Professor Derek Pugh, now Emeritus at the Open University, a member of the team who conducted the ‘Aston Studies’ of the 1960s, once said that every organisation has the strength of its weaknesses and the weakness of its strengths. What (I think) he meant was that strengths can become the source of a downfall, and weaknesses may provide the basis for new opportunities. .
This logic can also be applied to individuals, and in many ways you could portray this as a real sign of greatness: someone who is able to grasp the opportunity to turn a weakness into a strength. As a fan of music, and particularly the guitar, I am reminded of Django Reinhardt the great jazz guitarist who was badly injured in a fire at eighteen years old. Reinhardt re-taught himself to play the guitar and developed a unique style, only using his index and middle finger on his left hand when playing solos, as his other fingers had been paralysed as a consequence of the blaze. His distinctive style was sometimes referred to as ‘hot’ jazz, and for many he remains one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
A recent tweet from Richard Williams, concerning Ayrton Senna and his performance at the European Grand Prix at Donington in 1993, got me thinking about this question as it relates to Senna and his legacy. A few years ago I was chatting to someone at Cosworth about this amazing drive, and particularly the first lap when Senna moved from fourth, back to fifth, and then to lead the race by the end of the first lap. It is no secret that, at that time, the Cosworth in Senna’s McLaren was significantly underpowered, particularly when compared to the Renault engine in the Williams’ of Alain Prost and Damon Hill. However my friend regarded this as a potential advantage in the wet conditions, when it would be difficult, if not impossible, to use the power advantage of the Renault due to the low grip on the wet track. But he remarked that the Cosworth also had a smoother, flatter power curve which meant that it was easier to control than the more aggressive power curve of the Renault in low grip conditions, exactly like those at Donington in 1993.
One interpretation of this information is that perhaps Senna’s drive was not that exceptional because he had an engine advantage for the damp conditions that existed at the time. I prefer to look at it another way; he recognised the limitations of the Cosworth power unit during the 1993 season – which was why he moved to the Renault powered Williams for 1994 - and he therefore made sure that, given the wet track at Donington, he would exploit this opportunity to its very maximum. That day he drove in a way that showed a confidence and commitment that none could match on the first lap. Recognising the opportunity in a weakness is what greatness is all about.
March 27, 2013
In one of my lectures on strategic change I use a quote from Professor Larry Greiner, formerly of the Harvard Business School, ‘The clues to future success lie in the past’. I use it to explore the notion that every organisation has a unique history and it is only by understanding that history and using it to build future success that organisations can succeed in a way that is impossible for their competitors to copy. Let’s face it, most organisation’s today have very similar strategies, what makes the difference is their ability to deliver the strategy and the uniqueness they bring from their past. When you look at success stories like Apple and Harley Davidson you can see that the key is that they build on their past successes in ways that are relevant to present and future markets.
Never has the principle of remembering your past, but adapting to the future been more readily demonstrated than in Formula 1. Enzo Ferrari was first and foremost a builder of racing cars, he moved into supplying customers with versions of his racing cars to help fund the racing, but he was never a mere automotive manufacturer. Ferrari’s focus on the cars led to suggestions that he disliked drivers becoming too successful and would often manage things to suggest that ultimately it was the car that was the reason for winning, not the driver. A strong focus on the car has permeated many of the F1 teams in the UK, with Lotus, McLaren and Williams all concerned with the racing car as the focus, of course they wanted good drivers, but ultimately it was all about the car. Frank Williams’ famous mantra for anyone wanting him to sign a cheque was always ‘Will it make the car go faster?’.
