How 2500 year old philosophy helped Red Bull win in 2010

Sun Tzu - the Godfather of strategic thinking

You can tell its winter and not a lot is happening when I start writing stuff like this. But here we go…

In recent weeks a lot has been made of the final race of the 2010 Formula 1 World Championship and in the tactical errors made by Ferrari which ultimately saw Fernando Alonso miss out on a third title. There’s been talk that heads will roll at Maranello for the blunder in Abu Dhabi, an over reaction of epic proportions if ever I heard one. Formula 1 may be big business, but it is still ultimately a sport and as a sport there is no such thing as a certainty. It is a big, glamorous game and as with every game if one is to succeed one must take risks, make snap decisions and ride out the consequences. Ferrari gambled, and it didn’t pay off. That’s life.

All of this talk about strategy and tactics however got me thinking back to my years at University studying political science, and in particular to two pretty hectic modules I took entitled Strategic Studies. Now some of the teachings were pretty mind numbing, but there were a few which have stuck with me not only because they made sense and intrigued me, but because they have direct relevance to not only the world in which I find myself employed, but the world in which we live our everyday lives.

In his work “On War” the man often credited as the father of modern strategic thinking and my usual starting point for strategic thinking, General Carl Von Clausewitz, describes strategy as being a phenomenon based primarily in art… a concept which, as my rusty cogs turned over the past week, led me directly to the man widely held as the godfather of strategic thinking, Sun Tzu, a 5th Century BC philosopher and military general who wrote the bible of strategy – “The Art of War.”

So, you ask, what in the hell has some ancient Chinese bloke got to do with Formula 1 and Red Bull’s championship challenge in 2010? Interestingly, quite a bit, as Red Bull’s strategy this season, under the leadership of Christian Horner almost perfectly reflects the teachings of the godfather of military thinking…

Fernando Alonso - Abu Dhabi 2010. http://www.sutton-images.com

With Ferrari showing its hand early on that it was putting all of its weight behind Alonso, Red Bull and Christian Horner had a choice to make, and it falls into one of Sun Tzu’s most basic lessons – namely that victory is more likely to be assured the more numerous one’s army.

“It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two. If equally matched, we can (only) offer battle.”

Thus by realising that by supporting both drivers he had two points of attack and twice as numerous an attacking force, Horner retook the strategic advantage from Ferrari.

“Victory lies in the knowledge of five points

1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight
2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces
3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all ranks
4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared
5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

It is in this section of “The Art of War,” that I believe Horner and Red Bull got things really right. The team, throughout the season, seemed the best prepared and in every race seemed to know when to hold position and when to push. There was never really a case of them pushing beyond their limitations. Sure Vettel got a bit wild at points, but the team’s strategy itself was calm. The fifth point is also one of which we must make reference. For while Luca di Montezemolo is an enormous figure in the Ferrari team and whose scorn nobody wishes to bring down upon them, so conversely at Red Bull do we have Dietrich Mateschitz who just sort of let Christian Horner run things however he wanted to, and said to the very last race that they would do things right and allow the drivers to race, even if it meant losing out on the drivers’ championship.

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to the battle, will arrive exhausted.”

Of course, much of Red Bull’s advantage came from having the fastest car from the very first race of the season. Being first to the fight meant everyone was trying to catch them, and any upgrades they made would only extend that trend. t is what led to so much discord and discontent within the season as everyone believed the team was cheating. The team, of course, only saw this as a backhanded compliment that their car was so good that it had got everyone else running scared.

Christian Horner - http://www.sutton-images.com

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

This phrase could have been written about Christian Horner. Level headed, calm, almost shy at times, he proved himself in 2010 to be the perfect General. And just as the Sovereign left his General to direct his armies in the manner he saw fit, so was he able to do so due to the skills of the General in question.

Next up, though, is one of Sun Tzu’s most interesting philosophies and one which, when we think about it, might well have been employed by Red Bull in 2010…

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are away; when far away we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. Pretend to grow weak, that he may grow arrogant.”

Vettel versus Webber was the story of 2010… but could this have been a tactic to create an unfounded level of confidence in their rivals? Webber was the driver that the team seemed to be putting down at Silverstone, and yet he sailed to victory. In Brazil the team seemed divided and at one of its weakest points. The drivers finished 1-2 in the race. By dividing his drivers Horner had already increased the team’s odds of success in the drivers’ championship over those of Ferrari because they had two drivers able to take the crown. By creating a supposed tension between the drivers, had he also created a diversion for Ferrari? Had Red Bull created the impression of discord to, as Sun Tzu suggests, hold out bait to the enemy that he might grow arrogant?

Frankly I doubt it as the animosity between Webber and Vettel really did seem very real at points in 2010. But it is an interesting thought when you compare it to the harmony between the two McLaren drivers.

Vettel Vs Webber... discontent or clever strategy?

And thus it all came down to Abu Dhabi and that final race. In keeping two lines of attack, Horner and Red Bull were in the perfect position because Ferrari had to choose which driver to cover – Vettel or Webber…

“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

And so it was that by Ferrari limiting itself to one line of attack, it had to fight a war on two fronts in the final race. As Sun Tzu wrote, the opportunity of defeating the enemy had been provided by the enemy itself. In keeping two drivers in the hunt, Horner and red Bull had fulfilled another of Sun Tzu’s philosphies…

“The general is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defence whose opponent does not know what to attack.”

And so it was that Ferrari covered Webber, Alonso lost the crown, and Red Bull pulled off the perfect season with both championships and Sebastian Vettel became the youngest F1 world champion in history.

Now I’m not claiming that any of Sun Tzu’s teachings actually played on Christian Horner’s mind in 2010… it’s just me being a little bit geeky I guess. “The Art of War” remains an incredible piece of work and something well worth a read.

No doubt if Christian Horner has read it, though, he’ll be aiming to go one better in 2011 and fulfil Sun Tzu’s most basic principle…

“Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.”