Nov 21, 2007

For want of an aphorism

So, the travesty that was this years Formula One world championship has finally come to end.

But long before this seeming drama wound to an anti-climatic finish in a courtroom, the victors and the losers in this year's championship had already moved on. Even as McLaren lodged their appeal over a month ago, Hamilton had already made it clear that he wants to win 'fair' and on the track.

But what he didn't reveal was whether he had grasped or learnt why he didn't win the world championship in his rookie year - an unprecendented feat that he more than richly deserved.

Other people would see differently. But as  someone interested in seeing how, why and where information flows and also a firm believer in the power of aphorisms (see my white paper 'The Intranets of Babel'), I think the failure was not just Lewis' and McLaren's alone but of the entire F1 knowledge ecosystem. After 57 years of competition, F1 should have distilled the wisdom that would point to how a championship leader should conduct his title chase - and more precisely how he shouldn't. (Contrast that with chess, which has reams and reams of literature on how precisely to conduct an endgame - from every possible position, and especially from positions where one is ahead. And that logic extends to world championship matches too.)

It's Jackie Stewart who's supposed to have said that 'one should win a motor race by the least amount of margin possible.' (Unfortunately I couldn't find any place online where I could find the exact quote.) For casual fans of the sport that might sound like a ridiculous thing to suggest - after all, what else is Formula One but a contest of raw speed?

If F1 was ever that, it has moved on. It's a contest of strategies and tactics - and in a minor way - of speed. What Jackie Stewart's smart observation notes is that after the strategies have unfolded (pretty much after the last set of pitstops), building a huge lead over the second-placed rival behind you pays no extra incentive - either in points or money. On the other hand, persisting in driving a car to its limit puts the very win one is chasing in jeopardy - by straining the machinery, which at best walks a thin line between fragility and reliability. That risk, even to the dumbest driver, is not worth taking.

That's the reason why, more often than not, one sees the leading driver in a grand prix slowing down drastically in the last few laps. Having put his nose in front, his task now is to do the minimum it takes to keep it there.

After his brilliant rookie year in F1, someone (Ron Dennis perhaps?) should have whispered in young Lewis' ear an aphosrism that extends Jackie's astute observation. This championship cliniching wonder-drug is a simple statement that re-inforces an essential truth - 'one should win a world championship by the least number of points possible.'

If Lewis had grasped that reality he would have raced differently - very differently - at the Chinese Grand Prix. When you are leading by 12 points over your nearest rival and there are a maximum of 20 points available (from the two remaining grand prixs) all Hamilton had to do was aim at scoring a total of 9 more points in the remaining two grand prixs. That way no matter what Alonso did (including win both the races), he would be the champion.

But taken in by talk in the press about the possibility of sealing his championship in the penultimate race itslef, Hamilton chased a race win and put himself under tremedous pressure - a move made all the more riskier considering the fickle weather conditions. Even that would have been fine, as long as things were going their way.

And when rain threatened, McLaren would have been better advised to heed the aforementioned aphorism and change tactics - by ensuring Lewis takes the safest route possible (which in this case was a speedy change of tyres regardless of whether the rain came or not) and scores a minimum of 5 points (out of the 9 he needed for the championship). Rather than trying to outwit the competition in a short-sighted bid for a victory in the race - which is what they ended up doing.

The result is, of course, well-known. The ridiculous sight of F1's wonderboy lying beached in a gravel trap - the humiliation furthered by the fact that he was driving in the pitlane when it happened.

Ron Dennis later admitted that they were racing primarily against Alonso - a tactic I found absolutely stupid. If anything, they should have let Alonso pass at the earliest - thereby putting him under pressure to chase a race win. Remember, Alonso needs to win both races - and chances are that in trying to do that he'll break his car down (as it happened Alonso didn't win either race). Meanwhile, Lewis should have been doing just the optimum necessary to keep his championship on track.

For Formula One's sake I really do hope someone has noted down one more line to add to the collective Formula One wisdom in the paddock. A simple aphorism that might make a difference to someone else's championship in the future.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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