Do Formula 1 races really need drivers?

It’s been said that the ratio of driver-to-car impact on racing has steadily been reduced since somewhere in the mid-seventies. The advent of driver aids and technology have some pundits arguing that a race is really 80% the car and 20% the driver. While those percentages could be argued in the event you’re Fernando Alonso and you have a contumacious car and still win races or punch above your weight, the general notion of how much a driver ads to the equation is hovering in the golden 80/20 rule.

Like all racing, a human element is always a factor and just how much of a factor the human is, it up for debate. Not to be outdone in the percentage of human impact discussion, horse racing has its own philosophy and it’s even more telling.

1hp vs. 850hp

In the fourth race at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack in mid-March, a horse by the name of Elle’s Vision burst from the gates, ran like fire down the straight and in to the first turn. From there, Elle’s Vision began to drift wide to the rail and slow down. The difference is, Elle’s Vision had no jockey.

Elle’s Vision had unseated the jockey while in the gate and when the doors opened, the horse did what it was trained to do. The issue, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, was the corner and the need for a jockey to help manage the corner for the horse. In the run up to the Kentucky Derby, it’s an interesting read By Pia Catton And Chris Herring.


In the same article, Jockey C.C. Lopez said that the percentage of performance impact a jockey has in a race is 5% while the horse equates to a whopping 95%. Not hard to believe perhaps as the horse is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this scenario.

WSJ posits the question; do horse races really need jockeys? According to Lopez, he envisions a day when a man with a joystick will manage a robot seated on top of a horse.

“Is it really that big a stretch to have someone at the race controlling a robot from the stands with a joystick? It isn’t far-fetched at all.”

The trick is the corner. Like Formula One racing, a horse gallops at maximum speed down a straight and approaches a corner. How it manages that corner takes input from a jockey on getting the horse, running at 35mph, to navigate the corner for the best entry and exit as possible.

Constructs, novelties and an ailing formula

Another interesting similarity between horse racing and Formula 1 grand prix racing is the concern over waning interest. As the WSJ article suggests that perhaps the decreasing victory purse amounts, lower attendance and general erosion of relevance seated with concerns over how the animals are treated have all played a part in the veneer losing its luster.

The suggestion could be some novelty such as a robot or rider-less horse as a way of stirring things up. Sure, dog racing is without riders but they are much more gullible to a rapidly traveling fake rabbit as motivation, a horse is more poised than that.

There are horse races in the world without jockeys and some have tried robots and perhaps if the folks at Simraceway were really using their heads, they’d start a simracing game for horse racing. Would these novelties embolden the sport of horse racing? If so, would it work for F1?

Google to the rescue

Formula 1 is about building the best, fastest car paired with the right driver to win races. If we were to consider the notion of a driverless car, perhaps Google’s new project could be just the ticket.

In an effort to create a better autonomous car, Google engineers have been testing—and now seeking funding from major manufacturers—for their invention. The Driverless Car project has been met with success in tests and using Google’s Street View, it is making quite a buzz in tech circles. The issue may be legislative circles.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles said, “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas” and motoring law is antiquated in the United States but Google is now lobbying for the autonomous car technology and legislative change needed to allow for the system on America’s roads.

While Google’s test have shown the cars to travel at the speed limit posted and manage to stay away from other cars and object, the question is could Google’s system manage those calculations at 200mph? At 200mph through Eau Rouge?  Just plug in the circuit layout and details, turn Google’s Streetview system and driverless car on and off you go…who needs Kimi Raikkonen?

Implausible? Maybe but there are fans

As the WSJ article points out, a robot taking the place of a jockey is a possibility and may have a silent fan. The Articles says:

However, it isn’t unthinkable that these functions could be performed by a machine, even though there is no telling whether robots will ever replace jockeys. But if they do, there might be one group that is silently pleased by the idea: the trainers.

“I’m a proponent of remote-control robots—where the trainers could work the joystick from the grandstand,” joked trainer Gary Contessa.

Could team bosses be fans of the driverless Formula 1 grand prix car? Would they be interested in reducing their driver salaries and having complete control of the situation in an effort to reduce human error?  Ultimately, the engineers would have to come up with the 20% impact on the race that the current drivers are argued to be valued at in the performance equation and from what I’ve seen, there are some very intelligent engineers in F1.

In the end, would this, like robot jockeys, be yet another construct or could you envision a day when F1 cars can race without drivers? Would you be interested in a series without drivers?

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