Video: Does the Perfect lap exist? The engineers’ take
Posted By: James Allen  |  06 Nov 2013   |  11:09 am GMT  |  114 comments

F1 is all about the interaction of man and machine in search of the maximum performance.

We have been running a discussion on the concept of the Perfect Lap recently, which was inspired by a video shoot I took part in recently with some of the McLaren people. They are exploring the notion, with the help of one of their partners SAP, of how man and machine combine and it’s a fascinating subject in light of the example we have this year in F1 and what lies ahead next year, as the recebt post on Alain Prost underlined.

Take a look:

McLaren also ran a blog post by my old colleague Alan Henry, who recalled the ultimate perfect lap by Ayrton Senna at Monaco in 1988. This was a lap that was mentioned by a number of readers in our recent poll on JA on F1.

To quote a section from it: ‘Senna’s pole lap was a staggering 1.5 seconds quicker than Alain, a double world champion already, could manage.

“And, remember, we were using race tyres for much of qualifying, which meant we could manage more than a single-lap run,” Ayrton told my dear old friend, the late Denis Jenkinson of Motorsport magazine. “I got to the stage when at one point I was actually more than two seconds a lap faster than anybody else, including my team-mate, who was using the same car, the same tyres, the same everything.

“It wasn’t because he [Alain] was going too slow,” Ayrton explained, “but because I was going too fast. I felt at one stage that the circuit was not a circuit any longer, just a tunnel of Armco barrier. But [events were unfolding] in such a way that I was over the level I considered reasonable. There was no margin, whatsoever, to anything.

“When I had that feeling,” Ayrton went on, “I lifted immediately [from the throttle pedal]. Then I felt I was operating on a different level, which I didn’t quite understand. So I backed off and came into the pits. I said to myself, ‘Today, that was special. Don’t go out any more. You’re vulnerable.'”

Fabulous stuff!

You can read the whole post HERE

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Gil De Ferran once described Button’s Friday lap in 2005 at Silverstone as perfect.


Thanks for that. I remember him saying that in an interview.


The video, although fascinating, rather sucks any sense of humanity out of the concept of the ‘perfect lap’, doesn’t it? Senna’s words, helped by his evocative language and the reverence around him since his death, speak strongly of the personal contribution of the driver, while the video places the emphasis rather more firmly on the boffins and megabytes. Something, I think, is lost in that process.

Matthew Cheshire

Yes. The winning part seems to be lost. They all sound like librarians.


Found the Top Gear video with Clarkson testing the Mclaren MP4/12C.

To turn off the traction control takes a quite arduous selection of buttons.

The engineers looked shocked at his suggestion, “why would you want to do that? To have fun..

You could see the engineer thinking, hmm fun, I must look that up in a dictionary”

Sums up Mclaren pretty well I think. When you consider Newey’s least successful period, it was during his tenure at Mclaren. Says a lot doesn’t it?


Does Vettel win all of the 6.5 million simulations?


No, in India Webber won the simulation, but on race day he didn’t get the start right


Here’s a great side by side comparison of Vettel vs Button in qualifying at the 2011 Japanese GP, where they were separated by nine thousandths of a second.


So Senna’s lap wasn’t perfect. Only laps which are under control should count. If i understand his words right he had to stop after. So he couldn’t have done this in a race.

I heard nearly the same when we at volunteer firefighters had to cut a 20 year old out of his new sportscar. He wanted to test the limits and got trapped in driving to the limits.

I try avoid this feeling. Playing under water rugby it isn’t wise to say to yourself: my playing iis currently perfect, i bet i can stay submerged for another 30s.


James do you think that the fact that developemnet of the cars has stopped, is contributing to the fact that fewer people become world champions ?

1972-1985 : 10 different world champions

1986-1999 : 8

2000-2013 : 6

In the old days, the best driver might not finf himself in the most developed or most reliable car. It was more random.

Now since the cars are more or less the same, and seldom fail, the best guy always wins. There is nothing competing teams can do to get their driver first.


