Graham Keilloh  |    |   0  |  15 April 2018

Why drivers still make a difference in Formula 1


"A great, entertaining and thorough analysis of strategy and tyre choice. But don’t you miss the days when those mattered little, and driver talent was the biggest determining factor in a victory? I sure do. Do you ever see that coming back?"

I encountered this comment below the line in an article analysing Friday practice for the Chinese Grand Prix just passed. I don’t quote it to pick on its author, as it’s a common refrain. And who could argue? The drivers are the stars. And there is a consensus view that in F1 they have become less of a discriminator across time.

But perhaps the extent that “those days” vary from now is overstated. The first point to make is that there have always been equipment haves and have nots. In the pre-war days as well as the 1950s the gaps between cars were wider than now in the main; same goes for a few other eras too.

It’s hard also – in any era – to point at instances where races were won by the driver in spite of their machine, though analysis is muddied by that the best drivers tend to find their way into the best cars.

We like to talk about Stirling Moss taking an underpowered Rob Walker entered Lotus to victory in Monaco and the Nurburgring – two drivers’ tracks – in 1961. But that seems an outlier. The norm instead is even celebrated driving talent can sink to nowhere if the car is not underneath them, and that’s almost always been the case.

Rule changes provide good examples. Jack Brabham got two titles on the bounce with Cooper in 1959 and ’60, but the next season the 1.5 litre formula came in and Black Jack got a total of four points. Jim Clark was untouchable in 1965 but with the 3 litre formula of the following year and Lotus’s drop-off in competitiveness Clark wasn’t a contender and bagged only one win.

The brilliant Chris Amon could not get his Tecno, Amon or whatever near the front-runners. Emerson Fittipaldi won two titles young in the early seventies but then could do nothing in five seasons in his brother’s tail end machine.

And the cliff face development of the ground effect really shook things up in the late seventies - 1978 champion Mario Andretti got just 14 points in the following year of ‘79. That year’s champion Jody Scheckter got just two points the year after that. The likes of Niki Lauda and James Hunt became midfield men too. Presumably in none of these cases did they become suddenly bad drivers.

We like to talk about Stirling Moss taking an underpowered Rob Walker entered Lotus to victory in Monaco and the Nurburgring – two drivers’ tracks – in 1961. But that seems an outlier. The norm instead is even celebrated driving talent can sink to nowhere if the car is not underneath them, and that’s almost always been the case.

“I doubt that there has previously been an era when a great driver was so impotent in the face of mediocre machinery,” declared Nigel Roebuck in 1980 as if to demonstrate that little changes. “There must be the possibility of an unexpected result, the chance of seeing that inspired drive which can make the day memorable.”

And in recent seasons we’ve had the extreme case study of Fernando Alonso – likely still in the top driver bracket – driving a series of desperate McLarens. He’s got the car frequently into places it has no right to be, but occasional meagre point-scoring has been his lot even so.

Yet it’s likely the case also that we overstate the extent that the modern F1 driver is redundant, simply along for the ride and dependent on what their car is doing. Even amid modern F1’s tortuous technology drivers still make a difference. Not to the extent that Moss did granted. Rather it’s in the margins. But in F1, particularly at the front, results are decided in the margins.

We’ve had plenty of examples this season. In all three race weekends there was little between the two Ferraris, if anything Kimi Raikkonen looked the faster much of the time. Yet it has been Sebastian Vettel who has pipped him when it matters. In both Bahrain and China despite being behind after the first Q3 runs Seb nosed ahead of Kimi at the last to take pole.

And he’s been faster in each race as well. Yes, I hear you cry, Seb got a massive slab of luck to get ahead in Australia, but consider that when the safety car went in Seb had less than four seconds on Kimi, and he then stretched his lead on his team-mate to nearly 10 at its peak.

In Bahrain he was six seconds clear when Kimi had his pitstop related retirement. In China he was 12 seconds clear after 15 laps, long before Kimi was used as a strategic pawn (delivering at qualifying’s crunch point as well as throughout a race distance has been Kimi’s problem for a while now).

“I feel so much for Kimi today,” said Nico Rosberg after China’s qualifying. “I know exactly how it is, when you’re the whole weekend in front, and Lewis used to do that to me, when it mattered pull one out of the bag and just nail it. It hurts.”

I feel so much for Kimi today. I know exactly how it is, when you’re the whole weekend in front, and Lewis used to do that to me, when it mattered pull one out of the bag and just nail it. It hurts - Nico Rosberg

Little wonder that F1’s mantras use terms that hint at making a difference in the margins: ‘Nailing it’, ‘delivering’, ‘getting the job done’…

Similar applies at Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas did a solid job in Bahrain, but few could resist asking the question of what Lewis Hamilton would have done in the same situation in those dramatic late laps, or even what any number of suitors linked with the Merc drive would have done? Would it have been the difference between claiming victory and the actual defeat by half a second? Possibly. Daniel Ricciardo confirmed he would have stuck his car up the inside of Vettel’s on the last lap and asked questions later.

If you’re wondering why teams spend top dollar on top driving talent, rather than investing that money in car development, this is why.

What about those teams not at the front though – is it worth them prioritising driving talent? Many rue that Robert Kubica was not given a Williams race seat this year, and there was a resultant lengthy debate around the subject among Sky’s commentators in its coverage of one of the practice sessions in China. Anthony Davidson made the not unreasonable point that drivers are the least of Williams’ problems right now, and therefore it made little sense for a team such as Williams to outlay cash on a celebrated driver given the handful of tenths shaved from laptimes would make little effective difference in the immediate term.

But the driver can make a difference further down too, albeit it applies in slightly different ways.

Force India is hardly flush with cash but has for years had a policy of not compromising on driving talent and it’s reaped the awards in points and constructors’ placings (and therefore prize money). Williams – despite Claire Williams’ slightly intelligence-insulting proclamations – has this year picked two pilots whose cases owe at least something to the money they bring. Not everyone is convinced this leaves them up all things considered, given the downside of fewer points and lower prestige (and the many knock-on impacts of both). Williams could have learned from its own history too, as in 2012 a ‘pay driver’ pairing didn’t begin to make the best of a promising car. It was murmured that the loss of prize money and paying for Pastor Maldonado’s wrecks negated whatever money it got from the drivers in any case.

“The drivers are inexperienced,” said Paul di Resta on the very subject of Williams in China, “they can’t lead the team in that respect. You’ve got Alonso who can pull McLaren along…”

The Williams drivers are inexperienced, they can’t lead the team in that respect. You’ve got Alonso who can pull McLaren along - Paul di Resta

Partly it’s leading the team, providing motivation and direction as di Resta says, but one imagines it also hardly helps a car’s technical development to not be clear on how much of a lack of pace is down to the car and how much is the driver. McLaren can at least be content that every time Alonso takes the car out he’s taking it along as fast as it is possible for that car to go (or faster).

Moreover McLaren sticks with Alonso as having a top drawer driving talent is its most tangible link to its glorious past, which in turn helps keep up investment and other interest in the team. It was in part for the very same reason that it retained Jenson Button when the likes of Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne for years were knocking impatiently on the door.

McLaren of course is wary of the slippery slope experienced by Williams and plenty others before it. As previously discussed nothing succeeds like failure in F1; downward spirals are very easy to enter.

Alonso’s making his direct difference at McLaren as well, qualifying as the lead Woking car three times from three this season with an average advantage of a quarter of a second. And he has 22 points to Stoffel’s six.

It may not seem this way, but even in current day’s F1 drivers still make a difference.

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