In the second of our short series of articles on JA on F1 exploring the skill and technique of driving a modern Formula One car, Sahara Force India Chief Engineer Tom McCullough explains what marks our a great driver from a good one and explains what F1 teams are looking for when they hire a driver.
Tom uses the key F1 term ‘repeatability’ and it’s a concept that all F1 fans should take note of when evaluating the skills and performances of their favourite (and least favourite) drivers.
Formula One is almost unique as a sport in that its star athletes don’t have full time coaches whose sole focus is to improve their performance. The closest figures in F1 to the typical role of a football manager or a tennis coach are the engineers, the figures who walk a fine line between the technical aspects of the car and the drivers themselves.
Because engineers spend much of their time analysing their drivers’ performance, they have the best understanding of anyone in F1 about the skillset required to drive a car quickly – and what separates the also-rans from the very best, qualifying consistency being high on his list of priorities.
As Tom McCullough explains, from an engineer’s perspective there are several crucial traits that stand out – even when talent spotting for young drivers. “[We look for drivers who] listen to what you say and then act upon it and come back with the right questions,” McCullough says.
“The amount of (mental) processing power a driver has to be able to not only do the basics but also all the additional stuff – they tend to be the ones that really stand out. A lot of people can drive a racecar fairly quickly, but there’s not a lot of people who can do it consistently through tricky conditions weekend in, weekend out to get the most out of the car.”
But what is it that actually comprises driving a F1 race car quickly? After all, Formula One drivers all have the same controls at their disposal; throttle, brakes, steering. So what are the best racers doing differently?
McCullough suggests that, “the inputs are the same but the way they do it, the rates of their inputs, the manipulation and weight transfer of the car… fundamentally it’s their ability to manipulate a car to get round a corner as quickly as possible.”
Expanding on this point of ‘manipulation’, McCullough explains further, “when a car’s going in a straight line to when you’re exiting the corner it’s up to the driver to decide how much he brakes, how much he steers, the rates coming on and off all of those inputs, how much he starts to apply the power, the rate he applies it at to manipulate [and] rotate the car.”
“The harder you hit the brake pedal depending on your brake balance the harder you can rotate the car. The speed at which you manipulate the steering wheel affects the weight transfer rate. It’s all about the rate of input. As well as taking a steady state input that an ordinary driver would do, he’s playing with the weight transfer to load and unload individual tyres to help him rotate the car, ” McCullough adds.
Managing the ‘inputs’ as McCullough calls them is a supreme balancing act, juggling multiple sensory elements and processing decisions within fractions of a second to maximise speed through every corner. When these skills are allied to the complexity of managing the multitude of available functions on the cars, it’s no wonder that drivers and teams alike are keen to downplay any suggestion that modern Formula One cars are ‘easy to drive’ – irrespective of whether some of the physical challenge has been reduced.
“Every time you have a regulation change different bits become easier and harder,” McCullough concludes. “With the current cars, the ability to apply the power without damaging the tyres and the immense torque they have – that’s probably the biggest challenge. We saw several times in testing and even still now drivers having spins that they wouldn’t really have had in the old V8 engines as they didn’t have that torque.”
This idea of consistency is one that McCullough returns to as the key defining trait of what makes a great driver stand out. “[It’s] about every qualifying session, getting the most out of what you’ve got and then building on that in every race,” McCullough says.
Repeatability is something that McCullough maintains is constantly drilled into the drivers – ensuring they improve their consistency by learning from their mistakes. “What we really work with the drivers on is making sure they leave the track every day having learned something,” McCullough explains. “The good things or the bad things that happened to them – if they weren’t quick in a qualifying lap or in one corner do they really understand why? If they don’t, they’ll make the same mistake again.”
The link between learning and mental training and consistent performance is one that McCullough admits F1 has been slow to warm to. “Formula One has been quite late at getting into the importance of human factors training,” McCullough explains. “Not only the pure driving but the situation and awareness the driver has with operating at a high percentage of their ability all the time.”
In some instances, especially at the start of a driver’s career, teams will consult a driving coach to help develop the mental and technical facets needed for F1. As time goes on however, it tends to fall to the engineers in their role as de facto coaches to help drivers achieve the required consistency to perform at the highest level.
As McCullough clarifies though, consistency isn’t solely the ability to drive flat out on every lap. It’s as much a question of adaptability, with the disparate disciplines of qualifying and racing akin to the differences between a sprinter and a long-distance runner – and requiring distinctly variable approaches.
“Driving a car to the limit when it’s all about getting the fastest lap time on low fuel and new tyres tends to be the hardest skill,” McCullough says. “Getting to where that grip level is at its real peak, not going over the top of it. Understanding the tyre warm-up through the lap or degradation through the lap… it’s such an important [skill] as obviously your grid position defines a lot of your race weekend.”
“Come raceday [you need] consistency as the grip levels are a lot lower,” McCullough continues. “You tend to find you can train drivers to race very well, but it is harder to get drivers to drive fundamentally quicker in qualifying. There are more drivers out there who are fast on a Sunday than are fast on a Saturday.”
If consistency is king for McCullough, then it seems like adaptability, outright speed, mental fortitude, the ability to listen, asking the right questions and an innate natural sensory feel for car control aren’t far behind on the engineer’s wishlist for their drivers.
And people still think it’s easy being a Formula One driver!
What do you think of Tom’s views? How does your favourite driver stack up against these benchmarks? Leave your comments in the section below