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Navigating Uncertainty: What an F1 mindset can teach us about succeeding in a volatile economy

In the face of uncertainty, Formula One's ability to adapt and innovate during the COVID-19 pandemic offers crucial insights for businesses striving to thrive in a volatile economy.

Table of Contents

Formula One had a great COVID. And so did my F1 media business. Why?

In part due to the mentality of execs in Motorsport. Partly because of a slice of very lucky timing.

Lets get the luck out of the way first.

Almost at exactly the moment the whole of the Western World was locked down, season 2 of Drive to Survive was released on Netflix. There was no live sport and yet here was a new and innovative look behind the scenes of one of the worlds biggest sports.

Post Navigating Uncertainty: What an F1 mindset can teach us about succeeding in a volatile economy

My Covid journey

My timing however, looked terrible. We had poured money into the first content led independent F1 media brand and the launch was timed for March 2020.

The first race we were to cover was cancelled and I didn’t have a pre-recorded TV series up my sleeve to release and save my newly established brand. I did however have over a decade of being a pioneer in the gaming racing industry. So less than 72 hours after the official cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix we were streaming our first ever virtual race.

This sudden switch launched our brand to F1 fans in a way that we could have not ever possibly dreamed about in any business plan scenario we could have prepared.

By May we were holding the virtual Indianapolis 500 live on ESPN for 3 hours. During our 15 week stretch of races F1 champions including Verstappen, Alonso, Vettel, Button, Fittipaldi, Andretti and Villeneuve competed from their homes with millions of fans new and old watching and engaging with the newest, biggest virtual sports platform.

A potentially massive fail turned into a big win.

Looking beyond the F1 façade

A formula one pitstop is a well structured, process driven, thing of beauty. Likewise for years the face shown to the public of F1 was a well manicured, high speed sponsorship platform with its gladiators hidden behind not only their helmets but also a ring of security and obstructive PR representatives. Then came new owners who suddenly opened up social media and allowed the Netflix crews into the inner sanctum of the F1 paddock.

Suddenly fans and observers could see the personalities. Not only of the drivers but also of the Team Principals. And when you see those personalities you start to get a sense of why F1 and my new F1 media Brand had a good COVID.

To get to senior leadership positions within the sport these days requires a unique blend of fast thinking, quick acting entrepreneurialism, understanding of how to navigate big corporate inertia and to bend and use rules to your advantage on and off track. This was the perfect mix of attributes that allowed F1 to be the first major sport to restart after the COVID shock.

Why did F1 win Covid?

In early July 2020 F1 held its first race. Not only that but rammed home its advantage over other sports by holding 3 races in 3 weekends (unusual enough at the time in a normal season) and went on to hold 9 races in 11 weeks and 17 in total.

It is no coincidence that the overall head of F1 is an ex team boss. Stefano Domenicali who ran the Ferrari F1 team. He, along with the (now) household names of Toto, Christian, Gunther and other supporting actors – sorry Team Principals – used those skills that got them their jobs to get F1 back on track.

All of the key players have been entrepreneurs one way or another in their early days. But most F1 teams now are part of, or answer to, a big corporation. And of course, to win on track rules must be stretched to the limits to find that extra tenth of a second on a Sunday.

Finding loopholes in travel restrictions, negotiating with governments and organising an international sport to pivot on its approach within weeks was just natural to the leaders in F1 and in a way other sports didn’t stand a chance.

F1 – the ultimate test of innovation in business?

F1 has the knack of rooting out bad management and bad corporate structures.

Ferrari win when the race team is protected from shareholder politics. Ford failed because it tried to run its F1 team like a car production line. Toyota spent more money than most to find out the most efficient (and at the time biggest) car company in the world could not run a team remotely from Japan.

Navigating Uncertainty: What an F1 mindset can teach us about succeeding in a volatile economy

Red Bull win because they allow talented individuals space to excel and Mercedes were at their best when Toto created a bubble around his key people and dealt with the corporate side with the late Niki Lauda.

If F1 was a business case in innovation it’s key findings would be to isolate your ‘innovation’ arm from the standard corporate processes, politics and decision timelines and allow an entrepreneurial mindset to lead your ‘edgiest’ projects. Allow the core business to use those processes and structures to EXPLOIT the current markets and set the entrepreneurs off to EXPLORE new areas of growth. Exploiting and Exploring require two very different mindsets and approaches. Just like building millions of cars a year is different to running two F1 cars for a year.

A surprising tale of Corporate innovation

In 2008 in the teeth of another financial crisis the Nissan global board approved an idea I had pushed for 3 years to launch. The group of individuals agreeing that programme at the time included the now infamous Carlos Ghosn. The reason he approved it? He saw it as a bold, innovative way of reducing costs whist potentially getting huge upside.

It was a risk for sure.

Not only were we one of the first brands to pursue a ‘content first’ strategy but also use gaming to market cars. Nissan’s pioneering role in EV’s was the most high profile innovation in this period but other programmes including my gaming idea were equally as entrepreneurial.

Ghosn and his board had almost inadvertently created a perfect scenario for these entrepreneurial approaches. Why? Ghosn had two key drivers. Being ‘Frugal’ and trying to live up to a brand promise of ‘Innovation that Excites’

To most ‘Frugal’ meant cut costs. But a small band of us took it to mean ‘deliver the biggest bang for our buck’.

Whilst the media agencies cut their budgets by 5%, we went out to get projects approved that were innovative and exciting and if delivered well, would outperform the return on investment that traditional media could.

The agencies hated us but the numbers allowed us to keep getting radical programmes approved. The mindset of the core group was entrepreneurial and the parameters set were the same as a start up.

Do more with less, be innovative and exciting.

That initial entrepreneurial project launched in the 2008 crisis had it’s ‘exclamation mark’ delivered during this current crisis. Such was its impact on the racing, gaming, marketing and automotive worlds that Hollywood made a movie out of it. The Gran Turismo movie launched in cinemas in August 2023 and my character played by Orlando Bloom (really!) has a bit part. The best part for me? The film has given me a platform to tell the real story of innovation behind the Hollywood veneer.

Navigating Uncertainty: What an F1 mindset can teach us about succeeding in a volatile economy

Watch more TV?

So I am having my own Drive to Survive moment where I can talk about and provide lessons that were previously hidden from view. And just like F1 it is a lot more raw and entrepreneurial than it initially looked.

So perhaps in this volatile market businesses should encourage their management teams to watch Drive to Survive, not for the drama and glamour but for the mindset that has set F1 apart from other sports in the last 5 years.

Contributed by:

Darren Cox
Creator of GT Academy (now a Hollywood film ‘Gran Turismo’), Advisor, Innovator, Founder, Speaker