Motorsport lessons: what can tech CEOs learn from MotoGP & F1?

Looking for insights on how employees will behave in competitive industries? Then motorsport has some lessons for you, find business experts.
21 February 2024

Competitive environment: business experts have shown how the number of overtakes performed by motorcycle riders competing in MotoGP from 2004 to 2020 can be likened to employee behavior within competitive industries such as finance or consultancy work.

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With season 6 of Netflix’s hugely successful Drive to Survive hitting screens on Friday, motorsport fans will be tuning in to reminisce about the highs and lows of the 2023 F1 World Championship. But what viewers may not realize is just how much can be learned more broadly from watching racers driving around a track. Motorsport, it turns out, has lessons for businesses of various types in understanding how employees will interact as company fortunes rise and fall.

“Sports – particularly motorsports – can be a good proxy for several other industries as they are extremely competitive: if you don’t perform and progress you may be out,” comments Hans Frankort – a strategy expert at Bayes Business School – City, University of London. “Workers in sectors such as consultancy and financial services face similar pressures.”

Frankort, together with the other authors of the study – dubbed ‘Revving up or backing down? Cross-level effects of firm-level tournaments on employees’ competitive actions’, used overtake data from riders competing in MotoGP from 2004 to 2020 to generate motorsport lessons for business leaders.

“Our findings reveal how riders adjust their internal and external overtakes based on their team’s competitive threats and opportunities, and on the relative resource endowments of the teams supplying such threats or opportunities,” writes the team in its paper.

Translating this behaviour from the racetrack to the office, the experts note how ambitious workers will change their approach depending on whether their employer is doing well – in other words, leading the competition – or finding business conditions more challenging.

Considering the MotoGP data, teammates were less likely to overtake each other when the team as a whole was struggling. “If a firm is facing threats, such as losing market share to smaller rivals, workers may feel that infighting is poor form,” said Frankort. “Instead, they would focus on competing against rival firms.”

More motorsport lessons for business

There are other observations too – for example, replacement riders (whom the researchers liken to agency workers) are keen to challenge their teammates when the team is doing well, and all competitors when their employer is struggling. The explanation given is that those without a permanent contract will try much harder to impress than riders and drivers embedded within a team.

So how do all of these insights help CEOs and other senior management become better leaders? One of the strong takeaways is the link between how a company’s performance is pitched to employees and the competitive actions of that firm’s staff.

If employees believe that things are going well they may be more tempted to poach a colleague’s clients and position themselves as being the engine of success, according to the study’s authors.

Motorsport series such as F1 and MotoGP are often described as pathfinders for new technologies that will one day end up in road cars or motorcycles, but they have also provided numerous case studies for business leaders. For example, Paolo Aversa – one of the authors of the MotoGP study – has made a career of using sports data to advance management theory.

Over the years, Aversa has chaired multiple ‘Competing in turbulent environments: Lessons from Formula One’ events, which are soon sold out. The seminars, some of which are still available to watch on YouTube, bring together race car designers, motorsport CEOs, and lecturers in management and business strategy.

Tech firms such as Netflix have also done well from F1 and one of the motorsport lessons learned is that drama on and off track makes for great entertainment. On paper, the idea of having a thousand people produce two cars that drive in circles sounds like it’d be a hard sell to viewers, but the popularity of Drive to Survive tells a different story.

And motorsport fans will need no reminding that F1 pre-season testing gets underway today in Bahrain, where teams and fans will get a first impression of the pecking order for the 2024 season.