On this day in #F1: 30 December

Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Carlo Carluccio

– 2002: Alain Prost speaks the truth…

Alain Prost surprised a number of people with an outburst when he labelled the modern drivers little better than trained monkeys.

“The drivers simply follow the instructions of the engineers and let the computers do all the work. To me it’s not a real racing competition any more. And what’s worse, these drivers are so much a part of the whole system that they have to keep quiet so as not to harm the image of the team or the sponsors. I don’t want to sound old-fashioned, but in the past 10 years drivers have become increasingly like robots.”

Bearing in mind he said these words eleven years ago what would he possibly say these days about the modern driver?

Well…Prost thinks Vettel is ‘exceptional’…

Which I guess being a brand ambassador for Renault brings it’s own benefits; usually to the tune of several million.

So what is the truth? Is Prost – a true giant of one of the toughest era’s in Formula One – right in his original assertion of trained monkeys?

As technology has increased, so have the systems which the teams and drivers employ. These monitor every parameter and then engineers send commands to the drivers to make the required adjustments. There was also a time that the skills required to pass a lapped car made the difference between drivers and could affect the outcome of races too, yet today if they pass three blue flags they will be penalised. Much of the skill of being a Grand Prix driver has disappeared to “improve” the show.

Look at these pictures of Michele Alboreto in 1985 at Monaco and the same venue in 2007. The circuit used to punish mistakes but now?


As the skill has been dumbed down and the cars electronic capabilities increased we witness mediocre drivers accessing the performance of these machines. We lament the cut-throat nature of certain teams, the way they discard a young talent simply because he hasn’t performed immediately but this has become a symptom of modern motor-sport.

Generations ago, a driver would have to serve an apprenticeship with smaller teams before moving towards the top teams. The exceptional would stand out immediately but even so they would require a couple of seasons before they were fully conversant with Formula One.

In the twenty first century, that no longer applies and to my mind it cheapens the ability of these remarkable athletes. Maybe in it’s own way that is why Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel don’t get the true respect their abilities deserve.

I have disliked Prost from before Senna ever sat in an F1 car, I found the team orders the Renault team wanted to apply at the 1982 French GP abhorrent and rejoiced that Rene Arnoux ignored them.

But I agree with his reasoning about robot drivers.

We have embraced the PlayStation generation and the tools available to these youngsters yet when they disobey team orders – such as Hungary 2007 or Malaysia 2013 – we scream abuse and cannot fathom why this ‘nice’ kid was so naughty.

In chasing the fabled dollar and the casual viewer, Formula One has lost it’s soul by introducing gimmicks such as DRS and degradable tyres.

This clip of Brundle comparing a Benetton B191 against a 2000 Ferrari underlines the progress the engineers have made on every part of the car. When a Formula One can be driven – practically – through telepathy, there is something fundamentally wrong..

11 responses to “On this day in #F1: 30 December

  1. As Brundle says at the end of the video clip: “That’s brilliant…!”
    Definitely one of your best, Carlo…

  2. Thank you gentlemen.

    With news of Schumacher dominating everyone’s thoughts it’s difficult to find appropriate sentiment in words currently.

    The picture of Alboreto seems to have encountered issues so have found this exact same one to give an indication of the margins of the old Monaco


    • Many post before this we had kinda the same discussion. With most of us longing for the days with kittylitter at the side of the track, so a mistake was a mistake. And not just a drop of 2 sec. Only one who didn’t agree was DS. But f1 is doing something that no other sport does. Although it gets more and more hardcore, it gets so much softer. My opinion is if you make a mistake you should suffer the consequences. Either you get a dnf or you’re forced to go to the pit for spare parts. It used to be like this and that’s what made it partly exciting. Everybody knew those 20 some drivers where focused for 2 hours. And if they weren’t we saw it immediately.

  3. The context of Alain’s statement that “…drivers simply… let the computers do all the work” was that 2002 was the first year that traction control and launch control was legalized. The FIA was not able to eliminate traction control until 2008 with the introduction of standardized ECUs. Drivers’ abilities were masked behind those systems.

    Today, the drivers’ abilities much more important to a team’s success. Look at the difference between advancing from Q1 to Q2, or from Q2 to Q3. For example, the average margin between the laptimes of 16th and 17th fastest in Q1 in the five races starting with the British GP and the Italian GP was 12 hundredths of a second. The average margin between 11th place and 10th place in Q2 for those same meets was 3 hundredths of a second. In contrast, let us look at the finishing margins of the 1985 Monaco GP finishing positions… 3rd place was 1 minute 27 seconds behind Alain Prost (who won). The remaining points scorers were all 1 lap down, 8th and 9th finshers were both 2 laps down, and the final two finishers, 10th & 11th were 4 laps down. My point is that the parity between the cars is now so high that the margins between laptime now expose a weak driver very clearly.

    There is no place for a mediocre driver to hide in today’s F1. Amongst other things, this reality explains why today’s F1 teams have less patience for an underperforming driver to learn how to come to speed.

    Not only is the primary thesis of this article wrong, but the resulting sub-theses as well.

