“Because In A Split Second, It’s Gone”: Lessons Learnt From Formula 1


By Gordon Donovan

Can you remember where you were on 1 May 1994? I know I was at home, my parents’ house, and I was sat in the front room watching, the San Marino Grand prix. The reason that I remember, is that this was the day that Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest racing drivers ever, died when he crashed at Tamburello corner. The reason that I start with this is two-fold.

1) Lewis Hamilton has recently equalled Ayrton’s win total and pole position total, and 2) recently I attended a training course called Performance at the Limit; it was delivered by a facilitator called Richard West. Richard has been a senior figure within the Formula One sport for a number of years and the program was about identifying the common traits of high performing teams set in the context of the high performing teams within F1.

It was an excellent program – there were lots of transferable learning points that I wanted to share with you so here goes… (I’ll point you to the books and TV programme at the embedded links below).

Focus on…

Richard described the safety record in F1, specifically with regard to the death of his friend (and one of my favourite drivers) Ayrton Senna. Richard was working with Williams at the time, and if you have seen the film Senna, there are some references to him in it. Flashback a few years previously to the same corner at Monza, and Nelson Piquet crashes and car stops at the same place that Senna fatally crashes. Flash forward a number of years after Piquet and Gerhard Berger crashes and suffers burns as a result of the crash at the same corner.

The point here is that on each occasion, indeed after Senna’s crash also, racing resumed with a focus on performance and going faster, rather than looking at the bigger picture. The big takeaway for me is that too much focus on one area will lead to the ignoring of some critical issues (safety etc.)

With our internal and external relationships, are we guilty of too much focus on a particular area at the expense of something else?

Group v Team

What’s the difference? One of the activities on this training course was called the pit stop challenge. Essentially, the “group” was challenged to change the tyres on a F1 car during a pit stop. We used a real F1 car from 2009 and we were split into teams for each of the wheels. Great learning point here is that whilst you may be quick at your particular activity, it’s the whole team that counts, and what’s the best way to ensure cooperation?


…It reminds me of something I read a while ago;

A group is a gathering of people, each with their own established roles. As companies grow large, practicality dictates that responsibilities must be divided up. But this is the point at which many employees begin to think that their job is just fulfilling their own individual roles. Some even go so far as to think that stepping outside their established roles is wrong. This is not a team. This is group. Indeed, this is a herd of sheep. It will never be successful.

To be a team, each individual in the organization must act beyond their own responsibility and in the furtherance of others. For each individual on a team, every job is a kind of war, every job is a competition. Unless you win, nothing has meaning. To be successful, each member of the organization must cultivate the mindset that they alone hold the fate of the organization in their own hands.

Only a group of people sharing that mindset can be a team.

Hiroshi Mikitani – CEO, Rakuten Inc

So what type of relationship do you want, one where you act as one team, or two groups both vying for the best outcome for themselves?

Change starts with why

During the program we discussed leadership and the need for employees to feel motivated to work for the organisation and to understand why they were being asked to do something. In other words any change must start with why the change. This immediately made me think of Simon Sinek and his remarkable Ted talk that I had recently seen.

Do we communicate well with our team members and our suppliers to demonstrate why we need to change and what the end goal must look like, do we lead effectively (e.g. Inspire others to be high performing, or do we lead efficiently (e.g. inspiring others through objectives and KPIsI)

There is no silver bullet

Richard described visiting Mercedes team garage and he found that there wasn’t one thing that they were doing differently than anyone else, but it was a whole lot of little things just done better. In other words there was no silver bullet. Sometimes we try and focus on doing one thing to make things better. An example of this is development. How many times have we either conducted or been in our reviews with team members and asked about development, then immediately focussed upon training?

What about all the other learning opportunities? At the CIPS Australasia conference, I attended a session where Craig Lardner said that “mistakes are an investment in getting better”, in other words, learn from mistakes, not just yours but others. Do we share lessons learned amongst ourselves.

You may be aware of the 70/20/10 learning principle. Essentially this suggests balancing learning through the following;

  • 70 – Experiential/Experience – learning and developing through day-today tasks, challenges and practice
  • 20 – Social/Exposure – learning and developing with and through others from coaching, exploiting personal networks and other collaborative and co-operative actions
  • 10 – Formal/Education – learning and developing through structured courses and programs

I encourage everyone (managers and team members) to look at this model as a way of developing themselves and their teams. The better outcomes take a little of everything and just do it a little bit better.

I will leave the last words to Senna.

My biggest error? Something that is to happen yet.