I have always been fascinated by the differences between driving styles, and the effect that they have on lap times, tyre degradation, consistency and, of course, spectacle. Endless articles and opinions have been recorded on the subject, however the leading authority on the issue remains Peter Windsor (twitter: @PeterDWindsor / The Flying Lap), who has over the years published some fascinating articles on the subject, where he compares different driving techniques and styles. To anyone seriously interested in the subject I’d wholeheartedly recommend following him and trying to find old issues of F1 Racing for which he once worked for as Grand Prix Editor.
My own fascination with driving styles started at a very early age, but I was able to get a deeper understanding once the internet started booming and I got access to numerous onboard laps posted online in various websites. Old timers will fondly remember the various sites that offered onboard laps, like the f1-gp.ru and F1 seasons, at a time when FOM couldn’t or wouldn’t appreciate the F1 fans’ thirst for quality and specialized footage. Those were the days of the dial-up connection, and I remember downloading at 1.5 or 2.0 Kbytes/sec. Those were legitimate speeds back then – it took more than 2 hours to download a 10MB clip, and if you account for all the dial-up connection crashes, it could take your whole day. Things got only a little better around the year 2000, when I was near the completion of my Master thesis, which meant I had access to decent (by the standards of that time) connection speeds in Uni, so I was going back and forth carrying backpacks full of 3.5″ diskettes with zip files – and oh, the horror of realizing once back home that one of the 85 diskettes containing a 150MB Avi race was corrupt…
Anyway, I digress. My point was that it’s a real shame that FOM still doesn’t understand or appreciate the importance of providing this kind of footage freely to the public or, even, at a fee that most hardcore F1 fans would be willing to pay. They have the footage after all, why not use it? If I were them, after each race, I’d be posting online download links for the entire race from onboard cameras, so that fans can select their favourite driver and pay a reasonable amount of money to see the entire race from his cockpit; the same could be done for qualifying. If the content was made available by FOM, I’d be willing to pay to get it.
Despite their inability (and unwillingness) to provide us with onboard footage, I have been able to scrape together a very decent collection over the years. What really strikes me every time I go back to this collection, is the incredible development in driving styles that has taken place over the decades. Most people tend to compare drivers between eras – internet F1 forums are filled with fans endlessly arguing about whether Fangio was better than Senna, and if Jim Clark was more naturally talented than Schumacher. The truth is that the conditions are so different in between eras that any meaningful comparison is not possible.
The reason is that the requirements from a racing driver change dramatically in between eras. Let’s see the factors that change throughout eras and, in turn, affect the driving style and skills:
1. Tracks: Racing circuits have changed significantly since the days of Rouen and the old Nurburgring. Gradually, throughout the decades, the tracks became wider, with accommodating kerbs at the corner apex and exits, smoother tarmac, bigger run-off areas and, of course, dramatically different layout philosophy. As the track gets wider and the kerbs become larger and more accommodating, drivers tend to explore the limits more, and use different racing lines.
2. Cars: The vehicles’ characteristics throughout the years changed dramatically. From cars that relied heavily on mechanical grip, to turbo-charged monsters, ground-effect and, of course, the playstation-like cars we have today, which are more heavily relied on aerodynamics than any time in the history of the sport. Comparing drivers from different eras is like comparing cars and trying to argue which is the fastest. The reality though is that it takes a very different set of skills to drive a 1955 Ferrari than to drive a 2012 Ferrari, or driving a turbo BMW-powered car with 1400 BHP to driving a 2006-spec F1 car, with 850 BHP and all the electronics turned on. It’s not a matter of difficulty, since in all cases you are driving to the absolute limit, but it is a case of different skill characteristics required from a driver. We often see drivers thrive one year and then struggle the next year, only because the aero balance has changed, so imagine how out-of-place Fangio would have felt in the 1988 Honda-powered turbo McLaren, or Schumacher in Jim Clark’s Lotus.
