Insight: How do you drive an F1 car? Part 2 – The Engineer’s view
Posted By: Will Saunders  |  06 Jan 2016   |  1:20 pm GMT  |  25 comments

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.

Sergio Perez

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.

Tom McCullough, Nico Hulkenberg

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.”

Force India

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

Sergio Perez

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Wow! The modern F1 really has to be the next thing to a cyborg.

Now I understand Maldonado better and why his car is the closest thing an F1 car can be to a lawn mower or submarine. Some are not cut out for the job.


This was a great two-part series. I’d like more of this kind of insight.


Totally concur this is a great series of articles! Would love more like this in the future.


Just finished reading your season review James – Very good read and thanks again 🙂


Engineers get to work on the car almost 24/7 perfecting the car and their own abilities with the highest level of technology known to man. Yet race drivers have 2.5 days every 2-3 weeks and are expected to be near perfect. I think the sport has suffered an immeasurable amount through limited testing because that was what bought the engineers and the drivers in greater sync for so long.

I echo Andrew M’s sentiments above about an effecient testing program after each GP – perhaps less than a day on the Monday for drivers and engineers alike to resolve their issues immediately rather than “unravellling” via telemetry and data later.If we want to humanise the sport more this has to be a big consideration and making it more accessible to fans in this process will certainly add value.


Awesome series of articles!! Love this kind of insight, and would love more of it 🙂


And yet in spite of this, the FIA still push for less and less testing. How on earth are drivers meant to hone these skills except for race weekends which can potentially ruin their careers if they make just a few mistakes. It’s basically expecting them to be perfect and nail it the minute they get to the top rung.


The teams these days have sophisticated simulators that do a good job of recreating what it is like to drive an F1 car.

I know it is not the same as driving an actual car but I believe they are getting better and better.

An analogy with football would be the training pitch. The exercises and drills they do are not the same as in a match (specifically having to perform under pressure) so they have friendly matches in the off season, this could be seen as the same as testing.


Great point. F1 is very strange in that it is the only sport where the athletes are expected to be perfect (I’d even argue that the expectation for perfection is higher in F1 than other sports), and yet they practice less than they compete. It’s the only sport in the world like that. In any other sport, for every hour of competition, there’s at least double the amount of time spent practicing.

It must be incredibly difficullt to drive at the limit, and take risky maneuvers, knowing that your career may constantly be on the line.


Precisely. No one with authority seems willing to use common sense either. To me it seems obvious to go testing where they race AFTER they race when there is a 2 week gap. They could potentially make money off it too by charging some nominal fee for fans to come watch or maybe make it free and allow potential fans to come watch and generate interest. Somehow I’m sure there’s a way of going testing more easily when the expense has mostly already been spent like say 3 days at the US GP or wherever. I just don’t see any logical common sense arguments for increasing testing. The same old mantra is something along these lines -‘oh the cost of flying to Jerez every few months is enormous’ etc etc and yet no one questions why they choose somewhere like Jerez on some dedicated mission rather than a few days at Silverstone after the GP and a few days at other tracks after each race. It’s frustrating the lack of conversion on this topic.


bs sells more in some countries than others..


Great couple of articles James!


I would be interested to see an engineer’s series, sans driver, very limited regs, just to see how quick a lap a car could theoretically achieve.


No doubt Engineers spend time on Simulators. Any info on whether they “race” their drivers? And who wins?


Isn’t that what the new Formula E support series for autonomous cars, , starting in 2017, will be?


A few years before he died, Senna wrote an excellent book called “Ayrton Senna: My principals of race driving.” It’s an illuminating insight into the secretive world of high speed motoring at the limit. Senna’s insights border on Freudian or Jungian in terms of their depth and intellectual deepness. Senna’s obsessive compulsive attention to detail is particularly revealing in his preparation and psychology chapter. Nothing, absolutely nothing was left out in Senna’s approach – even down to his eyebrows.

Perhaps that’s what distances good from great: that eternal quest for the perfect corner, the perfect lap, the perfect race.


Similar to Schumacher in his prime.

Always to go faster, searching for a better lap.


That book is one of my prized book possessions!! Brilliant!


I’ve got that book. I dip in and out when setting a car up on racing sims. Worth a lot of money i noticed now too


It’s interesting that many if not most coaches have participated in the sport at high level. All F1 engineers have never driven an F1 car at the limit. Which has to limit their understanding of their machine, no?

Perhaps Newey is as good because he has that deeper understanding of actual competition and driving high performance machines?


It dosn”t matter if he has driven a F1 car as all performance cars are exactly the same when driven to the limits, all of the same talents apply, in fact a slower car is harder to drive fast and at the limits sometimes! Understanding the forces and reactions of the car is more important when setting up a car. A lot of drivers do not have a clue what the car is doing and or why it is doing it so then the engineer is better than a driver in that type of situation.


engineers see data …and can deipher it. Thats why they’re good and that’s why they dont have to drive the car to know whats its doing and what its capable of.


Well Goodwood isn’t exactly a great learning curve. Driving around with millionaire owners & ex Saloon drivers in vintage stock racing garbs & lilac overalls.Forgot to mention ex Top Gear & 5th Gear presenter Tiff Needell racing around in a Jag D type or similar racing car.

Newey probably has a better understanding of a Rugby line out. Than F1 competitive driving even though he owns a Gold Leaf Lotus (yes I’m jealous, that car is the dogs dangle berries)


Newey just knows how to work air better than most people – the fact that he has crashed a few vintage race cars has little to do with it 😉


So Newey is Neo?

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