The cars have never been more developed that today.

This year’s McLaren is faster than last years, but look how far off the pace of the leading teams it is – that’s development!


Alan why doesn’t it show in the winner’s total time then ? In most GPs it’s the same for the last three years, since DRS was introduced.

Look at some examples :

Catalunya India

2011 1:39:03.301 1:30:35.002

2012 1:39:09.145 1:31:10.744

2013 1:39:16.596 1:31:12.187

The same for most other races. The times are more or less the same for the last 3 years.

In 2012 for the first time in history we had 8 different GP winners. This tells me that a lot of cars are capable of winning because they are very similar.

I think development has stopped and that’s why the car doesn’t matter.

And since obviously Vettel is the best driver, that’s why he wins.


Massa’s looking for a drive next year. If he says that his current teammate is better than a 7 time world champion it makes him look better than if he says Schumacher is better than Alonso.


Wise words… Sounds like Vettel has to be even better than Schumacher, who by the way won 7 titles:

Ferrari: You have had many team-mates, which was the strongest?

Massa: Fernando. Schumacher was as quick, but in terms of intelligence, Alonso is better because he manages to put everything together perfectly.

Interview on the official Ferrari web site. 11/06/13 (two days ago)

If he beats Alonso so easily (by 130 points with two races remaining), he would have destroyed Schumacher according to Massa’s words. He must be an unprecedented human being, he is just above all human scales.


The perfect lap is just a paradigm.


Yes, I am quite aware that I am horribly off topic but:

I’ve heard a couple of days ago that the Ferrari windtunnel will be reopened again. So far (I believe) they have used the Toyota windtunnel for their 2014 programme, is there going to be a likely chance that the results from the Toyota windtunnel will not match the ones of the newe update Maranello windtunnel? And how horribly bad will this affect Ferrari in 2014?


The Ferrari tunnel is reopening yes

They have put significant effort into correcting the problems, so one hopes that correlation was the 1st priority


Here is one way to describe the term “a very small amount.” Just for fun, define “a very small amount” in your head before you read below quote.


“It was £10m as it happens,” Ecclestone told the court, when quizzed on the accusations. “I made the payment because he said he would ‘shake me down’ concerning tax arrangements with our family trust… which would have been very expensive.”

“What I paid him was a very small amount, what I call an insurance policy,” he added.


Looking very rugged there James. Going for a new image?


Watching the picture of Senna in this article, and looking at his empty steering wheel I just remembered reading somewhere that Senna used to change gear by listening to the engine revs (same as most conventional drivers on the road 🙂

But still its remarkable. Todays drivers are having the Mclaren ECU telling them with lights on the steering wheel, or with a beep in their ears when to change gears.

That cannot be right. The ECU does that part of the driving. The driver is just another “processor”.

In a way I am glad that Senna flourished in an era where driving was more natural.. more depending on the unity between man-machine vs. computer-machine.


To be fair to Prost wasn’t Honda playing favourites with the engines especially in their first year together at McLaren.


No they weren’t. It was something insinuated by Prost and Balestre to the world’s media.

Before the 1988 Japanese GP, where Senna could take the title,

Balestre: “…all over the world eyes will be riveted on the Japanese and Australian Grand Prix, the results of which will be decisive for the drivers. We should make every effort to ensure utmost technical objectivity reigns over these two competitions and that equipment (car or engine) of equal quality be made available to the two drivers of the Mclaren team, for otherwise the image of the World Championship, present and future, would be tarnished. I thank you in advance for helping the FIA to achieve this end by giving the necessary instructions to all the Honda technical executives who may play a part on these two forthcoming events.”

The implication was that Honda had been providing inferior specification engines to his countryman and that was why Senna was beating Prost. It was a highly provocative move by Balestre, one that was designed to aggravate Senna and upset Honda. It worked and Honda was furious.