3. Drivers: Drivers themselves change, and the level of driving constantly changes from one year to the next (usually increasing). F1 used to be a niche sport, reserved for a handful of talented drivers complimented by rich aristocrats, empire heirs and journey men. Not only has this all changed, it’s now a much more athletic sport, with a larger pool of talent to rely on. As F1 grew through the years, more and more young kinds got into grassroots motor sport. The success (and untimely death) of Ayrton Senna, generated a lot of interest in the sport, which really took off during the Schumacher / Ferrari domination years. As a result, drivers are just as hardcore athletes as any track athlete out there and, more importantly, more kids are involved with the lower levels of motor sport which means that, when it comes to talent, F1 is spoilt for choice.
4. Tyres: Tyres have evolved as well, from the tall and thin Firestone, Dunlop and Pirelli tyres of the early 50’s, to the monstrous Michelins of the 80’s, the grooved Bridgestones of the early 00’s and now the Pirellis again, the tyres have evolved along with the sports in leaps and bounds. Making a tyre “work” is, arguably, the most important skill of a F1 driver, and (just like cars) we’ve seen drivers struggle from season to season, with tyre characteristics changing only be relatively small amounts. Truly great drivers, like Schumacher, can understand and work with tyres for many years (the length of 3 or 4 careers for an average F1 driver), but even these drivers have their limitations, because the skills you acquire and hone are not necessarily transferable from one generation of tyres to the next, or from one generation of cars to the next for that matter.
It’s important to understand that changes to the sport are not so slow and progressive as we sometimes think. Starting from the subject of tyres, it’s interesting to examine the way Fernando Alonso took maximum use of his 2005 and 2006 tyres, to gain an advantage not only against his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, but to the rest of the opposition as well. The Renault F1 cars of that time had very particular characteristics, such as a rearwards weight balance which gave to the car very good traction out of the corners. More importantly, Renault, in collaboration with Michelin, had developed a suspension tailor-made to the very specific characteristics of the Michelin tyres.
Michelin, by the end of 2003, already had a better tyre than Bridgestone, with a more square profile that offered a significant wider contact patch, and more grip. The, let’s say, disadvantage of that philosophy was that the grip was not very progressive – especially in slow to medium corners there was a “bite” point for the front tyres that offered higher grip in comparison to Bridgestone, but was arguably harder to switch on. Also, the squarer profile meant that turbulent air coming from the tyre was more disruptive to the car’s aerodynamics. Bridgestone, on the contrary, traditionally had a much rounder tyre, which was a result of years of evolution in collaboration with Ferrari, with a view on minimizing the aero effect of the spinning wheel to the rest of the car. Although Ferrari tended to struggle in tracks with predominant mechanical grip (such as Monaco, Hungary and Monza), this was definitely a successful recipe as evidenced by the 5 WDC’s and 6 WCC’s between 1999 and 2004.
The different tyre philosophy of Michelin gave their teams an opportunity, i.e. an area of development that Ferrari couldn’t tap into. The first and only team to take advantage of that to the maximum degree was Renault. Flashes of the brilliance of the Michelin – Renault combination was evidenced as far back as 2003 (with Alonso’s stunning Hungary victory in which he lapped Michael Schumacher) and their 2004 domination of the Monaco grand prix, amongst others. It was just a matter of time for Renault to catch up with Ferrari on the aerodynamics department (i.e. minimize the disruptive effect of their square tyres), and this happened in 2005 and 2006. We must not underestimate the effect that the ban on tyre-changes during the race had on this overhaul of the F1 pecking order, because Ferrari and Bridgestone struggled massively in 2005 with tyres that had to last a race distance.
