Then and Now – Driver Concentration

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When F1 racing started the only means of communication between the team and the driver was via the pit board. Messages were short and usually consisted of the lap number and the gap to the driver ahead or behind. When refuelling was reintroduced in 1994, the pit board was still regularly used to inform the driver of when to come into the pit. Radio communication between the car and pit had been introduced some years earlier, but it was far from reliable and in the early days only really worked well as the car was driving along the pit straight.

Despite this relatively short part of the lap when the driver had to concentrate on the information that the team was passing, there were still times when some drivers didn’t get the message. Jean Alesi running out of fuel in the Benetton (Melbourne 1997 on lap 34) when he ignored radio calls for him to come in to refuel and despite the team getting increasingly agitated on the pit wall waving the pit in arrow for several laps before the inevitable happened.

With more reliable radio communication came the opportunity for more detailed discussion between team and driver, with some drivers having the spare mental capacity to carry out these conversations without affecting their lap times. Possibly the best examples of this are the many discussions between Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher about possible changes in strategy and the resultant lap times that would be required in order to make the strategy work. While this communication was routinely encrypted so that other teams could not listen in (and so it was rarely broadcast to the world), I have never heard of Schumacher complaining about being talked to in the corners.

Now Schumacher was an obvious exception, with so little of his mental capacity being used to drive the car at the required pace he was able to hold these conversations as easily as if he were stood next to Brawn on the pit wall. There have always been those who have this spare capacity, think of the detailed descriptions Senna was able to give about the cars behaviour at every corner of every lap he did during practice and how that compared to some of his contemporaries who could just about report whether they had under or oversteer.

Now in the first few races of this season we have heard not only the novice F1 drivers (like Carlos Sainz in China) complaining about being spoken to in the corners, but also the current World Champion (in Malaysia). Now while it may just be the ase that for a novice F1 driver early in his F1 career, that he doesn’t have the spare mental capacity to concentrate on driving the car and listen to the team. For a double world champion however, it is likely that he does have some spare capacity over and above simply pressing the pedals and turning the steering wheel.

The key to Hamilton’s (and possibly others) frustration is I believe evident from examining the in-car footage from the race. Whereas in Senna’s day and certainly earlier) drivers had a limited amount of information presented to them (a rev counter, and a warning light or gauge for oil pressure and or water temperature), and the controls limited to a manual adjustment of brake bias, with possibly a radio and rain light switch on the steering wheel, now drivers have a multifunction display giving lap time, fuel use, temperatures, pressures, state of charge of the ERS among many other choices, they also have a vast array of dials and switches to control numerous power unit modes over and above the basic brake bias that earlier generation had to cope with.

From what I can recall it was Michael Schumacher who started the trend to adjust the brake bias for each corner of the lap rather than just using it to compensate for the change in weight distribution as the fuel was used. Looking at Hamilton’s in-car footage he is adjusting various elements (presumably ERS charging rates, brake bias, differential settings etc.) on the way into corners, and ERS boost settings on the way out of corners. It is therefore just possible that his work load is that much higher than previous generations of drivers especially in the corners, and so he doesn’t have quite the same spare capacity available as some of his predecessors who had a different set of problems to deal with in driving the car.

Ultimately whatever Hamilton is doing behind the wheel, it is working better than his rivals. It is also worth remembering that we do not hear every single radio message, the FIA selects the ones for broadcast, and are likely to select those that give the commentator’s something to talk about (‘Leave me alone I know what I’m doing’ or ‘Fernando is faster than you, please confirm you understand the message’) rather than anything more straightforward.

So, what do you think, do driver’s today have it easier than their predecessors where they had to drive the car with much less information available to them, or are they beginning to suffer from information overload?

 

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GaryK

There is “constantly trying to avoid instant death” concentration and there is “I need another three-hundredths in this sector concentration.” Both fierce and intense, but one is maybe just a touch more artificial than the other.

MIE

The instant death scenario is much less likely now, thanks to improvements in circuit and car safety. It does help to explain why Stirling Moss revered to nine tenths driving as being as fast as he would want to go, and how Jim Clark could go faster by concentrating harder. Current drivers are possibly much closer to the ultimate pace of the car as the consequences of stepping over that limit are so much less severe.

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