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Let the Competitors Compete (a business lesson from Formula 1)

I love Formula One.

I am not a motor sports lover but something about Formula One really strikes a chord. Maybe it’s the intersection of skill, adrenaline, engineering, and technology that resonates. On most Monday mornings, I will be bleary eyed at work after staying up late on a Sunday to watch the latest Grand Prix. 2021 has been one of the most exciting battles for the championship the sport has ever seen. If you are not aware, this year had two contenders that clearly stood out from the rest of the pack. So much so that they were over 150 points in front of third place, or in other words, 70% ahead! These drivers are Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

I was not necessarily a fan of either of these drivers. Being from Perth in Western Australia, my allegiance is to Daniel Ricciardo, being a local boy himself that is fighting it out on the big stage. Although earlier in the year I found myself cheering for Max Verstappen as the person I wanted to win the World Championship. Australians barrack for the underdog by nature and Lewis Hamilton had already won seven World Championships to Max’s none. However, a few rounds ago in Brazil I witnessed Lewis Hamilton pull off what seemed impossible, starting from the back of the grid, and winning the race. His determination and unrelenting willingness to win although all the odds were stacked against him was nothing short of mastery.

Lewis continued this rich vein of form to win the three races leading into the final round to finally draw level with Max on points. The stage was set for an all-out battle in the final Grand Prix of the season to determine the World Champion. Fittingly, both drivers qualified one and two on the grid. Although Max had pole position Lewis immediately stole that advantage from him once the race got started and it was evident that he was going to be the dominant driver of the day.

The Red Bull team behind Max tried several outlandish tactics to no avail. And there were incidents that naturally bunch the field back together (such as crashes resulting in a Safety Car deployment). However, Hamilton was still able to exert his class and dominance when necessary and pull away from Max. The result seemed inevitable.

That was until the final incident of the day.

With 5 laps to go, a back marker had quite a nasty accident resulting in a Safety Car coming onto the field. Max took gamble and pitted for fresh new tires which would make his car faster than Lewis’ if there was any restart. Before ending a Safety Car, Race Control have the choice whether to release all lapped cars first for them to rejoin at the back of the field or to leave them as they are. I am not fully aware of the rules so there may be different interpretations, however, it was obvious that if they decided to release all lapped cars and give them time to clear the rest of the field there would not be enough time to resume racing, completing the remaining laps under the control of the Safety Car. In this instance, Lewis would be announced as the winner and therefore World Champion.

Race Control, however, decided they would not release the lapped cars and racing would resume with one lap to go. Since there were four lapped cars between Lewis and Max it would be almost impossible for Max to make up the ground on Lewis, regardless of how much quicker his car was. This outcome would reflect the overall race.

What the Race Control did next was mind blowing.

After a complaint from the Red Bull team the Race Control backflipped and quickly decided to release only the four lapped cars between Lewis and Max. With fresher tyres, and one lap remaining, this was almost guaranteeing that Max would win the race. What exacerbated this issue was the fact they would have been fully aware of this situation and seemed blinded by the romance of a final lap shootout between the two best drivers to determine who would become the World Champion. In the blink of an eye, Race Control determined the winner of the race.

In my mind, Lewis Hamilton is a deserved 2021 Formula One World Champion. Overcoming almost insurmountable challenges to win what would have been his most memorable title. Unfortunately, Race Control focused more on entertainment than competition. And by doing so all but scripted the ending through their actions. I sat there in the early hours on Monday morning, gutted. Not due to Lewis not winning, but that victory was taken in the name of entertainment.

Formula 1 lost its sheen in my eyes at that moment. What was the most epic of season-long tussles, the Champion was crowned through an umpiring decision, not by the gladiators' honest efforts. The small sample size of F1 fans in my office provided confirmation. None being Lewis fans, but all believing that he was the worthy winner. Sport is entertainment, but it is a balancing act. Tip too much in the favour of entertainment, and the emotion and passion behind these events begins to erode.

It is a lesson that consultants should follow when dealing with business owners, managing directors or CEO's. These people understand the competition far better than anyone else and, as consultants, we should ensure that we do not affect the outcome for our own purposes. Such leaders are creatives and masters of their craft. They must be to run and have created successful companies. Let these people excel at their skill, while providing support and boundaries where appropriate. But please ensure that we do not try to influence the result through our actions. We are Race Control, whereas Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are founders, business owners and CEO’s.

Let the competitors compete.

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