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Why don’t F1 drivers have coaches?
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Why don’t F1 drivers have coaches?
Posted By: James Allen  |  20 Aug 2010   |  9:20 am GMT  |  178 comments

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.

Drivers rely on engineers to help them improve (Getty)


So what about F1 drivers? Many get some coaching on the way up; young driver programmes usually have a coaching component to them. They spend some time with a professional driver coach like Rob Wilson or John Stevens, but do they bring them into F1 and take them to every race? Certainly not.

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.


Looking at drivers who have struggled this season, like Massa, Liuzzi, and (until recently) Hulkenberg and Petrov, I wonder how much a coach could have helped them.

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.


Many drivers keep notebooks with corner lines, observations and comments that they add to every time they visit a circuit, but it seems very unscientific.

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.

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1

If a coach works with only one driver, would he be as effective as a coach who works with multiple drivers? If the coach works with multiple drivers, would the F1 team feel comfortable sharing the telemetry with that coach?

2

As a professional coach I agree with you observations. A coach can help a driver of any level, at the very least, by being a trusted sounding board for the driver in situation where they are too worried about how it would be perceived in the competitive team environment. I have don this constantly and it work very efficiently. Add in the spotting for the driver and another set of ‘driver’ eyes on the data and I all adds up to a marked advantage *as long as the coach can honestly operate at that level*

One last add for the coach is translator in many cases. Drivers and engineers speak different languages, one is subjective (driver) and one objective (engineers). Very few driver engineers pairings are truely functional due to this disconnect. A good coach can be invaluable on this point alone if they can improve communication.

3

Motor racing is a complex sport. There are so many variables like telemetry, driving styles, set up, as well as general track observations ie. from the spectators POV.

As such things like driving style will cancel things out eg. Button is hardly going to maximum attack in quali; and F1 drivers can be so stubbornly competitive that they’d hardly be pleased with themselves telling a team mate how they took a corner quicker!

4

Congratulations for another really interesting article James,

I’m afraid you are right in pointing the anomaly in F1 for being one of the only left hight level sports without coaching. I also agree with some other people here that don’t think coaching would be better for the show. It would surely rise the level of the drivers but would also tend to make them all more similar. It is like all other aspects of the sport where technical development eases the pilot’s tasks, it is every time more difficult to tell a really good driver from another not so good with good car or a good team, for instance. And it is my opinion that the article is very relevant as this will change in near future, we are seeing new drivers coming from pilot programs like McLaren’s (Hamilton and now de Vries), Red Bull and now also Ferrari. I’m afraid this would lead us to a situation where a team will select and train their pilots from very young ages and will “use” them in F1, all of them perfectly trained and coached in every aspect of the sport and everything around it like press relationships and so on while the true gems of the sport may be left unattended if they don’t have the luck or the money to be recognised on time or if they want to keep their personality (race drivers tend to have really strong personalities I think). It is a thing that happens today in music (Britain’s got talent and all the alikes) and I find it unfair and scary, we all like pilots, not marionettes. This situation would be very difficult to avoid being F1 a team-oriented competition, the amount of money needed to teach a driver is huge and pilots elected by teams would have a much easier path in front of them than the others. Besides,the necessity of making profit of the investment could tend to build a even more controlled, less interesting sport.

For the ones using the tennis example, Federer keeps constantly making strategic errors during his matches that only a massive amount of talent can balance. With such a good strategic coaching like Nadal or Murray have, he would keep Nr.1. So, the extraordinary tennis player is defeated by another great player with the help of a team of consultants. Fans like me don’t like this, but it is the way modern, professional sports are evolving. Less individual, more corporative structure

We will see if things evolve in this way or not, I’m afraid they will

5

Maybe it’s for the best. The more errors, the more excitement. If they were all perfect, or closer to perfection, there would be less passing/errors, and races would be more processional.

Maybe F1 got lucky with this illogical behaviour and attitude to coaches.

