Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, and the importance of teamwork

Teamwork. One of the most important elements of high performance cultures. I have often used Red Bull Racing as an example for high performing teams. Yesterday’s Formula 1 #BrazilGP showed that even a team that is at the absolute top of their game, dominantly winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s championships, have to deal with their fair share of interpersonal turmoil. Collaboration, cooperation, cohesion, all factors that are immensely important if you want to get the most out of your team. The behavior shown by Max Verstappen yesterday though, is best described using a different kind of c-word.

(Crappy. I meant crappy. I promise.)

Max was asked to let his team mate, Checo Perez, through for 6th place. Max had nothing to gain or lose, but Checo is still in a battle with Charles LeClerc for second place in the championship. Max did not respond, even after his race engineer repeatedly pleaded with him to swap positions, and finished the race ahead of Perez. When asked what happened, he told his race engineer: “I told you already last summer. The guys don’t ask that again to me. Ok? Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons, and I stand by it.”

I heard this during the broadcast and went back to his onboard channel on the F1 app to find out if his response was perhaps taken out of context. It wasn’t.

I love hard racing, and I love watching Verstappen when he is at his best. He can be an incredibly inspiring and motivating team leader. This makes his behavior all the more disappointing. The story on social media is that this was retaliation for Perez deliberately binning it during qualifying in Monaco to keep Max behind. I have no idea if this is true, it was neither confirmed nor denied by Verstappen during post-race interviews. If it is, it would suggest he patiently waited around for several months, happily letting Perez play second fiddle to his championship efforts, retaliating only after securing the championship. I want to believe he wouldn’t be this petty. And I want to believe Red Bull would not have let this simmer, but would have addressed these issues internally months ago. I doubt we will ever find out, as Red Bull have been very tight-lipped about the whole situation.

Resilient, high performing teams have certain characteristics in common. They are able to adapt to constantly changing situations, they come up with creative solutions to challenging problems, they take ownership, they show courage, they use critical thinking to evaluate their options, and they are amazing collaborators that show high levels of perspective taking and empathy. These skills allow their collective brains to constructively handle the stress of being at the absolute top of their game every single day. It allows them to frame stress as challenging instead of threatening, which has a massively positive impact on performance.

It is the “amazing collaborators that show high levels of perspective taking and empathy” part that could use a little work here. The season is coming to its end, so they’ll have some time to smooth things over before their next battle for the championship. For their sake though, I sincerely hope they are able to have an open, honest, candid conversation about what went on. Yesterday’s race showed what happens when there is lingering resentment. With Mercedes back in the mix, next year’s championship battle might prove to be a lot more intense than this one. Red Bull will need to bring their absolute A-game to stand a chance, and these actions are not that.