SHARE

With the first leg of the F1 season behind us, let us assess the effect of the new engines and more importantly, what we have learned as a result. There is a lot of chatter about the current crop of drivers getting lost in all the new technology, the buttons, the resets. Supposedly a current F1 pilot is using less of their given talent to actually drive the car and somehow it is the car doing all the work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. With these massively torqued, zero down-force race cars, the actual driving is more relevant than it has ever been. True, it is not the Jim Clark days, but was Jim Clark pulling 3.5 G’s on a corner entry to exit? Or managing a sophisticated on-board computer while still setting up a pass and keeping an eye on the rearview mirrors? The talent and skill of a driver is still vital to a winning racecar. And what is becoming quite clear this season is that the right rac ecar is also vital to create a winning driver.

Kimi & Seb

Let’s look at, or rather look for, two World Champions to make our point. I know a super-fast fella named Kimi Raikkonen, one that does not care about politics, tells his bosses to shut up and let him drive, that so far this season has not shown up for a Grand Prix. Even more confounding, his friend, you know the one, young guy, curly blond hair, comes from a little town called Heppenheim, drives a blue and purple liveried car with a painted picture of a rodeo icon on it. Mr. Sebastian Vettel, four-time consecutive world champion has been out-qualified, out-raced, out-smiled, out every-thinged by his younger, junior teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

Two drivers we have taken for granted that will always be at the top of their game are finding themselves in the wilderness in this new era of F1. And although Sebastian Vettel has a copious amount of records and by the way so does the driver that he considers a friend outside of the F1 circus, Kimi Raikkonen, neither one is looking like they will be adding to those records anytime soon. So what gives? It’s the car, people.

I got everyone up in arms over a post titled the Great Debate in which I tried to show it is almost impossible to prove who is a better driver. Was it Michael or Senna, Steward or Clark, Mansell or Piquet, Lauda or Hunt? I explained then that some cars suit one driver over the other as was perhaps the case with Mark Webber while at Red Bull, when Adrian Newey went out of his way to design and re-design a car that suited Vettel’s driving style. Sometimes it can be a new spec tire that is a driver’s undoing, this definitely affected Felipe Massa after he had become familiar with the Bridgestone’s Potenzas. And so it goes. It will never be perfect for any driver all the time but it is in this very fact that we can see what is great and what is masquerading as great.

In the case of Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari have their most recent WDC and a brilliantly fast driver, when the car is to his liking that is. Remember Kimi’s time at Lotus? We heard lots of complaining about the steering setup. This year again Raikkonen seems to be at odds with his car. It is either the new brake-by-wire system (if you ask his team) or his driving style (if you ask Raikkonen himself) that is impeding his ability to get the most out of the car. What do you think? Is it possible that this new formula will render the Finn irrelevant this year or at least until Ferrari institute a fix? Will Kimi bounce back or will this new generation of race cars take away some of his ability to race in a competitive way?

I’m sure all drivers want their car set-up to correspond to the way they drive or what they need to feel in the car, but that is not always possible. In fact it is rarely the case that drivers get the car exactly the way they want it. One obvious exception is Vettel during the last four years, who drove a car that was specifically designed to suit him exactly, which resulted in his claiming of the ultimate prize each and every one of those years.

The German finished the 2013 season with a string of nine wins in a row and was poised to make that a record breaking ten at the start of the 2014 season. This did not happen. Winter testing was an absolute catastrophe for the RB10 and Vettel’s only showing this year has been a second place in Malaysia. He’s a four-time world champion so it must be the poorly performing car that is holding him back, right? Yes, and no. The car is affecting Vettel negatively, but his junior teammate Daniel Ricciardo seems to be doing just fine with it. Only poor team strategy (Red Bull defying the FIA in Australia lost him a podium) and botched pit stops (Malaysia) are ruining Ricciardo’s races. He makes the effort of adapting to the new cars and their intricacies look effortless. Despite Daniel’s actual points tally I think it is safe to say that he has been the only real bright spot for Red Bull up to this point of the season.

How is it that a younger, less experienced driver can comprehensively out-race a four-time world champion? If you ask Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, it is because Vettel does not yet have the feeling that he likes. So are you saying Mr. Horner that the RB10 is fine, it just does not suit Seb’s style of driving?

