What has been researched – by defense agency QinetiQ, as part of a study for military pilot selection – is how we sense g-force, yaw and rotation, the three fundamentals that determine how a driver is feeling the car. In that study it was found it comes largely from sensors between the coccyx and the third vertebra and these inputs are processed by the subconscious with almost none of the time delay associated with the conscious mind. How the movement picked up by those sensors tallies with the workings of the inner ear from which our balance is derived is not fully understood. However, within the workings of those inner gyroscopes is the secret that determines not just the quality of a driver's feel – the fundamental that makes one person quick and another not – but also how that feel is experienced in terms of preference for understeer/oversteer and taste for transitions between the two.
Understanding all this is fundamental to analyzing why it might be that driver A excels at one track and driver B at another. It's also a large part of the reason for apparently anomalous teammate comparisons from one year to the next: driver A was quicker than B, driver B was quicker than C, yet when A and C were paired up, C blew A into the weeds. Or Jean Alesi was quicker than Gerhard Berger at Ferrari in 1993, but Berger was much the quicker in '94. The sport is littered with examples like that and they are almost certainly to do with how well specific cars or tires or race engineer methods worked with specific natural preferences of the drivers concerned.
Reality is almost infinitely layered (and this is just scratching the surface) but the patterns we observed at the beginning of this piece are inextricably linked with these inner workings. Yet even within that there are obvious anomalies. For example, how come Hamilton and Trulli excel at Monaco when their styles are so different? Trulli, like Button, is a “feel” driver, super-sensitive to changes in grip. This, in combination with a great precision and a willingness to fully commit to the grip when he feels it – he describes it as less fear of failure than other drivers – enables him to build in a crescendo over the Monaco weekend in a way that drivers less attuned cannot.
Hamilton achieves similar excellence there by an entirely different mechanism. His ease with entry oversteer pays him back hugely at a track almost entirely composed of slow, short-duration corners. He spends less time than anyone else changing direction – and there's little penalty afterward, because you're straight into the next corner. It's way more gung-ho than Trulli's approach, but spectacularly effective.
Button at Melbourne? Albert Park is a track unusual in that in terms of lap time, it is front-tire limited. Most are rear-tire limited. Keeping the front tire away from the threshold of heat degradation is key and Button's silky, one-arc steering movement and super-sensitivity to grip pay him back well there.
Kimi Raikkonen was blessed with a combination of devastating high-speed precision and almost no emotional limitation. Spa-Francorchamp's sweeping high-speed terror ride was his natural environment. Compatriot Mika Hakkinen was similarly wonderful there for similar reasons.
But all these various qualities are derived from the core point of a driver's natural feel, how he experiences the car. They all reach a minimum – exceptionally high – basic ability. But beyond that is the finesse of technique and preferences based upon the varying physical make-ups. It's likely that these are then reinforced psychologically: Hamilton routinely goes into the Monaco weekend knowing that he is going to deliver something special and that probably enhances his chances of doing just that.
“This is a subject that hasn't even begun to be properly researched,” says Dr. Ricardo Ceccerelli, formerly Toyota F1's team doctor and someone who's conducted more research into driver physiology/psychology than anyone else. “There is performance there to be found if it is understood, but it requires investment and the sport cannot yet see what it doesn't know and so isn't willing to provide it. Technical understanding in Formula 1 is fantastic, but its understanding of the driver is primitive.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the May 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.