    • Thank you for your input vortex, a measured and reasonable response but I wouldn’t have selected Monaco 85 as a good example. Prost only qualified fifth and behind Senna, who retired, Alboreto who had disastrous luck throughout the race and should have been the race winner and around Monaco, when the circuit was actually a challenge, crashing out or delays was easy.
      Let’s not forget, that in 1985 teams had to run to a fuel limit and the Lotus was not in the same league as the Mclaren or the Ferrari.

      • Carlo – I wonder why you believe that, “…we witness mediocre drivers…” in F1?

        My point was that at the time of Prost’s interview he was correct in that traction control covered over some of the drivers’ abilities. But that is certainly not the case today as you well know.

        I agree that choosing Monaco as an example is not the best choice, as it’s a one-off circuit compared to the rest of the calendar. Modern Monaco continues to punishe mistakes so it’s curious why you choose it as an example, candidly.

    • I might not be seeing this in the same way as you Vortex but it seems to me you are comparing qualifying times of one era with finishing times of another… Is this not comparing old apples with modern oranges… 😉
      Equally, you compare the average time of five events with those of just one event… Not very scientific methinks…
      – – –
      Also… the “primary thesis” is just one man’s opinion, as is your response. Thus neither is necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – just debatable opinion… and long may we have both on this site – and elsewhere in life.

      • Hi BlackJackFan – Yes, you are correct to call out the error of my apples to oranges comparison of modern qualy times to ’85 finishing times. The comparison required an extrapolation of the data to see my point, and that’s not fair for the reader. It’s something that I threw together quickly, and it was inadequate.

        I can more correctly illustrate my point with a comparison of the finishing times of 1991 Belgium Spa race (where a Benetton 191, as seen in this article’s illustrative video clip, was raced), and the 2013 iteration of the same race. Both of these races were dry.

        First, note that the average time between each position of the 7 finishers on the lead lap of the 1991 Spa F1 race was 17.4 seconds.

        In comparison, for the 2013 Spa race, we saw the average time between each position of the finishers on the lead lap of to be 7.7 seconds, (less than half of the avg time of 1991).

        Given that there were twice as many finishers on the lead lap (15) in 2013 vs 1991 (7), to be apples to apples, we can instead average the time between each position of only the first 7 finishers of the 2013 race, and that gives us ~9 seconds, (~half of the avg time of 1991; 17.4 secs / 2 = 8.7).

        My point is that the parity of performance between today’s F1 cars means that mediocre driving talents are very quickly exposed. Today’s F1 cars are much more similar in performance to each other, and one can more easily see the level of a driver’s talents.
        Carlo mentioned mediocre F1 drivers in this article, but all of us who have been trackside at any motorsport event, or perhaps have strapped on a helmet to particpate in any motorsports event, has seen mediocre driving. There are no mediocre drivers in todays F1.

        Given the quality of Carlo’s other work, (his Jan 1 Clark piece is yet another lovely bit of writing for example), the errors in this piece are frankly disturbing.

        The primary error is to remove Prost’s “robots” comment from the traction control era of 2002-2007 and to use it as a comment on 2013 F1 drivers. The irony is that Prost believes the removal of traction control has been a very positive correction. Now the driver is much more significant to the success of the team. With traction control, a mediocre driver could have survived. Without traction control, it’s not possible to have a mediocre driver in F1.

        The myopic lack of appreciation for the 2013 F1 drivers is disappointing.

        • Fair points one and all vortex. I cannot disagree with anything you have written but I would like to add a few other factors into the mix if I may.
          Firstly, the introduction of the 107% rule has raised the quality of the competing teams significantly in the last twenty three years.
          Secondly, the reliability of the cars is astounding and this also plays it’s part in differences of qualifying and race pace.
          Thirdly, Ferrari started a trend during the Schumacher era that when they had completed their final pit-stop, they would back off and cruise until the finish line.
          Finally, I have no doubt that today’s generation of drivers are all far better trained athletes than during the early 90’s, simply because Schumacher raised the bar here also.

          I have no doubt that fans of every era will say that theirs is the best.
          I grew up watching the sport throughout the 80’s and have yet to see drivers man-handling cars as they were then.

          When I call drivers mediocre, please do mot misunderstand me, I do not think todays generation is poor in comparison to the previous champions, I believe the likes of Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton would have succeeded in any year.
          Merely we are seeing more and more inexperienced drivers enter F1 for a short period before being cast aside. In years past, a driver needed some lower rung experience.

          Personally I believe with all the technology on the cars these days, the art of driving an F1 car has been removed and even though traction control has officially been removed from the cars, engine mapping and intricate exhaust blowing has recovered some of the lost effects of this.

          I yearn for a time that Formula One cars are animals again, not merely high speed missiles which have a pilot guiding the systems.

  4. Agree with Prost 95%. Things are too formal, corporate, straightedge and sanitized. But one day it will all catch up, and there will either be a true revolution, or another form of motorsport will emerge as the premier racing series. Either way I will be happy as long as we have loud, powerful, beautiful racing prototypes that are the fastest things on the planet around a circuit.

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