If you consult Red Bull’s real team principal, Dr. Helmut Marko, he believes there is something wrong not with his star driver, but with the car Vettel has been using, so much so that Red Bull is building a new RB10 or that was the reports. Instead Vettel will be using his chassis from winter testing for the Spanish GP. Will this cure the world champion’s woes? Maybe. If it does, I think we can then definitively say, its the car.

It is glaringly obvious that when a driver does not feel a specific level of comfort, or as drivers like to say, a confidence in their car, a world champion’s ability can be reduced to that of an average driver. We cannot then take away this fact of the car’s importance when the opposite happens and a car is perfectly designed to be fast and to suit a driver. In this context, is Vettel really the Wünderkid everyone claims? Or is a lot of his winning ability in the car?

Gerhard Berger said last year that prior to 2013 he still rated Alonso as the best driver out there, but after the way Vettel finished the season, he felt differently, He felt Vettel had surpassed the Spaniard. And I thought, really? Adrian Newey made yet another step forward with Red Bull’s car design and Vettel ran away with it, therefore Vettel is now a better driver? It is exactly the fact that the RB9 was so superior at the end of last season that should take away from considering Vettel as the best pilot out there. Take away the car and what do you have? Fifth place at the moment, behind two Nico’s, Lewis, and Fernando.

Alonso

So we’ve looked at two cases where World Champions don’t look so great when they don’t have the right car. Is that always the case? Or is it possible that a truly great World Champion still looks like a champion even when he’s in an inferior car? We need look no further than Fernando Alonso to prove this point.

Alonso’s championship winning years at Renault were well deserved and fairly straightforward. In one, Alonso drove very well and extremely consistently to claim the championship from Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn’s McLaren was faster on several occasions, however reliability played its part and while I would not credit the McLaren’s fragility as to why Alonso became champion, it certainly did play a large role in that championship.

In the year where Alonso and Michael Schumacher fought for the title which went down to the final race of the year in Brazil, again Alonso drove brilliantly and proved to everyone he had what it took to win, to be a worthy champion. But had Schumacher not incurred an engine failure while leading the race would Alonso be a double champion? I wonder.

Was it those two years that convinced me Fernando had superior driving talent to the rest of the field? No, it was not until several years after that, which included a failed year at McLaren, and a return to his former team Renault in a so-so car. It was not until Alonso wore the red overalls of Ferrari did he make clear his ability to drive an F1 car better than anyone else currently can. He did it by winning races and battling for the championship in a car that for all intents and purposes was only a midfield car in regards to its true competitiveness.

It is not until you think about how deficient in all areas his car has been for each year since Alonso has joined the famous marquee that you realize what a driver Alonso has become. As I have said before, only look at his current and past teammates to see what anyone else has been able to do with the car, nothing.

As I have also mentioned before, team principals voted Alonso Driver of the Year by a huge margin in two out of the four years where Vettel took the championship. Right now Sebastian Vettel is making the case for this opinion far better than I ever could. It is exactly because the car does not suit his driving style and he cannot drive around this problem that I feel he is not as good as most people think or all the records suggest. It is right now that Vettel’s greatness seems to be inexplicably linked to having a great car from a great designer who does great things with airflow.

Let’s take a quick look at Michael Schumacher and his early years at Ferrari. He had just come off the two year Championship run at Benetton, and in his very first year, with a car that was nowhere near the front of the grid and in fact not even equipped with the elevated nose cone that would become standard and one of the most recognizable features on a modern F1 car, Schumacher was able to challenge for podiums and won on a three occasions.

The true measure of a driver, any driver, is quite simple for me and it does not lie in wins or records although that is a common by-product of a great car, a driver’s true talent or commonly both. Nor is it what a driver can do with a well-balanced, extremely quick car because I am quite clear on what that will produce. Look only to the McLaren MP4/4, or the FW14/15c with active suspension, the Ferrari F2000 series of cars and of course the RB6 – RB9 to see that part of the equation.

The real test has always been what can a driver do with a not-so-competitive car, what can a driver do to compensate for lack of grip, front or rear end instability, and in the case of two out of the three PU’s this season, with a lack of out-right power? Fernando has been driving around these problems for several years. Kimi & Seb this season, not so much. So yes, its the car. Except when you’re such a good driver that you can make the car better than it is. Then, its the driver.

In sports there is a saying, you are only as good as your last win. Although Vettel is a seasoned winner many times over, unless he starts winning again or at the very least begins out-racing his younger teammate the criticism will continue, and not just from no-name bloggers like myself. The experts, pundits and opinion makers will start to shift their opinion, and “Was it the car or the driver?” will persist.