6

James I thought I read somewhere that Webber spent some time with a driver coach while he was recovering from his broken leg last year. If that is true then it was certainly worth it. He is certainly driving better than he has in the past mostly keeping out of silly incidents although Melbourne and Valencia were exceptions this year

7

A coach? Some guy with a stopwatch and whistle comes to my mind, forcing a book entitled “Try Hard” into his students hands and starts talking his head off:

“Let me tell you, young man… In my days sex was safe…/with your mind power and determination…/try to set your limits even further. Im telling you, something hapens…” or “Listen to your mind, not your heart…”

I think if a driver can skip coaching, he can perhaps spend more time with his girlfriend or kids, sleep longer etc and still be perfectly fit.

Isnt working with race engineers something like coaching anyway? Data logging and stuff should highlight drivers weaknesses very well. So this coaching thing can be more like a mental preparation. Some drivers seem to need more babysitting than the others. But is it knitting, cycling or chatting with John Stevens that makes a racing driver balanced and prepared must be very individual.

A coach can make someone like Captain Slow shave of seconds of their laptimes, no doubt. But to train top level racing driver(with their considerable experience, already shaped beliefs)may not give that effect anymore.

8

First of all we have to know what do we look for from a coach in F1.

If it is speed around the track, then it has to be a driver who is better and who has just driven the same car on the same track. Otherwise how can the coach know what limit the car can do on the track and where the driver did wrong by following him around the track? The next best alternative is the driver’s engineer who has the telemetry to look at if he can compare that with those from other drivers preferably from a faster one. Without knowing what the diver did on every part of the track, it is not easy to offer any really useful advice.

If it is mental, then possibly a different person. If it is physical, then a trainer, etc.

9

A very good question, James.

I remember Massa saying that Schumi’s coaching wasn’t about how to take a corner, but more about other things. He was pretty coy on this, but he did mention something about knowing when you have to go fast. Albeit a bit reluctant in that interview at acknowledging that he was being coached, Massa did improve a lot at the time.

10

I think some of the talented youngsters could and should seek out some advice.

They are afforded less time to make the cut than for a ling time.

James,

I was Reading an article on steffan bellof today. Any chance of doing a series of articles on precocious talents lost before they reached their full potential?

There are so many examples I can think of.

11

James, I think that coaches could help although it’s not like tennis, where the coach is involved heavily on the technical side.

F1 drivers don’t need much technical coaching, unless something changes and they need to adapt and they are struggling to.

More important is the mental side. After all, every driver who makes it to F1 is quite close to a couple of tenths ability-wise, if you ignore the outliers.

So the mental aspect is more important. Consistency and operating on the limit without losing your emotions.

In this respect, a mental coach is a good idea. As someone stated earlier, Joe Ramirez was one.

And remember Balbir Singh, the dark-skinned individual that always stood out in the Ferrari team pictures when Schumacher was obliterating the field?

I think that Smedley is the closest thing to a coach that we have seen in recent times.

12

Coaches are useful for weak driver, who do not have an ability to analyse and improve themselves.

In general, I’m pretty sure the teams would not miss this trick, if they felt it really made a difference… they must have tried, and deemed it a negative on the whole.

Nothing to do with being macho… just a system that doesn’t bring results.

13

May be I am shooting from the hip because I have not done a real survey, but I do feel no adult man/woman consistently putting life at risk because of his/her professional activity has a coach except in rare exceptions. No doubt they have technical teams supporting them in every needed sense, and indeed they have friends, relatives, couples, etc. But personal coachs like in other individual sports… I hardly remember of any. There is no couching even in the extreme mountaining or bullfighting, to quote a couple of other higly dangerous activities.

14

Interesting point.

15

I think that F1 drivers have an entire (coaching) team at their disposal… although not labeled as “coach”:

– team manager (like Whitmarsh, SD, Ron Dennis etc) I see them having a coaching role… telling drivers when they are underperforming

– race engineers provide the drivers with all possible technical data and input on how to optimize braking points, apex entry, lines, when to accelerate etc (e.g Rob Smedley)

– physio / personal manager… is the trusted companion to clear the drivers head, get them focused on performing within the track-windows..

