Staying on track

3 min read

An over-restricted motorsport sector may be detrimental to engineering innovation argue Rick Delbridge and Francesca Mariott

The success of Jenson Button and his Brawn team in this year's Formula 1 (F1) championship has been all but overshadowed by the disagreement between the race-car teams and the sport's regulators over proposals to cap expenditure in future years. In some ways, this is just the latest political spat in a sport that seems to have had more than its fair share, even allowing for the huge sums of money and the matching egos involved.

However, are there implications beyond the immediate world of F1 and might the outcome have detrimental effects for the wider UK motorsport industry and the engineering community? In our view, there is a very real possibility that moves to tighten regulation of F1 and impose budgetary restrictions may have unintended consequences that will undermine innovative activity. This, in turn, could potentially have a negative impact on UK engineering, since the sector, especially that identified with F1 and 'Motorsport Valley', is routinely promoted as the pre-eminent exemplar of the UK's ability to combine engineering capability, design creativity and innovation for world-leading results.

Over the past few years, we have been researching how motorsport companies across Europe manage innovation and, in particular, how they work with networks of organisations to develop radical innovation in the materials, technologies and products that are deployed in the sport. The research explored specific examples of radical innovation being successfully brought to the racetrack and identified the key characteristics of how this happened. The findings show the importance of managing a diverse network and seeking to draw on a range of diverse or distant sources of knowledge. In other words, the more radical innovations tended to be based on a range of expertise and resources drawn from numerous organisations as part of collaborative networks that underpin both mutual learning and experimentation.

We can identify a number of features of successful innovators. They engage in wide exploratory search activities, going outside their 'comfort zone' to seek out ideas or sources of expertise. This helps them to identify the advantages offered by new combinations of existing knowledge, through the application of technologies and materials initially developed elsewhere. Radical innovation means breaking with current practice and thus successful innovators often partner with 'unusual' companies — ones that operate outside the motorsport industry. Being able to make the most of the potential of these partners means developing close working relationships, perhaps building on personal ties and exhibiting high levels of trust with less emphasis on immediate financial or performance returns. Along with identifying new partners, the most successful innovators also encourage lateral thinking and learning with their established partners.

The research also looked at the challenges that companies face in managing innovation. While the interviews were completed before the latest disputes about an expenditure cap, the regulations being imposed to cut costs and stabilise design change were cited by a number of race teams as having a detrimental impact on innovation. There were further obstacles that motorsport companies struggled to overcome.

Despite the massive budgets of some race teams, these included limited time and resources to try new things or build relationships and a lack of dedicated staff to carry out exploratory activities and seek out ideas and potential partners. In addition, and as is common in other industry sectors, companies often reported a reliance on established relationships, which restricts diversity and novelty. In motorsport, concerns about the leakage of intellectual property can breed an inward-looking conservatism among companies and, in F1, a parent company's strategy to use the race team for 'in-house' research and development means that networks are 'closed'.

What can these companies do to improve their innovation capability and increase their chances of delivering radical innovations? The research highlights a number of priorities. These include promoting lateral thinking within the industry, encouraging communication with other sectors with engineering expertise and creating a search capability to aid in the identification of technological opportunities beyond the boundaries of the motorsport industry. Developing search capabilities to find potential partners is the first step, but collaborative relationships then need to be nurtured through developing trust and shared interests that may need to extend beyond short-term concerns and embracing joint risk taking and experimentation.

The outcome of the latest wrangle over F1 regulation is unclear. If the result is that F1 teams are less ambitious and radical in their innovation activity, UK engineering will find that a shining example of its capability has been dimmed. However, current developments in F1 may be read in a different way — moves to restrict costs may open up opportunities for new teams to enter and hence promote, rather than stifle, innovation. If this is the case, our research suggests that future successful innovators, be they current teams or newcomers, will be those that both nurture collaborative relationships with current partners and actively seek out ideas and relationships. The opportunity for UK engineering is, therefore, to be both home to the majority of those motorsport teams and the wider source of the creativity and novelty that will underpin future success.

Rick Delbridge is a professor at Cardiff Business School and Francesca Mariotti is a lecturer at Stirling University. Their research was conducted as part of the ESRC/EPSRC Advanced Institute of Management Research and their report, 'Racing for Radical Innovation', is available at