Will he continue to struggle or will he move past these early season difficulties? Honestly I don’t have any idea where the tea leaves will fall, but either way we will see what Red Bull’s chosen son is made of this year. We will see if it is the car or if it is the driver.

  • Rapierman

    What if it was both? Hamilton, at this moment, is driving the heck out of a car that is miles ahead of everything else. That speaks volumes.

    • hey Paul
      This is true and in regards to SV, that surely was the case that both driver and car were working in total harmony last year. However, after the fly away races I still feel Vettel should be a lot close to Daniel Ricciardo. The season is still young and I fully expect Vettel to come to grips with his issues, but if something does not change soon, maybe not. Due to Vettel’s electrical issues, we did have no idea if there has been a real step in his performance. That next opportunity will be FP3. So we all wait…
      -jp-

  • A great article Jeanpierre. Separating man and machine is nigh on impossible; it’s how one copes w/ the other, how the former adapts to and evolves the latter.

    One sees it even in a spec series, where drivers often stumble in identical cars due to setup of track geography challenges that mis-suit their individual skill sets. What I find particularly interesting is when a driver proves adaptable to machines’ differing traits a la your Alonso example; as I’m not a skilled racer, I wonder if a Charsely or Westphal would share anecdotes of when they drove a car unsuited to him.

    I also agree about the fallacy in judging drivers outside their eras; who knows how well the vaunted Senna’s/Clark’s/Fangio’s/Villeneuve’s would have coped w/ wildly different formulae. That some towered over their competition is reason enough to revere w/o “all time” labels, Gretskzy and perhaps Thorpe excluded.

    For something interesting on car behavior, listen to the most recent Motorsport Mag podcast, interviewing Andy Wallace and James Weaver. Mr. Wallace’s recollections of the Benetton B186 and it’s terrifying BMW M12 engine is fantastically humorous, an example of what some racing drivers must cope with; it’s easy to imagine how some would be “better” than others, but have the tables turned if the equipment’s characteristics change.

  • johnpierre

  • First of all, let me say that “Wunderkind” is spelled without the Umlaut.

    Now for the meat of my comment: Vettel also showed that he could take a sub-par car to placed it didn’t belong, just look at his Toro Rosso days. And that was without blown diffusor.
    Also, during his first year with Red Bull, he came close to fighting for the Championship, despite being clearly disadvantaged vs. the Brawn cars with double diffusors. In fact, that wasn’t so dissimilar from Schumacher’s 1996 season.

    He clearly struggles now, as does Kimi. Still, it’s very much premature to write them off. Sure, it’s unlikely that Vettel will fight for the title, but I’m sure that by the end of the season, he will be consistently faster than Ricciardo. He has to unlearn many things he did learn over the course of the last four years which is a tough process. He mastered the technique of driving a blown diffusor better than anyone, something that is not only useless now, but probably counter-productive. And it goes beyond mere driving style, but also has to do with learning about the car and the setup anew, as changes to the setup will have very different consequences now compared to last year. As you said, disentangling car from driver isn’t easy, in reality, they both have to converge. Vettel needs to adapt his driving style, but he also needs to understand the car, so that he can develop it to his liking. But he will manage to do that.

    You mentioned Schumacher’s 1996 season. While Schumacher had some great results from the start, he also profited from the inferior reliability in those days and from the fact that neither Alesi nor Berger could handle the nimble Benetton car. Only by the end of the season, after some major updates to the car (including an extremely high nose) and presumably after getting to grips with the Ferrari was he able to consistently challenge the Williams guys. Again, sounds a lot like Vettel’s 2009 season, doesn’t it?

    By the same token the 2014 Ferrari is by no means a lemon. In fact, it’s biggest flaw is not having a Mercedes engine. Other than that, from listening to experts I gather that aerodynamically, the car looks pretty darn good. From pre-season testing till now, the people in the know always said that aerodynamically, only Red Bull is better and since the China update also Mercedes. But fundamentally it’s a very sound concept. Interestingly, just today Peter Windsor had a new video on his YouTube channel where he discussed Kimi’s form with Rob Wilson. Granted, Rob Wilson might be the biggest Kimi fanboy out there, but it was still interesting as the guy knows what he’s talking abut. The short version is that the F14T isn’t very nimble as Kimi would like it, but needs a bit of wrestling, possibly due to the pull-rod suspension, something that Kimi needs to get a grip on and something that Alonso is used to and which might even suit his driving style. Rob even went as far as to say that Kimi would eventually beat Alonso over the course of the season. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it shows that the story is more complex.

