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2014 will mark a brand-new era in Formula 1. For 24 years the sport has enjoyed a tenure of naturally aspirated engines, which produce some of the most iconic sounds in Motorsport history. But from next season onward, Formula 1 will once again flirt with turbocharger technology. Introduced in 1977 and banned at the end of 1988, the iconic Renault “yellow teapots” evolved to its “ultimate” incarnation – The infamous, all-conquering McLaren MP4/4 from 1988.
So from today onwards, I will be publishing a three-part miniseries exploring key aspects of the turbocharged era of the 80’s, and compare them to the new dawn of forced-induction engines, due to begin 2014.
In this first episode, I will explore the drivers, the famous lion tamers of the 80’s, and what today’s pilots have in store. Who can adapt the best? Who will be best suited?
Part two will cover the tyres and engineers, whilst part three will cover the cars themselves, which will help us answer the question of whether there is anything to learn from the past turbocharer era – or can they simply not be compared?
The 1980’s was a highly glorified period of Formula 1. It was an era where cars became icons and drivers became legends – turbocharging was king. But it was the decade that elevated drivers to a godlike status, where on a Sunday afternoon they would go about taming vicious fire spitting beasts:
“Forget anything after, the 1986 Turbo cars really were rockets, and to handle them I really think you had to be a man” – Gerhard Berger
So, who was best at it?
Well, there were two very distinctive styles during the era, that defined particular drivers. We had the aggressive, no-nonsense characters of Mansell, Villeneuve, and Senna, whilst the more calculative Prost, Lauda, and De Angelis went about their business in a far smoother way.
These are two very different approaches to driving these beasts. Yet, perhaps the greatest rivalry in Formula 1 during that very era epitomized that both could breed success in Formula 1 – when it came to Prost and Senna it was like mixing chalk with cheese.
Nigel Mansell, like Senna was a warrior-esque character. He didn’t drive cars but bullied them into submission with flashes of extreme car control, and there was simply no car he was not quick in – whichever of the three teams he drove for – Lotus, Williams or Ferrari – it was. It was a never-say-die attitude that earned him one of the biggest fan bases in the sport. He simply did not know what the word “give up” means.
“Alain will do everything in his power to win, he doesn’t like getting beaten by anyone and least of all [by] me”. – Nigel Mansell
This aggressive style allowed Senna, and to a certain extent Mansell (when in a competitive car), to enjoy incredible successes in qualifying (you can’t argue with 97 pole positions between them both). They simply adapted to their cars’ demands, driving around any flaws, to deliver qualifying laps that were simply astounding, Mansell at the 1987 German GP and Senna in Monaco in 1988 being notable examples.
“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high”. – Ayrton Senna
Prost on the other hand relied far less on adapting his driving style to the needs of the car, instead focusing on getting the car to suit him – perfectly. Instead of relying on pure speed (which he had in abundance) he looked to employ a calculative intelligence to his driving. His inputs were smooth, hitting apexes with unrivaled precision.
Whereas the likes of Senna and Villeneuve employed this bullish driving style behind the wheel, Prost looked to caress cars into doing what he wanted, and at the time this type of driving style was considered somewhat pioneering but also brutally successful.
“I don’t like to go over curbs, because I don’t want to be hard on the car”. – Alain Prost.
Formula 1 in the 80’s employed regulations that allowed so many contrasting characters to achieve success in the sport. There was no right or wrong way to drive the turbo monsters. The best men in F1 at the time all rose to the top, each with his own, very unique driving style. I think this is why it went down as one of the best eras in Formula 1 history.
During the turbo era, the best men in the sport all had flaws, but they did not let that affect their driving behind the wheel. They looked to eradicate those weaknesses by maximising their strengths, something Piquet, Mansell, Senna, and Prost all did with incredible success.
Below is Alain Prost, in 1983, taming his Renault RE40 around the old Kyalami circuit in South Africa.
What does 2014 hold?
With all of the above in mind, is 2014 set to follow the same trend? Can the current generation of drivers be considered just as strong as those 30 years ago? Is there anyone set to struggle? Or will the cream always rise to the top – as we saw during the 80’s period?
One could argue that contrasting driving styles in modern day Formula 1 are just as prevalent as to those legends of yesteryear. We have the likes of Vettel and Hamilton who look to Senna and Mansell as sources of inspiration, whereas the veterans Raikkonen, Alonso, and Button look to employ a more calculating style in how about they go their business.
From 2014 onwards, the new “power units” will contain a lot more torque than their naturally aspirated counterparts of 2013, and this will in turn lead to cars being a lot more unpredictable on corner exit.
Tyre management and setup optimization will be key. We have not seen torque figures of this degree since the 80’s, and all without traction control to help drivers.
During the past two seasons, the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso have shown magnificent examples of maximizing tyre management and if Pirelli once again decide to go aggressive with compound structure next season, we could well see drivers who can look after their fragile rear boots being the most competitive ones.
This could obviously be extremely detrimental to the more aggressive drivers on the grid. Hamilton and Vettel are considered the two qualifying benchmarks in the sport. Both drivers like the rear of the car to be loose however, so I think only the constraints of the Pirelli rubber may hamper their efforts of being competitive from the start of 2014 – especially if the tyre compounds become susceptible to the increased energy going through the rear of the car.
Like the 80’s, where fuel constraints and brake conservation became key, in 2014 the sport will most likely become a thinking man’s game once again. With the Energy Recovery System generating 161 bhp for 33 seconds per lap, and the fuel limit dropping from 150kgs to 100kgs on race day, drivers will have to be intelligent, devious, and must be strategically aware of what is going on around them, in order to optimise their position.
Out of the current crop of Formula 1 drivers, it is clear that the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso understand the current regulations best and utilize all of their experience to maximize the machinery underneath – in 2013, they are not the fastest packages on raw pace.
However, with the current generation cars dominated by one aspect in particular (aerodynamics) it has negated the opportunity for more aggressive drivers to be as successful as they potentially could be. This is evident in 2013, where a car’s characteristics in terms of tyre performance and aero performance are just as important as a driver’s style.
During the first turbocharged era in Formula 1, the regulations allowed numerous drivers of contrasting styles to dominate. There was no “perfect formula” in order to be successful, as it were.
In 2014 however, there are going to be so many more factors at play to determine how successful certain drivers are – most predominately the tyres.
For the drivers, 2014 will be a season of adaptation. They will experience totally new engine characteristics that have not been witnessed in Formula 1 for quite some time. The cars will rely much more on mechanical grip than in years past, and the driver who optimizes his set-up to best accommodate that fact will have a great advantage.
The season will be dominated by one word – management, whether it is rear tyre wear, fuel load, or Energy Recovery System usage and for that reason, like what we have experienced during the past couple of seasons, I can’t see past those drivers that possess the most experience continuing to dominate.
Episode two will continue the journey, looking at tyre compounds from earlier decades, as well as the engineers and personnel that may potentially have an advantage, going into next year.
Which driver do you think will capitalize in 2014?