The idea behind these articles was to provide a lead-in for the Optimum Drive podcast on FBC. It was also a way for me to tie a few of the book themes into the current hot Formula 1 topics. With so many changes from 2016-2017 it seemed like a good time to chat about the challenges that the teams face as the 2017 season relentlessly approaches.
I have to sincerely thank Paul and Todd for giving me this opportunity. They are amazing guys that do a fantastic job keeping their fingers on the pulse on the racing scene and relaying it to the masses who possess the excellent taste and judgment to follow along.
As a final topic to discuss here we should probably spend a bit of time talking about drivers and their skill sets. To kick it off, maybe a not so obvious statement: We as people are surprisingly different from one another. I say surprising because we spend a great deal of bandwidth in normal life trying to fit in. Society pretty relentlessly demands it of us and we are brought up to try to fit in. Underneath it all though we are indeed unique. You can see it in sports especially at the elite/professional level. Michael Phelps does not try to conform in his swimming, his ability transcends the norms, he gets to determine his own path, to write his own story.
In motorsports it is the same way, they have reached a level where to conform would hurt their individual potential. We are all a sum on one side of our genetics and the other our experiences, there are so many variables in those two sides that the best we can hope for is to say one driver has similar characteristics to another but they are never the same. The only thing we really have to compare them is their results and when you start comparing results you start seeing the characteristics that create champions.
One thing that really pops out is that the drivers that are spectacular to watch (best example Gilles Villeneuve) seldom if ever win Championships. Such a bummer right!?! There is just so much to winning a championship, first in the car having the presence of mind to go as fast as is possible without hammering the tires, knowing how hard to push at any given moment. That takes a very sorted clinical mind, not typically the guy that is all emotion at 11/10’s every time they hit the track.
There is a middle ground though and he is named Senna. You occasionally have someone that is so singularly focused, so developed on the clinical side that they can get the car set up to such a point that when they get on the track they can allow a bit of emotion and put the car right at the limit, driving at 100% when 101 would be over driving and abusing the tires and car. You see, getting yourself to perform at the limit and win championships requires as much work out of the car as in it and you rely on every member of the team to help put you in that position.
It is that very confidence of knowing you are more prepared that the other drivers that lets you be aggressive, be the attacker. Balancing that with what battles you can lose and still win the war. It is much more complicated than the perception, it requires everything of you if you want your moments of greatness and if you want to sustain that level you’ll have to continue to give everything. Greatness is a relative term though, it does not imply perfection, it says you are on a level above everyone else and they can’t define the difference, what you’re doing therefore to them and everyone else appears to be slightly superhuman. That’s the mystery that surrounds greatness. At that moment it’s a puzzle that only you can solve. Not perfect, merely great.
Optimum Drive is about defining each piece of the puzzle that elevates the often-plateaued good driver to the level of great.
The one defining characteristic that is at the core of a great driver is confidence, not necessarily general confidence (think of how shy Jim Clark was for instance), I mean confidence in the moment in the car. If you have that you can think clearly and if you can think clearly you are a rare driver especially if you can simultaneously balance a car at the limit and think clearly you will be formidable behind the wheel.
What enables that comfort level out there? Simple: car control. If you are able to say “whether the car oversteers, understeers, four wheel drifts, locks a wheel or two under braking… I got it no worries at all”. It is that very worry that takes an intelligent person outside of the car and in the car they’re hopelessly lost and scared. They can’t think if they are anywhere near the limit, the specter of the surprise skid dominates their thoughts whenever the try to go fast.
It’s amazing to think that there are drivers in Formula 1 that have this fear. Let me say this clearly, only a handful don’t have this fear. Only the few top drivers (in any championship) have complete confidence in the moment. You see it manifest everywhere but especially the drivers that spin a lot and they do it because the skid was a surprise to them and they had to react, that was too slow and it many cases too much and spin. Now in their defense some of the cars are very hard to drive and snappy which is the nature of poor mid-pack and back typical design but they knew that when they got in the car so it’s still their fault. Bad car control is everywhere, it’s why people crash, it’s not an instinct either, it is focused practice and training.
Car control is the very foundation of great driving but it can be abused, the Gilles Villeneuve example earlier works well here, he needed the temperament to know what was enough and what was too much, you can rely too much on car control, it can make you lazy knowing “you got it not matter what” and it is that Senna (and several others) ability to say not only “I got it” but also be fanatically obsessed with making the car faster at the same time. I think Gilles would have turned into an amazing complete driver if he hadn’t lost his life so tragically so early. We all would have loved to see what he could have done with more time.
Maybe the other interesting point about race car drivers and their individualism is how they race. How they handle pressure and how they provide pressure. Always amazing to see someone rise to the occasion as well as the shock of seeing someone who is very fast but is a hot mess when racing wheel to wheel. What it boils down to is that it is hard…very, very hard to get anywhere near great, there are so many factors in and out of the car to deal with. Being amazing at one or two aspects is not nearly enough, you’re just scratching the surface.
Their job is to make it all look easy, after all Michael Phelps is just swimming faster but what got him all those golds is a backstory where every detail was given equal attention over a lifetime focused practice.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my particular take on what’s going on in motorsports. I also hope you have a listen to the podcast and put any potential questions you might have in the comments so we can answer them.