The story at Red Bull Racing however demonstrates a very different history. Dietrich Mateschitz supported by his driver coach/mentor Dr Helmut Marko was never into cars. His focus has always been unequivocally on the driver. Red Bull entered F1 not as car maker, but as a sponsor with a clear focus on developing driver talent. They bought a stake in the Sauber team in 1995, and in 2001 introduced the Red Bull Junior Team under the guidance of Dr Marko. The purpose of Red Bull Juniors was to develop young talent, and ultimately to move them into F1. This included a young German, Sebastian Vettel, who Red Bull had first supported driving karts in 2000 when he was 12 years old. In 2001 Mateschitz had a disagreement with Peter Sauber; Mateschitz wanted Enrique Bernoldi in the car, whereas Sauber was keen on a young Finn called Kimi Raikkonen. As a consequence Mateschitz withdrew his funding from Sauber and looked to purchase the struggling Arrows team to provide a seat for Bernoldi. This failed to work out, but in 2004 he was looking for a drive for a young Austrian driver, Christian Klein, and in discussions with Jaguar Racing discovered that Ford might be interested in selling the team. He purchased Jaguar Racing with the initial intention of keeping the existing management team, but a disagreement over…wait for it… drivers, meant that they were relieved of their posts and Christian Horner became the new team principal at the start of 2005.
So in the end what we have is a very different history that marks Red Bull Racing ultimately as a team constructed for Red Bull drivers to show their talent, not, like Ferrari, McLaren or Williams for the building of racing cars, and like most aspects of an organisation’s history, it is both a strength and a weakness. So what happened in the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix is perhaps less surprising than you may think and maybe what arises from Vettel ignoring team orders is more a question for Christian Horner and, particularly, Adrian Newey as to the kind of organisation they want to work for, and the kind of history they want to leave behind, than it is for anything related to drivers or indeed cars.
March 1, 2013
One of the fascinations of Formula 1, from a business strategy perspective, is how the same organisation suddenly shifts from being nowhere to a championship contender and equally how a championship contender suddenly ends up nowhere.
The obvious explanation for many is that it is simply all about money, the more money you have the better car you produce and the better driver you recruit so inevitably you will win more races. Not so. If it was all about money why didn’t Toyota’s huge investment in an F1 operation allow them to win a single race, even though today some of the top-teams are still making use of their wind tunnel in Cologne? If it was all about money then Renault would not have won their world championships in 2005 and 2006 and the team that was BAR and then Honda would surely have achieved more success on the track before they became Brawn in 2009?
Of course money is a key part of the equation. I remember former Jaguar Racing boss, Tony Purnell, describing Formula 1 as a ‘celebration of unfairness’, you can see his point, the richest teams have the most resource to get sponsors and performance on the track, and when they do well they get even more revenue from the distributed media royalties via Formula One Management, the more you have the more you can get. But that’s what makes it fascinating when the underdog does pull through. When Williams produced their FW07 car back in 1980 they were running on a shoestring and only could afford one week in the wind tunnel at Imperial College to try out Patrick Head’s ground-effect design, and yet they produced a better car than the all-dominant Lotus and went on to become world champions. When Dietrich Mateschitz bought Jaguar Racing for a ‘nominal sum’ (and all the debts as well – so in reality a bit more than £1) most could not see how he would turnaround a team that had showed potential as Stewart Grand Prix, but had become a corporate political football for various groups of Ford’s management to fight over and ultimately destroy, and yet today we all see them as the obvious favourites for the championship.
Today many argue that the technology is so tightly regulated and the focus so much on continuous improvement, rather than innovation, that we will not see the kind of turnarounds that we have seen in the past. I’m more optimistic, there is a huge wealth of engineering talent in F1 and it is not just about the superstars drawing the seven figure salaries, there’s a lot of creativity out there and maybe this year we could get a few surprises that show that at the end of the day performance in F1 isn’t just about money.
February 21, 2013
Luca Marmorini, Ferrari’s Head of Engines, has been quoted in Autosport.com as saying that it is important that Ferrari have a second (ie in addition to Sauber) customer for their 2014 power unit – note the term ‘power unit’ as effectively these are engine + energy recovery systems, so the simple term ‘engine’ no longer seems to do it justice.
