Why F1 is Not a Team Sport

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The podium ceremony at the recent Malaysia Grand Prix was strange, to say the least. On paper it was a fantastic result for the Red Bull Racing Team – their drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had just competed a ‘one-two’ in dominant fashion.  Despite this, they looked like they would have rather been anywhere else but there at that moment.  To those of us who watched the race, the reason for this strange behaviour was no secret.  Mark Webber’s face said it all: he looked like he was chewing on a bee rather than swigging champagne.  Ten laps from the end of the race, he emerged from his final pit-stop in the lead, just ahead of his team-mate.  For Red Bull, the race and 47 lucrative World Championship points were in the bag.  As usual in such a situation, the drivers were told to hold station and not to challenge each other, rather to focus on bringing both cars home safely.  Disappointed fans that complain are reminded that it’s a team sport, where winning the constructor’s championship carries more kudos (and of course attracts more interest from the sponsors); commercial realities now usurp the compelling sporting duels we used to see between the likes of Senna and Prost.  At least that’s what we thought…

As Seb emerged from the pit-lane just behind Mark, his competitive instinct seemed to take over, resulting in an enthralling wheel-to-wheel tussle for the lead.  To the spectator it was electric: this is what we watch for!  Contrast this emotion with those of Christian Horner, the Red Bull Team Principal, who sat on the pit lane wall watching the monitors with his head in his hands.  In desperation he grabbed the radio and implored, “Come on Seb, this is silly!”  His efforts were to no avail and Vettel swept past an indignant Webber on the next straight to seal victory a few laps later.

Listening to the post-race analysis and subsequent commentary, opinions are polarised.  Some feel that Sebastian Vettel has behaved in a selfish and unsporting manner and have called for him to be disciplined by the team.  Others have applauded him for staying true to the spirit of competitive sport, which they say is being slowly strangled by commercialism.  I’m not proposing to enter this particular debate, but I feel there is something we can learn from this episode, which may provide food for thought for any of us who strive to work more effectively in our own teams.

Consider this: is it possible for an individual in your team to ‘win’ whilst others ‘lose’?  In many so-called ‘teams’, the reality is that our remuneration and reward structures, normal-distribution curve based assessments, KPIs, targets and objectives reward individual performance over team-based measures.  Consider a sales ‘team’ where each manager is rewarded purely on the basis of their own performance.  Assuming that they have independent territories and ring-fenced accounts, what’s the problem?  Possibly nothing, but don’t call them a team.  If you expect your top-performing salesperson to share their secrets for success with their colleagues to help them to sell more, when they could be out closing more deals because it’s good teamwork I suspect you will be disappointed.

Do your annual appraisals require you to identify both outstanding and under-performing individuals in your team?  If so this is a recipe for mediocrity in performance.  Why would your top performer want to help others to get better if in doing so, they would lose their ‘outstanding’ rating?  Likewise, the majority will remain secure so long as they know that they have a weaker colleague flattering their relative performance.

Ultimately, if you want your team to behave like one, you need to focus on a team-based result.  You need to get everyone in the team aligned behind a common goal and then make sure that your human systems support rather than undermine that message.  Until you grasp this nettle, no amount of rhetoric encouraging teamwork will make a difference.  What you reward gets done.  I’m not suggesting that this is in any way straightforward; but if you genuinely want to unlock the power and benefits of team-working it’s essential to ensure that it is seen as a strategic choice, not mere virtue and that may well mean making some radical changes in our organisations.

From the perspective of the FI fan the prospect of another spicy encounter between teammates at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix is irresistible.   I must admit I have a lot of sympathy for Mark Webber, the ‘Team-player’.  In the end he is a victim of the fact that Sebastian Vettel has much more to gain by going for the individual glory of a fourth World Title than he does playing by the team rules.  There are indeed many different people in the Red Bull Racing Team: mechanics, the pit lane crew, designers, managers and drivers.  All are essential and contribute to the Team’s success.  Nevertheless, if being Driver’s World Champion continues to attract the rewards and plaudits it currently does, then Formula 1 will never be a team sport.

Image courtesy of BBC

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