Team performance under pressure

When talking about motor racing, we often focus on the driver. But with 500–1,500 people per team, Formula 1 is the largest team sport in the world. That became very clear this weekend. Because even before the race, the mechanics of Red Bull Racing had to win a race against the clock.

Thirty minutes hour before the start, the cars leave the pit box across the track towards the starting grid. The track is soaking wet. Max Verstappen uses the lap to collect crucial information about where on the racing track there is and isn’t grip.

But then disaster strikes: he skids off the track and crashes into the barriers. There is a lot of damage. His front wing and suspension are broken. Max thinks his race is over before it even started.

Max manages to break free from the crash barrier, drives away carefully, and asks: “I’m bringing it back to the pits I hope,” assuming he is retiring the car. The team inspects the damage through the TV broadcast and decides within 10 seconds: “[no], go to the [starting] grid please Max.” Max responds, a bit surprised “OK, well, the suspension is broken and everything…”

Less than a minute after the crash, Max arrives at his starting position. Ten mechanics had already run there, with the right replacement parts. A repair that usually takes 90 minutes needs to be finished within 12 minutes. It seems an impossible task.

The pressure is immense. There is a helicopter circling above their heads to keep the hundreds of millions of viewers informed on the progress. Spectators sit on the edge of their seats. A Formula 1 official also keeps a close eye on them, because they might be disqualified if they don’t follow procedure or put the car in the exact configuration as before. The mechanics are working frantically. Time is ticking. Somebody shouts: “only a few seconds left!” And they got it done, just in time. They were only 25 seconds away from not starting the race.

Max gets in his car and thanks his mechanics. Another warm-up formation lap follows. The car feels like new. Then the lights go out and the race starts. Max accelerates towards the first corner at 250kph, brakes perfectly, and overtakes five cars in the opening lap, without any hesitation. An hour and a half later he finishes in second place. Max comes on the radio and says: “A big thank you to the mechanics because they saved the day. You guys are legends!”

This was an extraordinary and impressive team effort. Changing four tires in less than 2 seconds during a pit stop is great, but that is something you can practice as it is the same every time. This is a different story. It showed how well they can respond to unexpected circumstances and perform under extreme pressure.

Here are a few things that caught my eye, and that you can apply in your organization to perform better when it matters:

  • the disappointment was processed quickly, without energy wasted on blame, after which everyone immediately took action
  • there was one crystal clear goal, and everyone knew what it was
  • no manager was involved, everyone already knew what his role was in this situation
  • the leaders knew their place: they stepped back and let the mechanics do their work
  • they were working as one team in parallel from multiple sides, without getting in each other’s way
  • they worked quickly, but without hurry; there was calmness and no chaos

This reminded me of a time when I had to get my car fixed. First I had to wait a month for the parts to arrive. Then it took them three weeks for the repair to be completed. I was wondering: what if you could film the car while in the shop, how many minutes of those three weeks would my car have been worked on really? And what if there was another garage that could fix my car in 24 hours? I know what I would have chosen!

Want to learn more?

Take a look at our book: Formula X “How to reach extreme acceleration in your organization”. A business fable about speed, leadership and organizational change. Nominated for Dutch business book of the year 2020.

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