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Competitive innovation – five tips from an F1 culture

Competitive innovation – five tips from an F1 culture

There are few working environments quite like Formula 1 but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons we can all take from this high-pressure, ultra-competitive sport. Discover top careers advice and tips to help you create a winning culture. 

1. Learn to love change

“Racing is about the pursuit of winning – the thrill of the chase exists in every sense from on track racing to relentless car development. Going head to head with your competitors every two weeks for 10 months a year requires a lot of innovation as well as rock solid execution (try being 5 minutes late for a race!).

"Teams are dealing with a set of ever changing conditions every couple of weeks, so you have to know how to adapt and stay focussed. It helps to be resilient and recover from set-backs. There are long days, and nights of fast paced development under intense pressure and ever-evolving regulations. On race weekends our brand and those of our sponsors are viewed by hundreds of millions of people. Split second critical decisions have to be made front of the world and the media. It’s not possible to win all the time but the will to win is a core part of being on this this team. McLaren has been winning for over 50 years and what it takes to win is constantly changing – we have to adapt.”

Jonathan Neale – Chief Operating Officer, McLaren Technology Group

“12 years ago, the McLaren group had a £160 million turnover – this year we’re close to £1 billion. We’ve taken huge risks along the way – we started an all new car company in McLaren Automotive and created something amazing in Applied Technologies. We outpunch our weight because we believe in the capability of our people, we move quickly and look beyond our comfort zone. We understand where our engineering brilliance has the potential to make a difference, on the track and in new markets.”

Andy Myers – Group Chief Financial Officer, McLaren Technology Group


2. Don’t underestimate the people around you

“F1 is full of amazingly bright, dedicated people. When you recruit talent, it just doesn’t make good business sense to give them a fixed box in which to operate. There's a very clear operational structure in F1 but when it comes to executing decisions and innovation, those with the knowledge and information always had a voice.”

Karl Surmacz - Principal Data Scientist, McLaren Applied Technologies

“Every CEO will say that you need to have very high levels of innovation and creativity to create competitive differentiation. We have our smartest analysts and engineers engaged in deep thinking, working alongside pragmatists who can turn their concepts into reality. Team work around a shared goal is critical to reaching the right end result. We focus on developing the right skills for each role – the ability to handle drill and discipline as a pit lane mechanic is very different from the creative skills needed at the car concept stage – but all skills should be valued. Effective team-work isn’t easy but you can encourage high performance in every role.”

Jonathan Neale



3. Fail fast and learn quick

“It’s a cliché but as long as you learn from failure, then it’s not failure. Make sure people are accountable but avoid blame. There’s an in-built resilience at McLaren because racing is where we started: test, fail; test, fail; test, win – it’s what we do. We’re not where we want to be in F1 at the minute but every disappointment is an opportunity to do something better next time.” 

Karl Surmacz

“Racing is a rollercoaster of emotional experiences. When things beyond your control go wrong then the frustration is intense. You need to believe in yourself and what you’re doing – keep a focus on the big picture then work out what you can do differently next time.”

James Key - Technical Director, Scuderia Toro Rosso


4. Look for who can help you – universities offer untapped resource

“Partnerships with universities have huge potential. Small teams generate a huge number of ideas but we only have the resource to develop around half.  We have to prioritise on what will have the biggest impact. Universities offer exciting possibilities for research and development – think about graphene for example, or the development of new composite materials. I was delighted to invite a group of Engineering and Business students to visit our factory in Faenza earlier this year. Toro Rosso is always looking to progress – investing in young people is a great place to start.” 

James Key

“We’re not originating a lot of blue sky research – we tend to work on an 18 to 36 month horizon – so we need to be standing on the shoulders of all the people doing fundamental research, such as artificial intelligence or advanced driver aids, so we remain a rapid technology adopter.  The world moves very quickly, so partnering with universities and getting bright students into our company through apprenticeships, internships and graduate schemes is very important to our future growth.”

Jonathan Neale



5. Empower your teams to build loyalty

“Make sure people know that the whole team has their back, from the team owner down. To get people to perform at their best they need to think about how to get the best outcome - and on the days when things don’t work, they will bounce back to perform again tomorrow. Loyalty is critical in racing – everyone wants the best engineers and what we do is extremely complex and challenging work – so making sure they have the right support and space to perform is vital.”

James Key

“I feel privileged to work with incredibly dedicated people at every level – we have engineers who worked with Formula 1 World Championship winner Ayrton Senna, who are still with us today. I could work somewhere else but if I want to create the best supercars in the world with the best engineers, then there’s only really one place to do that. We empower people to make decisions, share expertise and be the best they can be. 

“I remember in the run up to the 2010 season with Lewis Hamilton, one of our aerodynamicists invented a control system to reduce drag on the rear wing, controlled by the driver blocking a duct. We went straight into testing in great secrecy and then quickly re-designed the whole car around his brilliant idea – using one little stream of air to move a massive stream of air. We got it to the track without anyone being able to copy because this innovation was so deeply embedded in the design of the car.

“If you believe in your team and share the same goals – it’s amazing what can be achieved.”

Marcus Waite - Chief Engineer, McLaren Automotive

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