Formula 1 and The Glass Bead game

April 11, 2017

 

The wondrous striving for innovation in Formula 1 racing suggests a modern version of the Glass Bead game in Herman Hesse’s masterpiece and the answer to the question ‘what’s the use of a baby?’

The idea struck me as I admired the unfolding story of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix race recently. Such effort, courage, innovation, political intrigues, strategy. Many ingredients for an MBA elective, I thought.

Then I asked myself the dangerous existential question, what’s the point of it all? At the back of my mind, I dimly recalled the question “what’s the point of electricity?” asked of Michael Faraday, who allegedly replied “what’s the use of a baby?

A little research suggested that my memory had accessed an urban scientific myth. Among other versions, Ben Franklin replied to the question “what’s the use of a ballon?” with a similar answer. Among other unconfirmed replies is another on the subject of the use of his electrical ‘toys’. I cannot say the use, he is alleged to have replied, but I can guarantee that one day you will be able to tax them.

For whatever reason, challenging the purpose of Formula One also reminded me of Herman Hesse’s classic, The Glass Bead Game. The book is set in the future, where the highest of human achievements are conducted in a province dedicated to the life of the mind. Students are all male [a point worth noting]. The pursuit of knowledge involves devoting one’s life to studying and playing the complex Glass Bead game, which I think of as multi-dimensional Go and Chess.

The central character is Knecht. Like much of the book, the name has subtle references, in this instance to Knight (which linguistically relates also to Servant). His journey to enlightenment and to becoming Magister Ludi (Lord of the Game) is traced. An important theme is the value of a community closed off from the outside world.

This question increasingly disturbs Knecht, as his path unfolds. He reaches a personal crisis and leaves the boundaries of the closed province to serve in the outside world. There are several embedded levels of story at work as the book reaches not so much a conclusion as with a necessary incompleteness. At one level, the story ends with the death of Knecht. The narrator asserts there is far more which cannot be told.

It is not difficult to re-examine Formula One through the lens of The Glass Bead Game. The provinces set aside for the pursuit of the FI game co-exist with regions of the outside world, but isolated from them. The boundaries are fixed in time and space for the practice sessions and for the games themselves. Players are admitted from lower level disciplines, F2 being the next highest.

Rules are strictly administered, but as in Glass Bead contests, no two games are identical. Over time, the dedication of industrious and dedicated players enriches the game. Many innovations occur. Sometimes the argument is used that the innovations enrich the well-being of the world outside by modifications to everyday automobiles, making them safer, more energy efficient, so therefore more environmentally efficient. One enterprising group of medical researchers was grant funded to study the efficiency of in-race pit-stop team work, to transfer the knowledge to the logistics in operating theatres.

These arguments would not calm the moral concerns of an F1 Joseph Knecht aware of the general lack of enthusiasm in Glass Bead racing for changes away from clean energy use, or for reducing pollution visited on cities around the world hosting the games. A similar case for real-world gains from the space-exploration Bead Game ended in the weak claim that the intellectual efforts produced the non-stick frying pan. [For the record, the reverse causality has also been suggested for space exploration.]

Electric cars in F1 seem an oxymoron, as their silence is anathema to the tradition of the sport, and a regression from the ultimate purity demanded by initiates and Magister Ludi alike. Revolutionaries dreaming of F1 pioneering electric cars, are being urged to replace the silence with the traditional throaty roar of petrol engines.

These dystopic thoughts of mine cannot conceal the appeal of the wonderful Glass Bead game which is the Formula One enterprise. The lengthy years of rule by Bernie Ecclestone as Magister Ludi seem to be drawing to a close. Whether a Joseph Knecht figure will emerge as new leaders remains open, like the end of Hesse’s masterpiece.

I turn my attention to another ivory tower question I have heard from time to time, in business school workshops. ‘What’s the use of an MBA?‘  As Benjamin Franklin might or might not have said, ‘I cannot tell you exactly, but I guarantee you will be taxed on your earnings from it, one day‘.


How to choose a Formula One driver

September 5, 2016

 

[Image from wikipedia Formula One entry]

A top formula one driver announces his retirement.  His organization faces a decision with potentially huge financial consequences. Decision theorists line up to offer their expert services

This week [September 2 2016] Felipe Massa announced his retirement from the Williams Formula One racing team at the age of thirty five.

He has earned a reputation as a great driver and also a superb role model in the way he dealt with injuries and other setbacks.  He earned that least-wanted accolade of the greatest in his chosen sport who never won the highest prize.

He was thwarted for much of his best years by the supremacy of the great Michael Schumacher. Massa thought he had won the world championship in 2008, in his home Grand Prix in Brazil. Seconds after he crossed the finish-line his celebrations were cut short. Lewis Hamilton had squeezed out a fifth position in the last corner of the last of the season’s races.

Who will replace Massa at Williams?

Now the Williams outfit has to find a replacement.  In some ways the decision is relatively straightforward.  There are a handful of the most gifted drivers already driving who might be attracted from their existing places for various reasons. To these might be added the next ‘greatest racer in waiting’, who has been outperforming his contemporaries from pre-teenage events.  Lewis Hamilton was one such figure.  The eighteen year old Dutch prodigy Max Verstappen is the most recent one, albeit already pugnacious enough to have upset his more experienced rivals

Enter the decision theorists

The impressive Claire Williams of the Williams racing organisation has to reach the decision for Massa’s replacement.