The reason for this concern is that their current second customer Toro Rosso have recently announced that they will be shifting to a Renault power unit in 2014, which makes sense organizationally as they are co-owned by Dietrich Mateschitz of Red Bull with Red Bull Racing, so presumably they can share more data during development and racing and therefore improve the performance of both teams. However Toro Rosso’s location in Faenza makes Maranello the ideal partner from a logistical point of view as they are literally a few kilometres down the road. Location matters in F1, otherwise we wouldn’t have Motorsport Valley in the UK, and so the proximity between the power unit supplier and customer cannot be ignored. For this reason, Marmorini hopes that all is not lost with Toro Rosso and that they may review their decision to go to Renault, as he says on the Autosport site: “I don’t know if Toro Rosso will be with us next year. We are still working very well with them now. They’re an important contribution to Ferrari engine development, but I also think we are giving them a competitive engine.”
A key factor in this is data. Derek Gardner, the now sadly departed designer of the six wheel Tyrrell, told me that a key problem that they had with the six wheeler was the speed of development of the front tyres, which were far smaller than the standard F1 front tyre that Goodyear supplied to all the other teams. As a consequence they were getting far less data on the performance of the tyre – as it was only fitted to two cars and so were unable to develop it as fast as the other which had feedback from twenty four cars (there were 13 teams racing back in 1976). Data therefore is everything if you want to improve performance.
So currently it seems (and things could still move around a fair bit) that if Toro Rosso move to Renault then Renault will be the leading supplier with power units in five teams: Red Bull Racing; Toro Rosso; Lotus; Williams and Caterham. Mercedes will be supplying power units to three teams: their works team plus McLaren and Force India. Ferrari will be supplying two teams – themselves and Sauber. It seems very unlikely that Cosworth, who currently supply Marussia, will be in the frame for 2014 (but never say never) and so who knows, we may see Ferrari supplying the power unit for Marussia, which will make an interesting dynamic in their race with Caterham to tenth place.
September 24, 2012
Apologies for the lapse in posts over the last few months, the publish or perish world of Universities rather got the better of me, I had to attend to some academic pieces which take around three years to finally get accepted and another year or so before they are published, hardly contemporaneous, but that’s the world of academic journals, don’t think we’ll ever see a peer reviewed journal on F1. Anyway thanks for your forbearance and particularly those who enquired as to when they would see some activity on the blog, it was good to know some of you are out there.
The passing of the great (and I do not use the word lightly) Professor Sid Watkins caused me some reflection, which seemed to be an appropriate way to re-launch my musings on F1. Much has already been said about Sid – his deep knowledge and expertise in the world of neurosurgery, his kindness, his sense of humour, his commitment to safety and his role as family doctor to all those within the F1 circus as they moved from continent to continent. But as I look back over his time in F1 it is clear that he drove the most incredible paradigm shift in a global sport that went beyond Formula 1. Peter Hamlyn, his colleague at UCL, who described him as a cross between the mischievous Mr Toad, Winston Churchill, Henry V, Romeo and an encyclopedia, noted that..’when the IOC came to inspect our London 2012 Olympic bid they asked us if “the medical facilities would reach Formula One standards”.’ To imagine such a question in the 1960s or 1970s was pretty much impossible, and it is a testament to Sid that F1 is now the benchmark for safety technology. Of course, like other leaders who create seismic levels of change he did not do it alone. The pioneering work of Sir Jackie Stewart, the total support of Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the commitment of volunteer medical staff across the world, the expertise in FIA institute, were all part of the story, but Sid became the talisman of all that was new about safety in Formula 1. It was his clear focus on creating a different way of thinking about safety and the medical infrastructure to deliver it that was so impressive. The whole notion of the medical car and the two air ambulances required at every F1 race were about ensuring that should an incident occur the very best care was available almost immediately, it was in these critical minutes that most could be done to save lives, and there’s no question that he saved many.
