4 lessons businesses can learn from F1

There are few working environments quite like the high-speed, high-pressured world of Formula 1, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learnt by other businesses

1. Never underestimate the person sitting at the table opposite you

Former Ferrari driver and ten-time race winner Gerhard Berger explains: “I remember as a racing driver going into the season, you could easily think that you were great and everything was under control. But someone else comes good and strangely you realise that you don’t have it. So you must make sure you always respect the competition. It’s the same when you do business – you need to make sure to always keep your eye on the other side of the table.”

2. Team work is far from easy

According to former Jordan team head of marketing Mark Gallagher there is more than one type of teamwork and understanding how they interact can be the key to a successful business. Mr Gallagher says it’s not just about the impressive ability of a group of mechanics to build a car or undertake a pit stop, or of engineers to design and develop a car. “I’m talking about the complete team from senior management down to factory floor sweeper and the degree to which everyone understands the leadership vision, buys into it and genuinely works together to succeed,” he says. This is something that a Formula 1 team must get right if it is to make it to the top step of the podium. “Team work is easy to talk about, difficult to unlock,” Mr Gallagher adds.

3. Play a long-term game

 It’s no accident that the most successful teams in F1 have been around for a long time. Predictions of quick success have typically met with failure and usually demonstrate a complete ignorance of the complexity of the sport, says Mr Gallagher. He cites the example of the BAR team, which debuted in F1 in 1999.  The team management foolishly predicted they would win their first race. “They not only showed how little they knew about F1, but ultimately set themselves up for a huge and immediate fall, which is of course what happened,” he says.

Mr Gallagher also draws attention to big-spending car manufacturers who have entered the sport, only to quit when they failed to match the success of their rivals. “To some extent several of the car manufacturers who entered F1 during the 2000s also showed they didn’t understand the importance of building a long-term plan for success, learning from mistakes and developing strategies to compete effectively against teams which had dominated the industry for 20 years,” he says. “So when success continued to elude them, and then the economic going got tough, they were gone.”

Mr Berger agrees: “You just have to stay with it and keep pushing. That was the case when I was on the race track and that’s the same on the business side of things. The real success stories in F1 are the stayers who are there year after year, like Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. They all have good years and bad years, and they accept those difficult years and this is an important strength. It’s heavily competitive and the good times will come – and that’s the same in business.”

4. Design is king

Small businesses tend to innovate to try to steal a march on the bigger opposition, especially in terms of entering the marketplace,” says former Jaguar team principal Tony Purnell. “This approach needs a degree of brilliance in product development, something which tends to be a mix of engineering cleverness coupled with a razor-sharp perception of what’s important to the marketplace,” he says. Just occasionally these two skills combine in one person. Mr Purnell witnessed this following extensive changes to aerodynamic regulations in 2009. He says: “[Red Bull Racing technical director] Adrian Newey acted like Steve Jobs at Apple in seeing what was really required and not just following everyone else, coupled with a big war chest of money to fund the development. After nearly five years of failing at product refinement, Newey leapt over everyone.” Red Bull went on to win the next four championships.