Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Catman
The mid-season test at Barcelona is one of the rare opportunities for aspiring talent to dangle their wares before the amassed media (finding any excuse to extend their holiday business trip in the Spanish sun) and prospective future employers. But what exactly are the key elements that an aspiring star needs to break through and grab one of those twenty coveted seats? From where I’m sitting there are two absolute requirements to make it into Formula One: Talent and backing.
People say that the best racing drivers are “naturally talented” or “gifted”, but what does this mean? What makes one person better than another at finding the limit in a car and staying there without overstepping the mark? There is not one silver bullet, but there are a lot of factors that are needed to stand out.
The first and foremost thing that a driver has to have is “feel”. In a racing car, your body is strapped in so tightly by the six point harness that you pretty much become part of the machine, feeling every tiny bump, slide and twitch. To be able to find the fastest way around the circuit they need to fine-tune their ability to sense what is going on and then transfer their reactions accurately through the pedals and steering wheel. Different people have a variety of strengths, but being able to feed in the power earlier or push harder on the brakes without locking can be the difference between hero and zero. These skills are learnt during a driver’s formative years in karting where there are no gimmicks, just pure racing.
ii) FAST REACTIONS
In tests of accuracy and reaction time, Formula One drivers nearly always come out on top. Jenson Button is particularly quick, as he showed when competing against the Brownlee brothers (of Olympic triathlon fame). Jenson scored one of the fastest reaction times ever recorded at the lab of 613 milliseconds compared to the average sportsman’s time of 785 milliseconds as scored by Alastair. Jenson reminds us that “it’s not just a case of when you get older you get slower” but you can actually work at improving your reactions to gain a competitive edge. Quicker reactions allow drivers to make minute adjustments to their braking and turn in points and crucially allow them to make split-second decisions to avoid contact.
Drivers have to be both incredibly physically strong and have excellent cardiovascular fitness to be able to perform at their best in the car due to extreme conditions they face in the car. Every single lap they experience massive g-forces, intense vibrations and noise, all exacerbated by the cramped conditions in the cockpit often with temperatures reaching over 40c.
This is a daunting prospect but the drivers have to be able to cope easily to be able to be able to perform the complex tasks asked of them whilst talking to the engineers, making strategy decisions and being aware of what everybody else is doing all at the same time. Their high level of fitness allows them to totally concentrate on the mental aspects of the race, rather than what they are putting their body through.
The specific strains placed on the body require a different type of workout specifically tailored using custom exercise machines to build the muscles used when racing, particularly the neck which is often neglected by normal athletes. It really is survival of the fittest and it is no coincidence that those who train the most often rise to the top… James Hunt with his lifestyle choices wouldn’t stand a chance in the modern era (unfortunately)!
The very best drivers can adapt to any situation or conditions thrown at them. The lack of testing opportunities for young drivers these days means they have to be able to get up to speed very quickly in new machinery and perform. The ability to adapt often becomes most apparent in changeable track conditions where the driver cannot know the grip levels from one corner to the next.
They use a massive amount of insight, experience and feel to know where the fastest lines are and how to make the most use of the car. The best line in the wet is often just slightly off the normal dry racing line, as the rubber embedded in the track surface becomes very slippery in damp conditions. Rain is known as a great leveller and you will often see the cream rise to the top, even in inferior machinery.
Sebastian Vettel demonstrated this amazingly well in his Toro Rosso in 2008, by winning the washed-out Italian Grand Prix in a car that otherwise would struggle to finish in the points. A certain Michael Schumacher also springs to mind, when in 1996 he dominated the Spanish Grand Prix in a very technically inferior Ferrari.
He wouldn’t have stood a chance in the dry, but the conditions were atrocious and because his ability to adjust his lines to the conditions and his dexterity on the pedals to maintain a silky smooth balanced car was so great that he lapped the whole field up to third place, whilst the eventual champion Damon Hill spun three times and retired from the race.
You can find a wealth of people who can put in a very swift lap time indeed, but being able to achieve their peak performance on every lap of the race is a much tougher challenge. Even at the end of a long race the gaps between drivers can be seconds or sometimes even less, so there is no margin for error at any stage.
The very best drivers are able to produce a stint that shows very little variation in lap time by employing excellent focus throughout the race. A lot of the race in the current formula (like it or not) is driven to a specific delta-time to achieve optimal fuel usage and tyre preservation, which requires a very accurate and consistent driver to deliver the best results.
vi) REFINED DRIVING STYLE
Every driver has their own “style” that has been honed over years of karting and lower formula racing and they make their unique strengths work in their favour. Lewis Hamilton likes to turn in earlier than most and is notoriously aggressive with the steering wheel, making minute adjustments to keep the car just on the edge of sliding through the corner.
This is the key to his supreme speed over one lap in qualifying, but in races where strategy is dictated by tyre wear this can hurt him as the near-constant scrubbing across the track generates more tyre temperature and puts more peak strain on the contact patch, increasing wear. Jenson Button on the other hand is renowned for his smooth style, preferring to keep a constant steering angle through the corner to reduce slip, which scrubs off less speed and reduces tyre wear.
When pitted together in the same car at Mclaren, the two were very closely matched over the three seasons they spent together. Lewis out-qualified his team mate 44 times compared to 14 for Button, but Jenson scored more points (672 vs 657) and came closer to winning the championship for the Woking team.
Being fast is crucial, but standing in the way of victory are 19 other drivers that are just as hungry for victory. Overtaking is an art form and is not a skill that every racing driver masters. There is no coincidence that the closest and cleanest battles on track that you see are between world champions as they have the experience and instinct to react in the right way under pressure.
Successful racers employ multiple techniques to outsmart their opponents to force their way through. Often moves are planned many corners in advance with subtle adjustments to their lines to improve their corner exit speed to gain the edge.
A great example of this was Daniel Ricciardo’s move on Ericsson on lap 44 of the Chinese Grand Prix, where he forced the Sauber driver to defend down the back straight. This moved him out of position and from there Ricciardo made sure he could not get back to the racing line until the move was completed nearly half a lap later.
Knowing when to defend is also critical, as unnecessarily straying from the ideal racing line to defend will cost time and allow the chasing driver to keep up the pressure. Once they are within striking distance, being able to place the car to block their opponent is also crucial, as shown by the epic Senna vs Mansell battle around the streets of Monaco in 1992. Ayrton managed to fend off the much faster Williams by careful, precise positioning of his car to make it impossible to get by, earning him one of his record six victories around the principality.
viii) MENTAL STRENGTH
If we learned anything from the title battle in 2014 it is that mind games are a key determinant of form. This was arguably Lewis’ greatest strength over Nico. Whether Nico’s mistake in qualifying at Monaco was intentional or not, or whether he meant for the two to collide at Spa, is irrelevant.
The fact that Lewis was able to turn a sour situation into increased motivation to beat his rival was in my opinion the key to victory. The same could not be said for his performance in previous years and he paid the price.
The mental techniques used to cope develop over time and the best learn as much from defeat as from victory.