Pole Position

Volume 21 Letter 10

I love Formula One racing. Ever since Canadian Gilles Villeneuve drove for Ferrari and later his son Jacques edged out Michael Schumacher and won for Williams I’ve been totally hooked. Going that fast in a car must be mind boggling but for me it’s the race strategy that’s most interesting. From when to pit the car and change the tires to how teams deal with changes from the massive heat in Bahrain, the rain at Silverstone and the altitude of Mexico City not to mention all the technical issues as the season and individual races progress – its fascinating.

As a speed skater we got to hang with some race car drivers each year. They’d show up to our skating track in Inzell, Germany and ruin the ice for a month of tire testing on our speed skating oval. These were all rally drivers but there were always a few famous names from F1 racing we’d recognize. They’d show up in their Maserati’s and Porches and we’d show up in a bus but what we both had in common was an obsessive drive to measure and improve performance. (And for the record a speed skater is much better at holding an icy corner than any Aston Martin…)

They would never allow us on the ice at the same time as the cars, for obvious reasons, but this didn’t stop a few of us from getting to know the drivers and crews. One former race car driver told me the secret of F1 (or any race car driver) is to look further down the track. Because of the speed F1 cars go (well over +200mph or +320kph) drivers learn to look much further down the road than us mortals. At those speeds anticipation is a vital skill.

That was 40 years ago and the longer I teach business strategy the more I realize the wisdom of that advice. Looking further down the road and anticipating change is the role of every leader who has the responsibility of allocating scarce resources.

Ironically, today, it’s the sport of F1 that has failed to look further down the road. As cool as F1 racing is, its about to run headlong into a brick wall called “Sustainability”. Consider that many of the cities that host Formula 1 races have committed to disallowing the sale of internal combustion engines after 2030 leaving F1 racing in a tough spot. F1 has remained so focused on racing they’ve failed to anticipate the larger market shift.

Many of you reading this will likely be thinking Formula E (Formula Electric) – an all electric car racing circuit similar to F1. However, a big lapse in strategy means F1 doesn’t own Formula E. Formula E has its own set of sponsors (many of them the same) – its own set of circuits (many of them the same) and is developing its own fan base (again many of them the same as F1). As Sustainability becomes a world focus, it’s F1 racing itself that has failed to look further down the road with no apparent strategy to move to non-combustion engines.

One day somehow / someway these two racing leagues will likely merge. However, it’s Formula E who has the pole position in this race. The concept of sustainability will affect every business in some significant way. What can we learn from F1 and Formula E:

  1. Look further down the road and anticipate change: This is the responsibility of every leader who must allocate scarce resources. How can you better position your business to benefit from this shift to sustainable business?
  2. Keep in touch with your customer base: Winning a F1 race is pretty impressive but it will mean nothing if the customers don’t keep supporting you. Sustainability is driving both purchase and investment decisions – ensure you’re on the right side of the score sheet when customers and investors are making these decisions.
  3. Strategy is a multilevel game: In F1 you have the grand strategy to engage the fan base, a team strategy to build the brand and a car strategy to win races – in that order. Think corporate strategy, supported by product strategies and eventually country level strategies. All in that order – ensure they align!

Sustainability is impacting every business. How far down the road are you looking? How can you get your business in the pole position?

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