Total Competition – Lessons in Strategy from Formula One
While the battle that is seen on the Formula One track between the drivers – the gladiators of the sport – is the public face, behind them is a billion-dollar engineering war. Formula One requires the teams, around twelve, to design and build their own cars to a set of technical regulations that change almost every year. The technical changes come about to reduce the speed of the cars for safety reasons, to try to improve the spectacle of the sport and sometimes to encourage innovation relevant to road cars. The cars are designed to minimize lap times around twenty-one vastly different circuits: from Australia to Abu Dhabi, Japan to Russia, the United States to Monte Carlo. The top teams can consist of over a thousand people, comprising engineers, designers, scientists, aerodynamicists and highly skilled craftsmen and women. Most of the 10,000 components that go into the chassis and power train are manufactured by the teams themselves to achieve ultimate performance. These components are developed and improved many times during the racing year, culminating in cars often being effectively one to two seconds faster at the last race than they were at the first. It is winning this engineering war that is the foundation of winning a World Championship. Sometimes, an exceptional driver will compensate for a car’s weakness, but it is rare. No Championship has ever been won with a poor car.
The overall performance of a modern Formula One car is truly astonishing. The acceleration time from zero to 60 mph is a ‘modest’ 2.4 seconds, but this is because the car cannot put enough power down through the tyres. In reality the car’s acceleration accelerates: the next 60 mph to 120 mph requires only an extra two seconds. And the braking is astonishing: from 200 mph to a standstill in 3.5 seconds. The forces experienced by the drivers are also impressive, 5g in braking and 4g in cornering. By comparison, a high-performance road car might achieve 1g braking and cornering. The excessive g-forces explain why the drivers have to be superb athletes, comparable with any Olympian.
The reason for the impressive performance is largely down to the aerodynamic ‘downforce’ the cars can generate. They are upside-down jet fighters, with the downforce pushing the car into the ground, through the tyres and increasing grip – hence the reason for the high levels of cornering, braking and acceleration performance. The cars can generate downforce equivalent to their mass, ¾ of a tonne at 110 mph, which means theoretically that, at that speed, they could drive along upside down and stick to the ceiling. At top speed, the cars generate 2.5 tonnes of downforce. The drag is so high that just lifting off the throttle at maximum speed will give over 1g of deceleration – the same level as a performance road car braking hard. In other words, an F1 driver who lifts his foot off the throttle will decelerate as quickly as a Porsche 911 driver doing an emergency brake.
The engines and gearboxes are also impressive engineering achievements. The 8-speed gearbox is highly efficient and changes gear in less than 40 milliseconds. It is also a fully structural part of the car, carrying all the rear suspension components and loads, and the casing is normally made from carbon fibre composite. The power unit consists of a 1.6 litre turbocharged internal combustion engine and an Energy Recovery System (ERS) that captures the kinetic energy of the car and the exhaust energy of the engine through the turbocharger. This energy is stored in a battery pack, and re-applied through two electrical motor-generators installed in the engine. One electrical motor is coupled directly to the power train, providing up to 160 hp for limited periods (in total about 30–40 per cent of the lap) and the other electrical motor is coupled to the turbocharger/compressor to both recover energy and to provide drive to the compressor to optimize the inlet boost profile and eliminate turbo lag. The power unit, internal combustion engine and ERS together can deliver more peak power, in excess of 800 hp, than the previous normally aspirated 2.4 litre V8 power plant. More impressively still, they can do so with less than two-thirds of the fuel used in a race, averaging around 6 mpg at most circuits. This may sound like a gas guzzling engine, but in fact it is perhaps the most efficient use of petrol yet created. In 2015, a single 30 British gallon (100kg) tank of fuel powered Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes car to victory at Monza, a race of 192 miles which he completed in 78 minutes, at an average speed of 147 mph (236 kph).
I have called this book Total Competition for two reasons. First, as we will explore, winning in Formula One requires mastery not only of many technical disciplines but also the economics and politics that are critical to each team’s competitive position. As Ross would put it, the goal is completeness. Second, it is a recognition that Ross’s success was also derived from his willingness to take every aspect of the sport to the ultimate limit, in the way perhaps that Jack Reynolds conceived what became known as Total Football, and Johan Cruyff became its most celebrated exponent. If anyone can claim to have created and mastered ‘Total Formula One’, it is Ross Brawn.
Most of this book is, therefore, an exploration of the career and thinking of Ross Brawn. I would like to begin, however, with a brief account of how I came to work with Ross on this project. Unusually for someone writing a book like this, I had the luck – or misfortune – to compete with Ross for several years while I was chief executive and then chairman of one of the oldest teams, the Williams Formula One Team. By coincidence, this was also the team where Ross began his career, 40 years ago this year. I hope to set the context and explain why this book might be of interest to an audience wider than those who follow and are interested in Formula One.
In March 2012, I stood down as chairman of Williams. I had lost a five-year long struggle with the man who controls the sport, Bernie Ecclestone. I described these events in the light-hearted manga format of a book I called The Art of War – Five Years in Formula One. But these events also prompted me to think about how I had come to lose this struggle, how I had failed in the mission I had set myself – a mission which appeared, then and now, to be entirely rational and beneficial not only for the Williams team, but for Formula One and, indeed, for Ecclestone.
Some people might say that I was ill-prepared for the world of Formula One. I had joined Williams as chief executive in 2006. My career before that had been very different. I had a classical English education at school and Cambridge and in 1987 became an investment banker, working in Tokyo and London. My work brought me into contact with a great British mining company called Rio Tinto and I managed to get myself seconded to them to do some acquisitions. Rio Tinto offered me a job and between then and 2006 I spent eleven years in the mining industry, in South Africa, Europe and Australia. Somewhere in the middle I took a sabbatical to study law and ended up spending a few years as a barrister. But Rio Tinto called me back and I couldn’t resist.
My last job at Rio Tinto was head of planning. This was a new position, as the group had never done any form of central planning before. Each of the subsidiary businesses used to do their own plans and then the numbers would be added up. So, I decided to find out first of all, what other ways were there of planning. I went to see some other companies to find out how they did things. This led me to the conclusion that you can’t have a plan unless you have a strategy. But Rio Tinto didn’t ‘do’ strategy. In fact, the chairman, Sir Robert Wilson, was, I believe, the person who coined the expression, ‘Strategy means paying too much.’ By which he meant that if you couldn’t justify an acquisition or investment on the basis of a simple financial evaluation, you resorted to ‘strategy’ to support a case for over-paying. Taken to its extreme, our decentralized and opportunistic business model left no place for planning. Nonetheless, once you have decided you want a plan, then you need to answer the question – a plan to do what? So, I asked myself the question, ‘What is strategy?’
Like most people, I was aware that the word strategy comes from the military world, so I made an appointment to visit the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where I met some of the people who teach history to British army officers. This was an important moment for me, as I realized that some of the questions in my mind could be explored through history and specifically military history and the development of military theory. At this stage, my conversations at Sandhurst and subsequent reading led to two fundamental ideas about strategy.
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