So I think there is already an enormous coaching going on (without being labeled as “coaching”)

16

not that i ‘ve anything to argue with your analysis.. but to me coach is someone who looks at your performance in the sport and analyzes your mistakes or weak point and give u tips to rectify those mistakes…

here in F1, for this critical analysis, a whole team of engineers is present to look into your performance.. so my point is that ‘the role of the coach is already being played in F1 but not by a single man but by a lot of people’… and an additional person labeled as a ‘coach’ is really unnecessary…

17

Hi james, another great article, one of the things i love most about F1 is the detail and the attention to it, especially with the engineering side of the sport. However, like you i have believed that the drivers can do more to improve thier performance if only they could put their egos to one side for a bit, i’ve recently read a book by Clyde Brolin titled, Over drive-Formula one in the zone, I found it a fantastic read and it really showed that the difference between the good drivers and the great ones was all in the mind and the way they deal with situations, if you haven’t already read this book i suggest you pick it up some time, keep up the good work james.

18

I disagree slightly here James, I’d say their phyiso, engineers, even the designers to some extent are ‘coaching’ the drivers. Most 400 ish people of the team are there to make the driver and car go faster and perform better. I think that in the case of motor sport, the car and driver are so intertwined that a traditional coach from other sports doesn’t apply so well here.

19

Hi James, love your website. I seem to remember Nico Rosberg saying a while ago – at a guess, a year or two ago – that he would benefit from a coach, and that it was a bit strange that coaches aren’t more common in F1. I’ve just tried to find a story covering his comments and couldn’t find anything, though, so perhaps my memory is a bit hazy.

Meanwhile, I’d like to offer a suggestion for an article on your website. How about a story covering the number of fresh engines available to each driver for the remainder of the season, and what effect this is likely to have on the championship? Apparently Alonso and Vettel both only have two fresh engines remaining. It would seem this could have some bearing on the outcome of this season.

20

I’ve always thought that sport at the very highest level exposes what goes on in the head.

The technical side is easily measured and analysed, and assuming a cars performance envelope is clearly defined, drivers at this level will mostly drive to that limit. It’s the mental approach and application that makes the difference. Look at our footballers for an obvious example. They can all play at the required level but when the pressure is on, just dont.

Drivers at this level dont need technical coaches, they need to get their heads working the right way, that’s probably the only area worth considering. Call it ‘form’ or ‘being in the grove’ , what affects these is not how good they are at moving their hands and feet, it’s how the grey stuff operates.

This is the likeliest explaination of differing levels of performance.

So if Schumacher did bring something the the Massa party, I’m pretty certain it wasn’t, ‘turn the wheel here . .’

21

The issue of driver coaching goes hand in hand with testing.

Gary Player famously said the more he practised the luckier he got.

MSC was at the height of his powers when he could practice. Would he have won as many titles without relentless lapping?

Would the current crop of ‘suprise’ performers – button, webber, rosberg – be as successful, comparative to their teamates, if full testing were allowed?

It could be argued the current skill in F1 is who can perform without any training.

Is this right for a sport? Does it truly separate the best from the rest?

22

I seem to remember an article years ago with Jackie Stewart taking Stewart GP drivers round a track in this Ford buggy contraption ‘coaching’ the drivers. I suspect he instilled it on the drivers, rather than them request it maybe.

23

I think there would certainly be a place for sports psychologists as well. These are widely used at the elite level both in team and individual sports.

A large part of being a good driver is the ability to react to changes in the enviornment be they weather changes, new or degrading tyres, slower cars in front or faster cars behind, accidents and safety cars. No two races are identical and rarely if ever can a driver just coast through a race.

It is often said when a driver has dominated on Saturday that “it’s their race to lose”. Surely here mental toughness would be essential with the pressure that comes from being on pole or being in a faster car.

Just look at Sebastien Vettel, a young driver with clear talent but even he admitted to being asleep at the wheel behind the safety car which arguably lost him the race.