Many years ago, I acquired a comprehensive set of notes being taught at the time at Harvard by the great decision-theorist Howard Raiffa. They anticipated later developments in statistical decision theory, game theory and negotiation analysis now taught at Business Schools. Maybe Claire Williams is already fully tooled-up with access to the best theorists whom money can buy. Her explanation of their intended process (interview with Sky Sports, September 3 2016) was a model of clarity:

There are many criteria, and we know what they are and the value we attribute to them, she said. At the appropriate time we will announce our decision. [My quote from memory of the interview given to Sky Sports by Claire Williams]

Bounded for success

A simple decision?  Not really.  But a nice example of a decision-maker pragmatically reducing the uncertainties by ‘bounding the rationality‘ of an important decision. The question ‘which available driver will maximize returns on investment?‘ would require a pit lane of quants Profs. The question ‘which driver meets our criteria best?’ is one from which it is easier to arrive at an answer.


Leadership Case: Toto Wolff’s big decision

January 4, 2015

A Leadership We Deserve Student Case Study

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff faced a big decision when the two stars of his Formula One team became bitter rivals.

In 2014, Mercedes quickly demonstrated the superiority of its F1 cars. Within a few races, it became clear the Mercedes team would win the Constructor’s championship easily. In every race, their two drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg finished first and second. except when prevented by technical retirements in a small number of races.

The problem

The problem was that only one of the drivers could win the prestigious driver’s competition. The battle between the two became intense, risking a collision through a misjudged overtaking move.

Wolff discussed the situation with the drivers, and warned them about the consequences.

The collision

At the Belgium Grand Prix, the feared collision took place.

Rosberg appeared to have collided at high speed and recklessly with Hamilton, putting Hamilton out of the race. It was even suggested that the move was deliberate.

What would you do in Toto Wolff’s place?


Relationship management: Mercedes chief Toto Wolff sets an example in F1

November 21, 2014

Formula One racing has compounded its problems this year by adding to competition between drivers racing within the same team. Toto Wolff of Mercedes has tried to address the dilemma for drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg

The broader issue is that of competitive individuals who are expected to put aside personal ambitions for the greater good of the organization to which they are committed.

A universal social dilemma

This is a universal social dilemma. In various forms it has attracted considerable attention.

Just recently, the distinguished Ethnologist Edward Wilson revealed the intensity over the debate with dismissive remarks over the ideas of Richard Dawkins, particularly over altruism and the selfish gene hypothesis.

It may be relevant that Wilson has specialized in understanding the social life of the ant, a species in which individual interests of the many are utterly subordinate to the well-being of the whole colony. His work adds to understanding of Eusociality.

335px-Fire_ants_01

From Formicidae to Formula One

Meanwhile, back from ants to Formula One racing, a system has been deliberately designed to sustain interest in the competition between two drivers in each team through points earned in each race towards the driver’s championship. This captures the attention of the global audience. There is also competition among the teams, the constructors championship, which is based on the total points scored by both drivers. This is the measure which encourages financial support for the constructors.

The Dilemma compounded

The Dilemma for F1 has been compounded by several factors this year. The most obvious is the decision to award double points to the drivers of last race in Dubai. This rather crude decision was made inevitably with the approval of Bernie Eccleston whose grasp of unintended consequences of actions seems limited. He has recently accepted a stay out of jail settlement in the German courts.

These issues took place as more unintended consequences of the funding mechanisms forced two teams out of the competition facing financial meltdown.

For Mercedes, whose team had by far the most successful car this year, the dilemma was exacerbated the competition between the drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg who will battle it out for first place in Abu Dabhi shortly. Mercedes has already won the constructors championship

A matter of relationship management

It was refreshing to read the mature approach shown by Toto Wolff.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ head of motorsport, has told both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg that losing the world championship in Abu Dhabi next week will not be the end of the world for either of them.
The observation is likely to fall on deaf ears but Wolff has felt compelled to move into full man-management mode ahead of the final race of the season, the double-points decider at the Yas Marina circuit, and told everyone in the team to “buckle up” for a rough ride next week

“The aftermath is relationship management, which is important for the future,” he said. “But [in] the run-up [it] is important to maintain the balance, to maintain the respect between the two and to let it stay a respectful relationship.”

Points for the leadership championship

If there were a leadership championship with points awarded by Leaders we deserve, Toto Wolff would be this month’s winner. Bernie Eccleston would not get past the first qualifying session.

Attribution

Image of fire ants By Stephen Ausmus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Sir Richard Branson in drag. How an entrepreneur wins even if he loses

May 13, 2013

Richard Branson Air Hostess

Richard Branson is an entrepreneur who prefers to gamble when he wins whatever the result

A wager is reported between owners of two competing airlines, Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airways and Tony Fernandes of Air Asia.

Charity Bet

The charity bet was over the performances not of airlines but of two Formula One racing teams. Did I mention that the two were sufficiently wealthy to own their own racing teams? The owner of the team performing worse would dress as an air hostess and serve passengers on his rival airline. Yes, serve actual travelers with actual refreshments dressed as what the Press called a trolley dolly.

Branson frocks up

Branson’s airline lost. A suitably frocked- up Sir Richard paid his debt. [Reported May 2013]. It was very much a mile high dare..

Who loses wins

So here’s the thing. The story revealed the ‘loser’ of the bet camping up his role on Asia airlines. The publicity was not invaluable but far from damaging for the company. Sir Richard ‘lost’ by doing what he most enjoys, being the centre of attention. Go figure. There must be a leadership message in the story somewhere.

Postscript

LWD subscribers in England may remember another recent gamble by Mr Fernandes. His football team, Queen’s Park Rangers, was relegated from the football Premiership. The gamble of switching manager with ten games to go did not pay off.