rival Martin Tomczyk. Instead, he is now nine points behind Audi’s Martin Tomczyk with two races remaining in the DTM season. Drivers get 10 points for a win. The next DTM stop is at Valencia on Oct. 2.