Opinions on this topic will vary. I am of the belief that the drivers are the single most important component of a Formula 1 team. Others would argue that the car is the star of the show. To me, a car without a talented driver is a very expensive paperweight.
Don’t believe me? Think the car does most of the work? Perhaps I can your mind, or at least get you to consider that a good driver makes a difference.
The most obvious way to see how a driver makes a difference is to compare teammates. One will master the car quicker than the other. They will have a better understanding of the handling, of when to get on the power, of how to judge the braking zone and so on. Some drivers can offer up great, meaningful feedback to the engineers to help fine-tune the car. Some drivers will seemingly have an innate natural ability to race.
There’s a reason that teams covet certain drivers. The teams themselves know that some are better than others, and can make the difference in points for the team when the chips are down – which in turn affects position in the constructor’s championship, which in turn affects prize money. With apologies to the likes of Jos Verstappen (father of Max), Paul di Resta, Martin Brundle and many many more, there’s a reason no team would want to settle for them, if the equivalent of Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton were a viable option.
Verstappen Senior is a case in point here. He was not a bad racer (you don’t even make it into Formula 1 if you’re not at least competent), but, in Benetton machinery that was arguably the best in the field in 1994, he could not live with the pace of Michael Schumacher and was constantly out-classed. Granted, it was his first season in Formula 1 and granted, he was initially a stand-in for JJ Lehto (who also disappointed), but he did not do enough in the car to justify being retained for the following season.
The difference between a good driver and an excellent one can also make a, huge impact upon a team’s fortune. One of the prime examples is that of Fernando Alonso. Driving for Renault in 2008 he comfortably outscored teammate Nelson Piquet Jr. Alonso also provides us with perhaps the most amazing example of recent times – the 2012 season was so nearly a triumph of racing brilliance over machinery, with Alonso dragging a distinctly average Ferrari to within touching distance of the world championship.
So what does it take to be a Formula 1 driver? I’m lucky enough to have read several autobiographies from F1 drivers, which offer an insight into what they need to do. The first and most obvious one is commitment. From an early age (as young as 8) weekends get sacrificed in order to go to racing events. Jenson Button did exactly that, working hard with his father to develop an understanding of where to brake, turn in, get on the power and so on. In fact, Button’s father made him go on a wet track in slick tyres, to get a better understanding of kart control – an invaluable experience. Button would progress through the likes of Formula Ford and Formula 3.
Lewis Hamilton also took a path through karting, and then up through the various feeder series, including Formula Renault and Formula 3. For both Britons, the journey meant having to impress on the track and learn different techniques for driving different, more sophisticated cars as they went up the pyramid (interestingly, Button’s father would work on karts driven by Hamilton, so the two shared a link long before they ended up McLaren teammates in 2010).
Sometimes the experience of fighting to progress up the ladder was tough. It certainly tested both Button and Hamilton, despite the success they enjoyed along the way. Even the likes of Alain Prost and Senna came up through karting and would have faced the same struggles. Hard work is a vital component of becoming an F1 driver, and it remains important throughout a driver’s career.
It helps to possess some form of talent for motorsport. Judgement of when to turn in for a particular corner, feeling how the engine responds when you draw extra power, sensing when to shift gear and get on the throttle, are all part and parcel of being an F1 racer, and not everyone who starts the journey can fully grasp all those elements. It doesn’t help that as one climbs the ranks, the nature of the cars dramatically shifts.
In Formula Ford it’s about engine grunt. It’s also a very much ‘elbows out’ form of racing (another lesson for drivers to learn, which I’ll come to later). It could be considered a very advanced form of kart, but that would be to sell it short. Formula Ford cars have gearboxes and a lot more to adjust and set up than any kart. They represent a sea-change for many racers.
At F3 level, everything changes. Drivers have to suddenly unlearn some of what they understand of racing fast cars. Aerodynamics and downforce come into play. A lot more speed can be carried into corners, going against the grain of what young drivers have been used to, but they must also contend with losing downforce when trailing another car. It alters the way they must think when approaching a circuit and a race, and of course there is another thing to consider…
Engine power becomes greater the higher up the chain, so not only is there greater cornering speed, but more straight line speed to consider as well. Button describes motor racing as a learning process, one where he never stopped learning. It’s easy to understand why. There is also another factor to ponder… the calibre of the opposition.
Like any sport, to make it means a certain element of ruthlessness to go with the talent and hard work. If someone hesitates on track, and it costs them places, others around them will sense weakness and exploit it, on and off the track. Allowing one’s self to be bullied out of position is a signal to prospective teams that they probably won’t have what it takes. A driver has to be hungry. They have to be brave and bold, willing to push the car harder each and every lap, to brake just a bit later than anyone else, and hit the power before anyone else. When they see a gap, they need to be prepared to have a go. When defending, they need their elbows out, offering up only the bare minimum of space, no more.
Of the books I’ve read, no one has perhaps captured this mentality for me more than Nigel Mansell, who described the mental ballet a driver puts themselves through. There is learning the track, then refining that knowledge during practice, knowing where to put the car to get the best possible lap, and how to set the car up for optimum performance. There’s a tremendous degree of trust – trust in the car, in one’s own ability, in other drivers. There’s the supreme faith in one’s own skills, verging on arrogance. A Formula 1 racing driver has to know they are better than anyone else, that when they attack a corner it’s their corner. They are prepared to go wheel to wheel with anyone else, at high speed, knowing one twitch, one mistake or one mechanical failure might trigger a horrifying accident. In that moment, they are also trusting the guy next to them to not make a mistake, to know when to lift, rather than try something stupid – and they know the guy next to them is going through all the same thought processes.
And they’re doing all of this whilst driving very fast cars.
So by the time a driver has established themselves in Formula 1, proven themselves at their team, and worked their way to a better team, winning races and championships, it’s worth bearing in mind that not everyone has what it takes to reach that level. As amazing as Formula 1 cars are, they are nothing when they are not being driven by talented, hard-working professionals – and some of those professionals have worked harder, fought more, and developed their skill set better than others. Teams know this, they understand how drivers can make all the difference.