Mr Kume was cold in his response. “Honda Motor Company Ltd sees fairness as the highest requirement of its philosophy for conducting business, and sets this quality as an ideology in its corporate dealings. For the last two races, Honda will continue to supply identical engines which will allow the drivers supreme examples of their skills, as we have always done in line with our basic ideology.”

The final paragraph read: “Finally I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you for consistently performing your important role as president of FISA.”

Another fact that has to be recognised is that the majority of the media was British at the time. In 1988, that meant that Senna was hated and Prost loved. The history of this dates back to when Senna forced Lotus to not sign Derek Warwick to the team for 1986.

They turned on him and his relationship with the British media never recovered.


After watching the video. I would summarise as ‘the ideal lap’ rather than ‘the perfect lap’.

The engineers have a lot of information but no one has ALL the information. Unless you’re god LOL you’ll never have all the information.

Drivers can have the opportunity to adapt to different conditions. Especially when the condition changed suddenly. That’s where a driver can out perform the engineer’s ideal lap.

A good example is Sebastien Loeb’s record run at Pikes Peak. The engineers said 8:15 and he did it in 8:13. So that is one perfect lap. OK, OK I know it is not F1… but I can’t think of a perfect lap in F1.


Good stuff James. Keep up the great work!

Valentino from montreal

Hungary 1998 – not only 1 fast lap but about 20 qualifying laps in a row …


If you can do 20 then by definition of the law of diminishing returns suggest not 1 I them was close to perfect.Further no one drove a car with the same tyres and same technical set up as that “different” Ferrari. Despite 7 WC no one will think about him in the same way as Senna not even close or for me even Prost. Both these guys were better in the the same car and Raikkonen destroyed him and FA several times so he couldn’t have been all that perfect!

Maybe he might want to come out of retirement to prove us wrong !- and fail again .. : ) 7 time champ who still has something to prove… What a contradiction he WAS.


Whoah hold up, Schumi’s stint that day is legendary. Irrespective of not being a fan of his it’s quite a bit to say Kimi destroyed him. By that virtue we could say Massa (of all people) ‘destroyed’ Kimi, so much so that Kimi jumped out the sport for a couple of years.



My point is more to do with the “perfect lap” and the fact that the laws of physics will tell you that to be on the limits completely for 1 lap means you cannot be on them for 20!.

Further, when someone is that much faster than everyone and it is known he had “custom” tyres you can understand people being sceptical. Further when that someone has driven into people intentionally or pushed them off the track – whatever brilliance he had goes out the window- I was once a huge fan before all this.

Valentino from montreal

Do u feel better now ?


The irony of mclaren producing this after the guy who got closest to the “perfect lap” left a year ago!

Was still great to read and watch.


The closest thing to a perfect lap ( in quali for example ) is one where you go purple in all 3 sectors and all of those are faster than your team mates

Thats the only measure, the rest is theory

You beat yourself and your team mate. That HAS to be the definition of maxing your performance out.


Monaco 2005 Kimi was purple every sector even over works Renault- he pretty much destroyed MS. FA and Montoya.


Really fascinating stuff! Almost transcendental. I would argue that Senna wasn’t describing a perfect lap but a beautiful one where he poured all that skill and love and anger into one circuit and it gelled for an instant and then was gone.


Everything about McLaren seems so perfect! I just fail to understand how they yet keep messing up!!!


That’s called very good marketing. LOL


I have to say this all hype about data and computer models sounds great and logical for engineer minded person… and I regard myself partly that kind of soul.

But the fact is McLaren has produced a car worth pile of[mod] Ok it might be just coincidence but I vaguely remember the car being said to be fast already before a single real life lap in the winter tests. This video was kind of freaking and opened my eyes.

Maybe McLaren have made the wrong call in a big picture. What if in some level focus on the team is too much in computers and data instead of best people and their intuition and human knowledge. Are they trying to be too far ahead of their time?