    As for Alonso, just in order to be contrarian, let me paint a slightly different picture:
    While undeniably quick, it’s surely no coincidence that his manage also headed the team he got a seat in in his second season and that he was subsequently made the team leader. Finally, he won two championships in 2005 and 2006, clearly driving the best car. Then in 2007 he went to McLaren, again driving the car that was clearly the best in the field, only this time, a rookie teammate beat him and a certain Kimi Räikkönen won the championship in an inferior car. On top of that, he was such a bad loser that he caused disruptions within the team and subsequently left after only one season. The next season he managed two wins, one thanks to the deliberate crash of a certain Nelson Piquet Jr., the other one thanks to everybody else crashing out. Since then, he has had two outstanding years driving for Ferrari: 2010 and 2012. In 2010, that was mostly due to the Red Bull guys messing up, while in 2012 he profited from the new Pirelli tires and from the Ferrari’s reliability.

    Now why am I saying this? I don’t want to say that Alonso is a bad driver. In fact, he may well be the best on the grid. What I’m trying to say is that it very much matters how you approach any such writeup. If you already think that Fernando is the best, it’s easy to focus on his two titels as well as his strong performances in an inferior Ferrari. On the other hand, it’s also easy to forget the circumstances that allowed him to fight for the title in 2010 and 2012, it’s easy to forget that he didn’t fare well at all next to Lewis Hamilton and that the only way he could help himself in that situation was to start a political war within the team.

    By the same token, when you write about Vettel, you can either concentrate on his string of successes ever since he entered F1 with BMW, on his standout performances for Toro Rosso, on his brilliant spell with Red Bull and on his four titles, only matched by Fangio, Prost and Schumacher, or you can focus on the four races in 2014 so far, in two of which he didn’t look as strong as he used to while at the opener he didn’t even get to drive.

    • Interesting perspective; goes to show how subjective it is, rating drivers.

      Commenting because of Ferrari; watching FP1 as I type, and WOW, that car looks terrible to drive. No rear traction at all, seems to snap ever time on-throttle from low speeds, along w/ the typical Ferrari low speed understeer. Worst of all worlds. Haven’t seen much of the Sauber/Marussia, but if you’ve noticed the same, think it’s a PU issue, or aero/mechanical? I think the former, but purely anecdotal.

      To me, the Ferrari car has shown nothing in comparison to the others. Can’t wait for a nice dry Barcelona Quali.

      • On your first point, yeah, though I’d probably even agree that Alonso is the most complete driver on the grid. I was just trying to point out that it’s virtually impossible to get to an objective view. It’s always a driver/car combination. But even if everybody was driving the same car this would still be the case as that same car will by definition suit some drivers better than others. Being a complete driver therefore means that apart from possessing raw pace you also need to be able to develop a car to your own strengths.

        As for Ferrari, it’s certainly a hand full to drive, but so are all cars this season. Only Red Bull and Mercedes look more stable. Though Lotus has also come a long way, so it’s certainly about time to have a closer look at them as well.
        Personally, I think that the pull-rod suspension may still be one of the bigger problems, making the car very difficult to set up. But once they find a suitable setup, the Ferrari looks very good. That’s why despite the Ferrari engine, they are up there with the Mercedes customers McLaren, Williams and Force India, except for engine-heavy courses like Bahrain. And unlike those teams, the Ferrari seems to be more of an all-round car, so there’s less up and down in performance on different tracks – once again except of course when the power unit becomes a bigger factor.
        Still, I imagine that Ferrari will be taking a close look at the Mercedes front suspension this year as they managed to simplify their push-rod layout very much, presumably giving them a similar aero advantage as Ferrari’s pull-rod without the penalty of the stiff front end.

  • Mr Makhai

    It’s always been about the car: 90% car, 10% driver.

    • That’s a bit extreme. I think in general it’s impossible to make up any percentages. In a sense you’re right of course as you need a good car to have any chance of performing well, no matter how good a drier you are, but once you got it, it takes a good driver to get everything out of it.

