Strategy lessons from racing

Racing is life under high pressure, and I think advertising (or any industry) can learn a lot from how racing cars are designed.

The car
In the book ‘How to build a car‘, famed Formula One engineer Adrian Newey talks about cars he designed and the philosophy behind them. I think it’s interesting, because cars, like many things (such as buildings, advertising campaigns, operating software) are complex pieces of equipment with various functions, often conflicting ones. Do you design an app to be entertaining or slick? Do you design a building to be functional or aesthetic? Do you develop an advertising campaign to promote the brand or direct to sales?

Not that Newey has an answer to this, but his holistic view on car design might, as Newey sees himself not as just an aerodynamicist but also an engineer.

Since a car needs both mechanical grip (e.g. from the suspension and engine layout) and aerodynamical grip (e.g. from the front and rear wing), designing a car is a careful balance between those two — among many other variables. One example of such a design decision Newey took was to move a battery-component to another place which heightened the centre of gravity (detrimental to mechanical grip) to improve the airflow (beneficial to aerodynamical grip).

It’s probably difficult to determine what to do, without a design approach for the car. Newey notes: “For 2013, the McLaren team just tried to copy various features from along the pitlane. The front end of a Red Bull mated to the middle of a Renault to the back of a Ferrari. Needless to say, it ran badly.”

Newey’s first F1 car — the March 881 — was designed around a weak yet small engine, with 580 horsepower, compared to the 900 of some competitors. Yet those engines where heavier and bulkier, and to exploit this benefit (the small engine size), the chassis was narrowed down and streamlined around the driver, with a small rear wing to reduce aero drag and a narrow engine cover. The car had many nifty tricks, all cohesive with improving aerodynamic efficiency. It proved very competitive. He also talks about more modern Red Bull Racing cars that are built around getting as much air as possible to the lower backend of the car, a process that starts at the front wing, but equally through redesigning the suspension (a mechanical component) to improve airflow (aerodynamics).

Newey writes about the importance of a coherent design approach for a car: “You need to avoid the situation where the aerodynamicist and the chief designers were having a row, since you’ve either got nasty mechanical bits sticking out what was otherwise a clean aerodynamic surface (the structural guy obviously won), or an aerodynamically elegant-looking car that performs poorly because it has the stiffness of a rubber band.”

Metaphorical, it’s all about the consistency in the flow of the air that travels from the front wing of the car, which is swept away from the front tyres and pushed to either the rear wing or the diffusor at the bottom of the car. You want the wind to blow in a coherent wave, not finding any blockage, have as little disturbance as possible.

Not that different from customer journeys or brand-image consistency. I’m reminded here of companies that spend fortunes on social media in order to get people to ‘engage’ with them, only to put them in a ten minute queue when they call their callcentres. Shaver brands that talk about toxic masculinity but parade showgirls sporting their logo. A Dutch retailer that proudly says it has a scoop with the first real-time data-driven brochure, but has to close hundreds of stores because their products are overpriced.

What these companies often fail to do is develop a coherent strategy. Rather, separate departments are fractured, given separate budgets and separate KPI’s, and left to do their own thing. While the marketing department spends money on engagement (seen as an investment), the customer service department (seen as a cost) tries to reduce call times. Not that different from the 2013 McLaren.

The team
While Newey’s book is aptly named ‘How to design a car’, Ross Brawn focusses more on how to build a team. There are a lot of politics in Formula One and they can definitely help to improve a car, too. Brawn, in ‘Total Competition‘, refers to this as ‘total strategy’.

Brawn was originally a designer, having designed the Jaguar XJR-14 for the 1991 World Sportscar Championship. He explains: “We asked ourselves, how keenly can we interpret the regulations? We took a very competitive interpretation of the rulebook from a structural and aerodynamical point of view.” There was a carbon fibre monocoque, a huge rear wing, and several clever rulebook interpretations such as the pop-out windows that doubled as doors. Knowing full well that competitors would protest as soon as they’d saw the XJR-14, Brawn checked every component of the car with the regulators before showing it to the public. And when the competition inevitably protested, there was nothing they could do as Brawn had permission.

Photograph by Kevin Goudin

In the mid-1990s, Brawn’s role at Benetton and Ferrari shifted more towards a technical manager, and rather than designing the cars he’d make sure the departments where structured orderly so each of them could do their best job. He also made the team work extremely close with tyre manufacturer Bridgestone, up to a point that although Bridgestone supplied other teams, they basically made the tyres specifically for Ferrari, who dominated from the years from 2000 up to 2004.

At Mercedes, in the mid 2010s, Brawn helped steer the engine regulations towards the format (a hybrid V6) that Mercedes was already working towards for years (unlike the competition). This alone unlocked massive performance gains — much more than ‘design’ itself would unlock on its own. With a head start of several years of engine development, the competition still hasn’t fully caught up and Mercedes has won every championship since the new regulations where introduced.

These are often overlooked methods to unlock advantages. A good example in marketing is how, years ago, the English supermarket Sainsbury’s started to defrost their parking lots in winter to make sure customers wouldn’t be deterred from shopping there, something their competitors didn’t do (yet). It’s a whole different approach to getting more likes on Facebook.

In the book, Brawn (and Adam Parr) draw inspiration from warfare, and they mention it’s not just armies with superior weaponry that win battles, it’s everything, including ensuring the troops have full bellies. The French lost the battle at Plassey because they didn’t bring tarpaulins to cover their guns in the rain.