What about if the best strategy still is, sad but true for all you nerds, to put the guy in a real car on a real track and listen what he says about the car. And though you won’t get that many laps done, those laps are more worth than these Whitmarsh’s millions of simulation ones. Of course assuming you have a consistent skillful driver who has a good gut feeling and can do it day after day when needed in limited track time.

So not to make any critical decision without careful analysis of real human feedback never relying too much on computers. And face this same question everytime when either developing the car or making pitstop call during the race. It’s quite easy to make decisions and afterwards have a get-out-of-jail-free card in your hand saying, well that was what the computer said also. This is team level culture choice and consequently invidual level attitude choice.

Too much information may make you lost your focus. Human mind is easily lured to simple logic when the real world around might be more complex. When machined with the right brains human intuition can be more powerful than any computer model.

Would be intresting to know if top teams has in any level different strategies on this trust data or your guts approach?


Well, perfect as in at the physical limits I don’t think its possible (but maybe it gets very close).

However I have e little story shared by former Jo Ramirez from McLaren, 1988 season, French GP.

Prost went out, did his qualy lap, got back to the garage, got out of overalls and put on jeans and a sports shirt.

Jo tells him: “What are you doing like that? You still have 3 sets of tires, and there’s lots of time on the clock!!!”

Prost’s answer: “My lap was perfect; if he can beat my time, he deserves pole”.

Now, go check the results of quali France 88.

It really was a wonderful year. Prost was also more low key I guess :).

If you can catch the interview with Jo Ramires at SkySports, I highly recommend it.


And he did it again in Estoril that same year. Senna was not amused.


Yes, but I have no idea if at Estoril he put jeans and t-shirt.

I think it says mighty something of the confidence in what you just achieved to do what he did…

when in the exact same car there was also Ayrton, which is mightily good, esp qualy, at a time when there was no shortage of engines, tires, cars, whatever… no need to cut back, save, etc… it really was all out.

I wonder if we will ever see another 1988… Doubtful… already because it will be difficult that someone has such an advantage as McLaren had in that year + 2 best drivers by far!


I understand what you are saying.

I was coming more from the point of view of watching it for the sport as a whole and in historical terms.

Mind you, although I was a Prost and Schu fan for sometime (mostly because I liked their methodical approaches to the car setup/engineering side of it), I tend to watch and follow F1 for the fights and the racing. I like to do it as often as I can (obviously with much more limited means), but can really appreaciate the driving and fighting at the very top, as much as the work that brings it up :).

So, even years like 92 where Mansell trounced everybody, I really enjoy following it and watching the races, the driving, the engineering development race :).


Mind you, as a young Ferrari fan it was a very boring season! LOL

Actually I think I’ve got a picture of Prost dressed in “civilian” clothes during quali at Estoril 1988, in one of my old magazines, somewhere…

matthew cheshire

Interesting that MacLaren are so obsessed with data. Faulty data was Ferrari’s downfall over the last two seasons and MacLaren has lost its edge too.

Its easy to persuade yourself that a mountain of data must be a complete picture – especially if there is an overwhelming amount of it. Worse again if you hide behind it.

Because design is an art not a science.

Does Newey base all his decisions upon measureable factors?

I’d love to know what Lewis thinks of MacLaren’s direction. He obviously lost faith and jumped to a team that seems more focussed on people and experience. Didn’t he describe the Merc garage as a throwback to formula 3?

I think MacLaren would be in a better place if they got some dirt under their fingernails and threw the IT guys out of the boardroom.


“Because design is an art not a science.”

That’s not true, not in the sense we’re talking of here. This isn’t designing the next fashionable dress or an IKEA chest of drawers.

What makes a car fast is simply determined by the laws of physics and therefore directly related to how accurate your mathematical models and scientific experiments and measurements. And all that is data related. But what’s most important is having good understanding and intuition and to interpret all that data correctly and make good decisions.

The genius of Newey obviously doesn’t rely on him looking at results from an experiment or computer model and blindly following what the data suggests. But the good “design” as you might put it comes from the intelligence, experience and understanding to know what works, because no model can 100% represent reality.