An impressive character on every level, Sid also produced, in my view, one of the best books ever on Formula 1. Ritualistic driver autobiographies are generally a rather lack luster collection aimed at fully exploiting fame before it fades away (although Niki Lauda’s are the exception). Sid’s book is a combination of many things, funny, moving, insightful, full of rich (in both meanings) characters it also gives a detailed account of how to change the paradigm of a global sport – essential reading, I would have thought, for anyone interested in really making a difference.
Peter Hamlyn’s piece in the Telegraph:
Sid Watkins’ biography:
Watkins, S. (1997). Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula 1. Pan Books.
April 23, 2012
The debate over the 2012 Bahrain GP seems to have split many in the F1 fraternity between ‘yes it was the right decision’ – led, unsurprisingly, by those who were party to the decision e.g. Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone and supported by other commentators such as Jackie Stewart and Martin Brundle. On the other side were those who leaned towards ‘no it was the wrong decision’ – largely led by the UK press e.g. Richard Williams (Guardian), Byron Young (Mirror) and Tom Cary (Telegraph), and then there were those who were rather stuck in the middle and undecided – e.g. Damon Hill and, I have to admit, myself. One thing does seem certain, that F1 is a bit of an irrelevance in a country which is trying to deal with such deep seated problems, never have discussions on the details of DRS technology seemed so trivial and out of place.
There are two questions which seem to be hanging in the air. First as to whether it is right to place the teams and all those working in F1 into such a potentially volatile situation, and of course there are different views as to how much danger they were really in, the Force India incident was undoubtedly traumatic for those involved, and everyone was glad that F1 personnel were largely unaffected by the troubles in Bahrain. The second question seems to have been whether or not F1 can help or hinder in such a situation. It certainly seems that the unimpeded access which the F1 journalists appeared to enjoy allowed the opposition access to publicity which had previously been denied to them. The fact that, just as the F1 teams were leaving Bahrain, a Channel 4 News Crew was detained by the authorities suggests that the door may have been opened a chink for F1, but it is now being closed up again. However there will be a continued debate about whether or not there should be a Bahrain GP in 2013 (which has probably already started), and from that point of view further scrutiny will be brought to bear on the situation and the progress of the opposition in obtaining reforms. Time will tell. But one thing is clear, anyone who thinks a global sport, such as F1, is in some kind of vacuum and can ignore the political context in which it operates, is well and truly out of touch with reality.
Until a few years ago when referring to Lotus and Formula 1 things were pretty straightforward. In my view, with the exception of Ferrari, Team Lotus were the greatest team ever to race in Formula 1. Perhaps from the statistics and race performances they were not so great, but their contribution went far beyond mere statistics. If you look at today’s F1 car: many of the key features can be attributed to innovations pioneered by Lotus: monocoque chassis, the engine being a structural part of the chassis, rear mounted radiators and the use of underbody aerodynamics are some of the list. Lotus were a great team (note the underlining) and like Ferrari deserve to be remembered as playing a major role in the history of F1.
Sadly of late the name of Lotus is no longer associated with such greatness but with petty legal arguments and as a name which is for sale to the highest bidder. This is a sad state of affairs and appears to have got even more confused with the sale of Group Lotus’s owner Proton, the Malaysian car manufacturer, to another Malaysian automotive operation: DRB-Hicom. This has led to the end of ‘Lotus’ sponsorship for the former Renault team (and before that Toleman and Benetton) who are now called Lotus F1. So perhaps this means the Lotus name will finally be allowed to bow out of this sad attempt to resuscitate the Chapman legend? It seems not, owner of Lotus F1, Genii Capital’s Gerard Lopez is recently quoted “We are happy to carry the Lotus name as we believe it is a good name for F1″. Actually I think the opposite, please treat the name and legacy with some respect and let it be, we’ve seen how great automotive brands can be destroyed by those who are simply trying to make a fast buck. If someone is going to regenerate the Lotus name we need someone like Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo, someone who understands the care and attention needed to make an established brand live on, not those who seek to make a quick return from its sale and exploitation. It’s time for everyone to move on and leave the Lotus F1 legacy in peace.