Sports psychologists could also help the team engineers and mechanics, particularly at pit stops which is about as high pressure as you can get. One tiny slip and it could be game over with your drivers rear tyre coming off and trying to race the car out of pit lane…

The whole team must be on their A game for the whole race.

24

I’ve always thought that at this level, the main difference between each of the drivers is confidence in their ability and mind management. This is where coaching could play a larger role IMO.

If a drivers technique was wrong or costing him time, the engineers would be onto it immediately. For example Massa in Australia, where Smedley got on the radio and told him he was going too hard into the second last corner and it was compromising his line and exit speed onto the s/f straight. This left Brundle (and probably most viewers!) astonished that he would be need to be told this.

Drivers at this level KNOW how to drive fast. Most of them also have the ABILITY to drive fast, and have demonstrated this in junior formula. IMO the main difference that makes up those last few tenths is confidence and mind management. Putting a driver into a ‘comfort zone’ where they know they are quicker than their team-mate, or confident with the setup, or with the team around them, can make all the difference. This explains why drivers excel with some teams, and in some circumstances, and others don’t. Examples?

HH Frenzten arrived at Williams in ’97 with big expectation (and a lot of talent) but was demolished by Villeneuve and looked second rate. He then moved to Jordan in ’99 and was a star, fighting for the championship until the second last race. In a JORDAN..!

Fisichella is another good example, who has driven the wheels off a bunch of mediocre cars, including the Force India, but when the pressure was on could not perform in a Renault or Ferrari.

There are countless other examples. The very, very best drivers, however, are the ones who shine no matter what the circumstance. They have the most confidence and self-belief and don’t need a ‘comfort zone’ to perform to their max.

All the others? Yes I think they all COULD use a coach.

– RJP

25

Very interesting topic.

I think James has hit on a good point – it’s hard to see how drivers, particularly younger drivers and those in mid field cars, wouldn’t benefit from coaching.

While most drivers have probably got their technique down by the time they get to F1, and can hone their driving based on the technical feedback the engineers give them, I think a coach could help speed up the learning process for new drivers, and perhaps more importantly limit the psychological damage when things are going wrong.

There are plenty of talented young drivers who don’t succeed in F1, and in some cases I think it’s because early failures destroyed their confidence. A good coach could really help there. It’s even possible that a coach could help diagnose fundamental issues where the driver can’t get the car to work the way they want. A good coach might be able to suggest different ways of driving the car that the driver and engineers wouldn’t immediately think of.

Again, a coach could help young drivers learn to improve their feedback to engineers and optimise their test and practice sessions.

Drivers these days have to be good at a huge number of things to be successful, and it takes time for even the best to learn everything they need to know. It seems logical that having someone dedicated to teaching them and supporting them would help.

Having said all that, I think there clearly is quite a bit of coaching in F1. Quite a few posts mention Rob Smedley, and I think quite a few engineers coach their drivers from time to time, even if it’s only by telling them to calm down!

I’m surprised that noone’s mentioned Helmut Marko. He’s often described as a mentor to the Red Bull young drivers, and particularly to Vettel. To me a mentor is a kind of coach, and you would expect them to provide coaching on the mental part of the game in particular. Which makes it interesting that Vettel’s mental approach is where he receives the most criticism.

26

Well spotted Tim !

27

I seem to remember A. Senna essentially coaching Michael Andretti. I don’t recall which circuits, but Michael would follow Senna in practice with the idea of learning the fastest way to get around an unfamiliar layout. Hard to imagine any pilots today that would be as generous. Great site James.

28

That can only mean that Senna didn’t think Andretti was a serious threat. Mika says in his interview in MS this month that Senna was giving nothing away !

29

Well, Mika was obviously more of a threat than Michael Andretti. (Didn’t he out qualify Senna as a novice teammate in Japan? Even Prost only managed that a couple of times.) Still, it would have been nice to have Senna on your side rather than attempting to disembowel your spirit every second of the day.

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