I guess what I’m saying is that used correctly it definitely aids having all this data (and nearly everything in the world is data driven these days, we’re now moving into “Big Data”), but it’s important that you are the master and not a servant of the data. So you’re correct in the sense of it being important for all these boffins to be able to still work in ‘reality’ and not got lost in computer world!

Perhaps McLaren are suspect of this at times based on this year’s design decisions: “Yeah we’ve got a great 2012 car but this model suggests this type of aero is quicker! We don’t fully know how that aero package will interact with the car as a whole, but the numbers are pretty so let’s do it!”

Matthew Cheshire

I agree. I mean “art” as the intangible skill to produce more than the sum of the parts. MacLaren sounds like it expects to collect an overwhelming stream of data and then connect the dots.

How much data were they missing last year?

MacLaren have strong funding, unrivalled facilities and a world champion. Lotus have none of those once Kimi has gone. Yet there feels like a strong chance Grosgean will be the one on Vettel’s heels next year. Better Data??


First of all, All teams big or small uses data galore. I guess you’re not in this realm so have no idea how much computing technologies an engineer uses. In fact, all forms of mechanical/aerospace engineering uses tons of computing.

Secondly, Design is innovation that fits in the boundary of physics. Unless of course, you’re designing a computer game where there are no boundaries; then you can call it art. In the real world, You must respect physics. Newey always says, you might have a bright idea, but if it does not work. You simply have to be ready to drop it.

Finally, I don’t think the downfall of Mclaren in 2013 has to do with IT. I remember clearly that the team screw up Hamilton’s race time after time in 2012. Then they told Hamilton to reduce his paycheck. So he left (OBVIOUSLY). Then Whitmarsh and Button decided to preach Hamilton that he is making A BIG MISTAKE. Pfft! how lame can they get? Those events showed that the company is in a mess, it is no wonder they are terrible this year.


Became extremely nostalgic after watching that ice cool video (its production quality is undeniably epic)…then read the rest of the article and remembered why I come to this site so often.


Thanks. Spread the word!


James – do the new teams have the resources to have a similar “mission control” team back at their HQ to analyze the race in real-time? Or do they only have people on-site for the race.


Most teams have it now


In my opinion, there’s no such thing as the perfect lap. You can try different methods, combine them as you want and measure almost every variable in the car and track conditions that will take you near the perfect lap. But in the end there will always be some kind of unpredicted changes in the car, tyres, track conditions, etc. so called unmeasurable disturbances that makes you lose some time.

It’s just like quantum mechanics. The perfect lap is around some point, but you will never find out exactly where it is really and if you did it or not.

Please read the full Alan Henry’s Blog on McLaren website. It really takes you to the magic and pure talent of those days:


When Alan Henry says, about the race: “…Ayrton was pulverising the rest of the drivers, half a minute ahead of Alain, who was lapping superbly himself yet was nonetheless being utterly annihilated by the flying Brazilian.”, that’s a bit of an inaccuracy.

Prost got stuck behind Berger’s Ferrari at the start and couldn’t pass for over half the race. Once he did so, he duly set the fastest lap of the race. Seeing that, Senna increased his pace and that’s when the mistake came.

I mean, the stuff about Senna is fantastic and his qualifying performance was from outer space, but it’s very easy after all these years to get carried away and tell an over-romantic version of the actual facts.


It would serve you to either read a biography of Senna’s which would have details of the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix in it, or even easier look it up on Wikipedia.

Prost got past Berger on Lap 54 and immediately started setting fastest times. Senna, who had been cruising for some laps speeded up once more and they traded fastest laps with Senna finally claiming it with a 1m 26.321 lap.

Prost backed off and had settled for second, some 50 seconds behind his team-mate and it was now that Ron Dennis radioed to Senna to slow down.

On Lap 65, he lost concentration and collided with the barrier at Portier.

Senna didn’t crash because of going too quickly but because he had slowed down.


Good comment. It does get tiresome.

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