I was reading about tennis star Andy Murray the other day, who beat Roger Federer to win a tournament soon after dispensing with his coach. It seems to be quite a big deal and the more you read about it, the more you realise how central to an elite sportsman’s life his coach is.
If you think about it, most sportsmen and women still rely heavily on coaches even when they reach the peak at the elite level. Golf, tennis, all the Olympic sports, all the team sports like football, rugby and cricket, basketball, NFL – they have armies of coaches on the staff, who work with the players constantly.
Coaching is not part of the culture of F1.
But why is this? It’s not because the drivers are perfect, nor because there aren’t enough people who’ve done it in the past; there are hundreds of ex F1 drivers many of whom have little to do. No doubt some of them would make excellent coaches. It may be partly a macho thing, F1 definitely has that side to it, where it might be perceived as a weakness that a driver “needs help”.
Partly it has to do with the ever changing nature of the cars. I remember Michael Schumacher saying that he would have a short shelf life as an adviser to Ferrari and Felipe Massa in particular, as the cars would soon be quite different from what he raced. And the last fraction of a second is in the fine details of how you drive the car.
However there is no doubt that Schumacher really helped Massa improve. Once he came into Schumacher’s orbit, Massa made a massive step forward in terms of discipline and performance. Schumacher definitely helped him and, dare I say it, he seems to be missing that presence now. Schumacher himself is having a hard time adapting to the 2010 cars and particularly the front tyres, with only engineers for support. But who could coach a seven times world champion?
McLaren had a phase of putting their drivers through coaching sessions and I believe that Hakkinen, Coulthard, Montoya and Raikkonen all had sessions with both Wilson and Stevens. They also had Alain Prost on their books briefly, after he retired and before he became a team owner, to help the drivers. But it’s never caught on as a cultural thing. Surely that cannot mean that F1 drivers all have perfect technique and no problems to iron out?
Like any sportsmen, F1 drivers have good days and bad days. With other sports, every performance is analysed by the coaching staff and then they work on any areas of weakness. F1 is so engineering led, that any suggestions for remedial work tend to come from the engineers as they go through their debrief.
Together with the drivers they will analyse the data, look where time is being lost and suggest some alternative ways of driving certain sections of the circuit. But to a large extent it is then left up to the driver to sort out his own problems and because of the nature of F1 he has a limited amount of time in which to do so. He can’t just go out and try things because track time is strictly limited. Simulators are available, and perhaps will become a useful resource for coaching.
But F1 drivers seem to be obliged to rely on their talent more than other sportsmen. It’s up to them to fix any problems and I wonder how much they improve as a result. The really good ones are consistently there every week, but many F1 drivers seem to have erratic performances.
Stevens’ website has a load of testimonials from people he’s coached and the most interesting is from Adrian Newey, who started racing more seriously in recent years, as we know from last week’s shunt. He says, “Spending a day with John helped me greatly to translate my understanding of car dynamics into refining my driving techniques and instilled a much higher level of discipline, precision analysis and consequently speed into my driving. Although my driving is a hobby, from what I know of motor sport I believe that many of even the top drivers could benefit from John’s coaching techniques.”
If they use them at all, F1 drivers tend to use coaches like Wilson and Stevens on a one off basis, rather than as a constant feature of their lives. One of the problems is that a big F1 star would probably think “what can he teach me?”, another is that the team would have to be prepared to let the coach in on all the data and secrets, which would only work if he was a team employee rather than retained by the driver.
Aside from their race engineers, all F1 drivers have in their immediate support network, as far as I can see, is physios. I know a few of them quite well and they are very much focussed on the body and its performance, not on driving technique. They vary in the work they do for the drivers. Many help them get fit away from the circuit, warm them up before driving, give them massages after each session and talk to them about their performance. But none of them have any experience of elite race driving or of choosing a better line through a corner.
For such a high level elite sport, F1 seems to have a very informal attitude to coaching. The idea is to arrive in F1 on the basis of your talent and results and then improve steadily from there. Can every F1 driver honestly say that they are achieving the maximum of their potential. And if not, how can they be helped?
After all it will only improve the spectacle for those of us watching.
I’d be interested to hear your views on this.