Formula 1 – the ultimate team

When I ask people to tell me what they think is a great team I often get given back the example of a Formula 1 team.  But I don’t agree.

F1 pit-crew

Now there’s a caveat right from the start here – I’m no F1 expert and I’m basing my observations on what I see and read through the lens of social media, the press and the like. But as a subject to explore and make me think a little deeper about what I believe makes a great team, F1 is a provocative starting point.

Let me pick out some points about how I perceive F1 teams:

The hierarchy. Most of the F1 teams are based around two drivers of god-like status. The ‘most’ in the last sentence refers to the number of drivers, not the god-likeness of them. This reminds me of the surgical team structure discussed in the ‘mythical man month‘ where the members of the team exist almost solely to support the single surgeon (or driver in this case). He or she delivers value, no one else.

The counterpoint: I’m only looking at race day.  For all I know the drivers may well make the coffee and mop up oil spills all week.  And, of course, the drivers are rare and super-talented so get treated as such

The bickering. Even within one ‘team’, the two drivers and their supporting teams are ultra-competitive, sometimes even to the point of crashing into each other. Collaboration between them? I don’t know for sure, but the idea of a conversation like “Hey Bill, can I borrow that spanner?”, “Sure – chuck it back in my box when you’re done, could you?” for some reason makes me smile. 

Maybe I should think of them as two teams? The behaviour often backs that up, But then what about the ‘team orders’ and the higher ‘corporate’ goal of winning the manufacturer’s trophy? There seems to be a lack of congruency here.

The counterpoint:  I’m struggling here.  How can crashing into your team mate, or even putting yourself into a position that risks a crash, be of benefit?  They’re racing, I suppose.

The specialism. (OK – so I realise it’s an extremely specialised sport so specialism is a given, but cut me some slack please, I’m drawing an analogy). The pit crew tyre change thing is amazing, no two ways about it. Being able to change all 4 wheels, adjust aero-tech & wipe visors in around the 2 second mark is something very special. And then there’s the unplanned versions – the front wing change or the puncture, for example, that adds to or stresses the normal processes, testing its resilience. Here’s a cool example, when Lewis Hamilton needed a new steering wheel in 2012 – the resulting pitstop costing only 3.3 seconds.

But it looks like a pretty expensive process to me, at least in terms of people power. I count 22 engineers in this clip, all of them super-specialised and practiced in their role. Many of them providing resilience cover in case of failure, with no role in the yellow-brick-road use case.

Clearly the ultimate goal for the pit-crew is speed and breaking down the process into as many parallel tasks as possible is a viable approach here. Also, the use of otherwise redundant capacity to provide resilience is a good principle – I’m pretty sure the spare wheel-nut gun person is allowed to do other stuff in between pitstops!

The counterpoint: Actually I think the teamwork around the pit-crew is probably pretty awesome and the process they’ve evolved clearly works well.  But every organisation I’ve worked in wouldn’t be able to support such hyper-specialisation.


Whilst there are lots of examples of great teamwork in the F1 arena, it’s not the sort of team culture I’d want in the workplace, so I can’t agree with the title of the post. But I have found it interesting thinking through those observations and relating them to the office.

So what team culture does your organisation value? Is there a single unifying goal – but then encouragement for internal competition that creates tension between individual team success and collaborating towards the higher goals? Does the organisation covet the specialists without recognising and mitigating resilience risk? Who is the driver or surgeon in your teams? What effect does that person have on the rest of the team?

And just for fun, I came across this short clip many years ago.  It’s aged, but still makes me smile.

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