It's easy enough to see the differences in technique between the great players in tennis. In motorsport, too, there can be a similar end result from very different approaches, but in our sport it's way less visible.
The patterns are easy enough to discern, though: over the years, Jarno Trulli has been dynamite at Monaco (LEFT), for example. Last year Heikki Kovalainen became the first teammate ever to outqualify Trulli there in what was Jarno's 14th appearance at the event. At Spa-Francorchamps, Kimi Raikkonen was utterly devastating even during those years when his performances were inconsistent elsewhere. Mark Webber's star invariably shines bright at the Nurburgring. Some of Rubens Barrichello's greatest performances have come at Silverstone, a track on which he held a qualifying advantage over Michael Schumacher during their six years together at Ferrari. Fernando Alonso, formidable everywhere, is invariably particularly brilliant at Monza. Lewis Hamilton, like Trulli, is seen to best effect around the streets of Monaco, or possibly Singapore. Jenson Button's form around Melbourne over the years has generally been electric.
Varying skill sets between even the very best drivers seem to play out differently from track to track. There's still scope for a huge variety of driving technique even within a sport where every technical aspect is optimized. Drivers feel the car in different ways and derive their speed from different sensations and balancing points. Here's Button comparing his preferences with those of Barrichello, his teammate of four years at Honda and Brawn:
“He can adapt to rear instability on corner entry better than I can. When he has that, he just throws on a lot of steering lock very suddenly, making the car understeer, and balancing it just right so that, by the time the understeer's reducing, you're into the corner and the transient instability is gone, or has been sort of damped out. I've seen it time and time again on the telemetry. When I try to do that, I just lose all feeling for the car; I cannot judge how much to do it by, it just feels so alien.”
Here's Barrichello on Button: “When I was at Ferrari, I'd say my inputs compared to Michael [Schumacher]'s were softer, smoother, more precise. So when I came to Honda, I was amazed to see that Jenson was yet softer. At first he could get more from the brakes than me until I was able to change the pad material to suit me.”
The pattern during their four years together was when the car was good, Button was the quicker driver. When it was at all imbalanced, however, Barrichello would be ahead.
Robert Kubica – sadly incapacitated at the moment, but arguably F1's most impressive driver over the previous few years – describes his driving style thus: “I need the rear of the car to be stable, so preferably with a little bit of understeer so I can take a lot of speed into the corner. So long as it is grippy understeer so that I can still ask more on the steering and it will respond, then it is good. If I get oversteer on entry, I'm dead. My style of taking the speed in just doesn't work if the back is loose. Obviously you can adapt as you feel the car, but some drivers are better suited to one thing, some to another.”
The diametric opposite to Kubica's style is Lewis Hamilton's. He thrives on a bit of entry oversteer – into slow corners at least – and it is into slow corners where there is the greatest variation of workable techniques, at speeds where downforce isn't imposing its blanket dictates. Lewis uses oversteer to hurry up the direction change and have the car balanced, straight and pointed at the apex early, enabling him to get earlier on the gas.
Kubica's and Button's need for stability makes them less adaptable than Hamilton or Nico Rosberg to a big spectrum of car characteristics. But it may also allow a higher peak to be reached when the car is exactly as they like it. Hamilton's ease with a variety of handling styles allows him to be more reactive and less anticipating, but Button's sensitivity makes him a more useful analyst of a car's behavior.
Taking Kubica and Hamilton as the two extremes of technique, into a slow turn in a notionally identical car, Kubica would be quicker into it, able to carry more momentum, perhaps beginning the turn a little earlier and with less initial steering lock. Hamilton, on a more geometric line, would need to input a lot of steering quite suddenly and would have to allow for this in his approach speed. (A combination of Kubica's entry speed with Hamilton's aggressive steering would see the car spin like a top.) However, from the moment between turn in and apex, if Hamilton has judged it right – and his judgment is exquisite – his initial, sharp oversteer will have gotten him on trajectory almost instantly at a place where Kubica will still be struggling to get the necessary yaw onto the car. So, from that moment, Hamilton will be quicker. Which will be the quicker method overall will depend upon the duration of the corner, and the length of straight after it.
Note: there is no definitive “better” or “faster” technique; the difference is more akin to handwriting. The two drivers in the above example are supremely gifted and it would be hard to determine who was quicker. They're simply doing it in different ways. There has been very little research on how these differences form, whether they're learned or instinctual, but the suspicion is the latter.
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.