At this year’s Workday Rising Europe in Barcelona, we were fortunate to be joined by David Coulthard, MBE—one of the most successful British drivers in the history of Formula 1 motor racing. In the conference’s Kickoff Keynote moderated by broadcaster Tom Clarkson, Coulthard shared how the lessons born in the hyper-intense world of racing—where victory is measured in millimetres and fractions of a second—can help business leaders create a culture that encourages mentorship, teamwork, and the pursuit of perfection.
“Where I’m from, there was more chance of me driving a tractor or milking a cow than becoming a Grand Prix driver,” Coulthard said. As a young man from a sleepy Scottish village, Coulthard wasn’t exactly destined for the world of Formula 1. However, thanks to inheriting his father’s passion for karting, Coulthard’s early racing successes caught the attention of motor racing legend Jackie Stewart.
Stewart mentored Coulthard via his “Staircase of Talent” programme, designed to take young drivers through the different levels of racing and into the elite Formula 1 discipline. For Coulthard though, some of Stewart’s most important teachings were not about driving.
“He taught me that to be successful long term, you have to understand how to work with people, how to spend time with the tyre guy, the engineers, the man who drives the truck. Then, you need to see how those relationships can benefit the whole team and improve your chances of success,” Coulthard said.
“The driver is the primary focus of attention, but it’s the thousand-plus team members who create the opportunity to win.” —David Coulthard
Unlike football, rugby, or other team sports, it may appear that races are won or lost solely on the skill of the driver. In fact, that’s not the case at all.
“In Formula 1 racing, the driver is the primary focus of attention, but it’s the thousand-plus team members who create the opportunity to win,” Coulthard said, noting that he was surrounded by brilliance—people who understand physics and engineering at a level he never could. Surrounding yourself with brilliance is a lesson Coulthard has taken into his post-racing business career.
“One of the most important elements of Grand Prix is the pit stop. If a crew take two-to-three seconds longer than your competition, that can make a huge difference to the race,” Coulthard said. “The crew has an incredible trust in the driver, and that works both ways. Mechanics come together to support the team and deliver great customer service. The feedback comes from the driver, the team then improves the car, and there’s a constant handing of the baton of responsibility to make things right.”
“Each F1 team has its own personality, but the thing that bonds all teams is the relentless pursuit of perfection. In F1, the teams debrief post-race and look at where they won a race, but more importantly, where they can do better,” Coulthard said.
Discussing his early days as test driver for the Williams team, Coulthard discussed how he analysed the data from the drivers he worked for, including world champions Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna, to identify where his weaknesses were and how he could improve. Coulthard also highlighted the pursuit of improved performance, the continual analysis of the last race, and how diet, hydration, and exercise are now all part every F1 teams’ efforts to gain competitive advantage.
“I made myself the best version of myself,” Coulthard said of his career, which includes 13 Grand Prix wins and 62 podium finishes while racing wheel-to-wheel with names such as Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, and Lewis Hamilton.
When Coulthard started feeling his best days on the track might be behind him, and with a BBC contract beckoning, he asked his team principal to test a young driver named Sebastian Vettel in his place. This was effectively promoting his competition, but an important transition of talent for the team. And, proving that the long view is just as important as fractions of a second, it turns out the choice was a wise one. Vettel, as racing fans know, has since gone on to become a four-time world champion.