Red Bull Racing is about to replace its "second" driver, and maybe Ferrari should do the same. Edd Straw explains how the formula for the perfect No. 2 driver has changed through the eras.
Quiz the average Formula 1 team principal about their philosophy of driver pairings and you usually get variations on the same theme. “We want the best two drivers available,” is the clarion call. But historically, it has rarely been that straightforward and very often the status quo has been better-preserved by a number one/number two arrangement. It might come as a surprise to learn that only six times has anyone dared to pair two drivers already with world titles on their CV.
On four occasions, McLaren has tried it with mixed results: Emerson Fittipaldi/Denny Hulme (1974), Alain Prost/Keke Rosberg (1986), Prost/Ayrton Senna ('89) and Jenson Button/Lewis Hamilton (2010-'12). Ferrari fielded Alberto Ascari/Giuseppe Farina in 1953 and Lotus ran Jim Clark/Graham Hill (PICTURED LEFT) in 1967-'68. Even taking into account the fact there are only 32 drivers who have won the World Championship, given the sparsity of top seats over the years, it's an astonishingly rare phenomenon. A little more common are pairings of an established star and a future champion, but the dynamic there is usually very different and, as McLaren learned in 2007 with Fernando Alonso and Hamilton, that can turn sour fast.
Clearly, merely signing the best two drivers available is not what it's all about. Either that, or the definition of “best” has become so loose as to be meaningless. But given how close grand prix racing is today and the reliability of the machinery, carrying a number two driver in the conventional sense of the word is becoming an obsolete modus operandi.
Take Ferrari as an example. Alongside Alonso (a driver who, for all the recent ructions with his employer, remains a topliner you can stake your mortgage on) we have Felipe Massa. The Brazilian's frailties in post-accident trim are well-documented and the suggestion that Ferrari can win a constructors' title with him at the wheel of its second car is laughable. He is simply too erratic. Yet there remains a serious possibility of him remaining at Ferrari in 2014, even though his presence also compromises Ferrari's championship chances.
Not convinced? Look at the numbers.
MASSA vs. ALONSO 2010-'13, points
2010: 144 to 252 (57.15%)
2011: 118 to 257 (45.9%)
2012: 122 to 278 (43.9%)
2013: 67 to 151 (44.4%)
Not only does Massa's scoring rate weaken Ferrari in the teams' championship – historically, the second driver needs to net around 63 per cent of the team leader's points to win that – but it actually hurts Alonso. Last year, Massa took points off Sebastian Vettel just once, while Mark Webber did so to Alonso six times. Vettel won the title by three points. Go figure…
As well as the sport becoming increasingly competitive, with small time gaps separating the frontrunners, reliability also places a premium on performance. Some 30 years ago, a good safe pair of hands who didn't make mistakes and was kind to the machinery could be relied upon to bank good points. But simply making the finish is no longer enough. This year, the top three in the championship have retired only eight times (three each for Ferrari and Mercedes and two for Red Bull) and only five of those were not down either to driver errors or a team blunder in the pits.
This is what makes it so difficult for top teams. Take Red Bull, for example. Webber has been a very good teammate to Vettel despite the flashpoints between them over the years. On his day, he can and has beaten the German and he has scored points at a rate good enough to ensure Red Bull has clinched the constructors' title. Fortunately for the sake of the Drivers' Championship, on average Vettel is better than Webber by enough to be ahead of him more often than not. They are usually not robbing points from each other.