Fernando Alonso was the Renault driver who took maximum advantage of the Michelin tyres, and one can see the evolution of his driving style from 2003 and during 2004, working towards the perfection that of 2005 and 2006. It was fascinating stuff, watching a driver adapt to a tyre characteristic from one season to the next – a sign of brilliant skill and dogged determination. But let’s take a break here, and see an example of what we are talking about, to get a visual understanding:
As we can see in the above video clip, the first glimpses of Alonso’s trademark driving style are there (2003), however there some significant ingredients missing, like rear end grip and aerodynamic downforce coming from the car, and even Alonso himself is a bit hesitant in some corners, as if he’s lacking confidence on how the car is going to react. Let us compare what we saw with the following lap from 2005, and do some analysis:
As you can see, Alonso uses a lot of initial steering lock, causing understeer during corner entry. This kind of understeer is not coming from the car so much, as it is induced by Alonso on purpose. He uses an extreme slip angle (i.e. in layman’s terms, the difference between where the tyre is pointed and the car’s trajectory) to bring the car to the apex by sliding the front end. As a result, he tends to brake and turn a little bit earlier. This is quite obvious in corners 01, 05, 07, 09 and 14 (the last corner). An interesting phenomenon is the extreme wobble of the external front tyre, which is a direct result of the extreme slip angle utilized. However, it seems that Renault have tuned their suspension to operate that way, and Alonso is using it to the extreme. Note this wobble on the front right tyre at the 1st corner, and then also note how this phenomenon is gradually reduced as the lap goes on and the tyres pick up temperature.
The most interesting point of observation is the “bite” point that we discussed before. You will notice that once the Renault hits this bite point, Alonso immediately decreases the steering lock and gets on the throttle. As a result, he is much earlier on the throttle than other car/driver combinations and he has a hot, switched-on tyre for the apex and exit of the corner, taking full advantage of Renault’s superior traction. If we focus on turn 07 (the long, uphill right hander immediately after sector 01 and before the infamous turn 08), you can see the extreme initial steering lock (and induced understeer) at 00:41 and the bit point which comes a bit before 00:42. I have heard many fans argue that it is relatively easy to drive like that – you just “whack” it into the corner, and as soon as it bites you’re on the throttle.
I am afraid it’s a bit more complicated than that, for two main reasons. The first reason has to do purely with geometry; trajectory, if you prefer. What Alonso is doing is counter intuitive, i.e. instead of driving the car into the apex, he is sliding with the front end towards it instead. As a result you must have a perfect understanding in advance of how much the car is going to slide, to hit the apex perfectly. And if it’s hard enough to do it with a settled F1 car, imagine how difficult it is to do it like that. In fact, Alonso only barely misses two apex in the 2005 lap – the one at turn 09, but he gets a decent exit nevertheless, and the one at turn 12, at the end of the long straight, which was due to wind from the back that made him misjudge his braking point. You must also possess a great feeling of what the tyre is doing, to always be on top of that initial slide and understand the bite point as soon as it manifests itself.
The other reason has to do with oversteer. In order to drive like that, you need a very strong rear end, that will remain planted, no matter how much you are “hacking” the steering wheel. Furthermore, you need to be incredibly alert inside the corner because it’s very easy for this understeer to turn to snap oversteer at the bite point. Since your hands are already committed to a very big steering lock, it’s difficult to make small corrections to the oversteer once it exhibits itself. As an example of that, I am showing you the following lap, which is from Silverstone qualifying in 2006. You can see after he goes under the Bridge and as he turns into Priory towards the end of the lap, the kind of oversteer that we are talking about, which he is able to correct with tiny corrections on the steering wheel and by cutting the corner slightly.
As we all know, Michelin left the sport in 2007 and Fernando moved to McLaren which had a completely different design philosophy and driving characteristics. Fernando had to adjust within a very short period of time to a driving style he hadn’t used since, basically, his 2001 Minardi days. Despite all the negativity that surrounded his 2007 season and the off and on track shenanigans, he managed to make this transition smoothly and still be at the sharp end of the grid, fighting for the championship until the last race. It’s this kind of adjustments and ability to adapt to very different requirements that separate the great drivers from the merely good ones.
In our next article we will be taking a look at Michael Schumacher’s driving style and how it evolved from his Benetton years, to Ferrari and now, in the twilight of his 2nd career, in Mercedes.