      So yeah, even if you’re the best driver by a mile, you won’t win any points driving a Marussia. On the other hand, if you’re on the sharp end of the grid, individual class can make a difference. Though it’s true that it’s hard to think of a driver winning the championship with a clearly inferior car. Schumacher in 1995 is the one case that come to my mind. Though you could make an argument for Kimi in 2007 and Vettel in 2012. Both times the McLaren was the quicker car IMHO, but both times McLaren really made it difficult for themselves, so it’s certainly not as clear cut as 1995.

      And yet, over the years we’ve seen many times how drivers carry cars to places and victories they don’t belong. Alonso is the obvious example that was made here, similarly, Schumacher did that in his early Ferrari years as well as with the Benetton before it was championship winning material or Vettel 2007- 2009. In those cases, the drivers clearly made up more than 10% of the success.

    • Rik

      BINGO we have a winner!!

      I’d put the 90% to include the TEAM and car as we know a bad pit stop can ruin a race. Ask LH or FM. Despite the poor Pit Stops in Spain LH still managed to beat his teammate. I think LH pushes harder than NR does during the races.

      The driver, provided the car is good, just has to not make any mistakes and he is a superstar.

      This years Mercedes has a HUGE power advantage and a damn good chassis evident by their dominate gaps and 1-2 finishes. Something RB never managed to do. SV has improved dramatically since his “testing chassis” replaced his racing chassis. He did way better in Spain than anyone else including his teammate.

  • Hamilton is the best “Natural” driver in the field. That doesn’t mean he has the best temperament he doesn’t but if you want a car to go fast he would be the one driver you would want to hand it to. That said even he took a few races to get to grips with the Mercedes, Nico had his measure for 1/2 a season, I feel sorry for Nico he is allot better than anyone gives him credit for, if Schumacher were still at Mercedes Nico would be claiming a championship this year.

  • UAN

    The season’s 4 races old and people are writing off Vettel. Amazing.

    Then Vettel turns around and races from 15th (16th by T2) to 4th. RIC could only manage 13th to 4th in Bahrain and with an SC too.

    I recall the first 4 or 5 races in 2012 where VET was having trouble getting on top the car but turned it around. Oh, and 2012 (anyone remember China?) gave solid proof that Newey did not design cars around Vettel. He design cars to be the fastest within the regulations. A rearend glued to the floor was the fastest way to go.

    This year Red Bull is also showing that their gremlins hit either car and by asking VET to move over for RIC, that they don’t conspire for (or against) one of their drivers.

    I think the real issue is this. Vettel’s all of 26 years old and already having achievements that place him among the greatest ever. People have trouble digesting that. They feel it’s too early and he’s much too young to be considered that way. True, it may be a stretch for that conversation at this point in his career, but it’s an equal stretch to say his quality and achievements are all down to a car tailored made specifically for him by the great Newey.

    Beyond that, folks need to use some twisted logic to diminish VET to “prove” he’s just an average driver. Before it was “he couldn’t pass”. Then last year, “well, to be a great, you need to win a WDC with different teams.”

    If we were to unpack that criteria, we’d have:

    1. Fangio (3 different teams)
    2. Schumacher (2 different teams and 7x WDC)
    3. Prost (2 different teams, 4x WDC)
    4. Lauder (2 different teams, 3x WDC)

    Senna, by many estimations, barely squeezes into the top 5.

    Except if Hamiltion wins the WDC this year (2 different teams, 2x WDC). Then he’ll be number 5, bumping Senna to 6.

    With these types of conversations, there’s a huge amount of confirmation bias going on. We pull out things that support our hypothesis, ignore or marginalize that which doesn’t. On top of that, we don’t have falsifiable observations or facts to base anything on.

    VETs good. ALO’s good. So too are HAM and RAI. RIC is also very good, and definitely no rookie coming out of GP3 or some such. He’s survived the crucible that is the Red Bull Young Driver Program.

    People end up believing what they want to believe. We should at least start by saying that, rather than trying to prove through geometric logic that our beliefs and opinions are actual facts, or else we may end up like Captain Queeg:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlV3oQ3pLA0

  • Bob

    C’mon y’all, it’s the girlfriend.

  • jiji the cat

    its neither the car nor the driver…., its both, and the symbiotic relationship they have.

  • NeilM

    Note that ‘marquee’ (pronounced mark-ee) means a canopy or awning. ‘Marque’ denotes a make, usually of cars. The term is almost never used in speech, only in in writing, and it seems to me pretentious enough that it might better not be used at all. But if the word is used, getting it wrong pretty much destroys the intended effect.