My Word:
Driving a dilemma, …or driven by one

April 24, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

A new race car is a compendium of promise and problems. Only the real world can reveal which predominates and chart the hoped-for realization of the designers’ vision. That route is either complicated or simplified by the other element now introduced to the mix: the driver.

The driver may, while simply standing there in his billboard suit, have the sort of talent and driving style that meshes neatly with the chance characteristics of this race car. Out of the box the car may fit the driver remarkably well or the driver is the sort that can overwhelm mismatches. Anyway the 2014 Renault RB10 and R­­­­ed Bull’s rookie Australian are off to a dancing start that delights almost everyone wearing the same logo—the designer, the engineers, the tire-changers, the crew chief. All…

Unless. Unless standing nearby in matching gear is a four-time world champion, the obvious Number One of the team. But his face is clouded by a puzzled frown, his jaw works slightly. The dance he and his all-but identical car are experiencing involves misheard melodies, trod on toes and a hitch in the rhythm.

You might recognize an imagined sketch of the Red Bull Formula 1 team with Sebastian Vettel and his new teammate Daniel Ricciardo. You might even think you know what has happened in 2014, like those posting their certitude on the internet. “I knew Vettel wasn’t that good. It was the car all those years.” “Ricciardo is making Vettel look silly!” “It wasn’t Vettel, it was the car.” ”It was the car.” Echoing off in the distance—“itwasthecar.” Oh, how Vettel’s non-fans are gloating!

My observations: at the least these people are premature in their judgment. Oh, they could be right, but most likely for the wrong reasons. And only a scant few of them have any real understanding of racing.

Ah, I am claiming more understanding than these ardent folk? Yes, I am. Long ago before there was a known Internet and Formula 1 racing was accessible to the few journalists frequenting the scene I was there. Close up. Watching, listening and talking to the principals over dinner.

First, I’ll tell you one thing I learned from that experience and from my own time racing sports cars. It is never “the car” or “the driver.” It is both. And before you brush it off with a brusque “of course” let me add: it is the car and the driver in a more interwoven manner than many are likely to imagine.

As illustration let me relate a story about when Dan Gurney came to Europe to drive a factory Ferrari. The photograph alongside these words shows Dan at a practice session at the Nurburgring. Phil Hill is interpreting to him what Team Manager Tavoni—blocked from view by Phil—is saying. Dan has just taken a few laps of the ‘Ring—it was Dan so they were impressively fast laps. But Tavoni is frustrated. He has asked Dan what would he like done to the car, what would he like changed. Dan has said, in effect: “Nothing. I like it. It’s fine.”

Phil Hill and Dan Gurney at Nurburgring

Dan had come bursting out of California, loaded with as much native talent as anyone was ever likely to see. He could climb into anything with wheels and drive it as well or better than anyone else could dream of. He was beating internationally experienced drivers. He was making headlines and it was clear he was going places. I later wrote in my paper Competition Press that obviously he would be America’s next champion. (I got it right; it was history that goofed.)

But here he was brand new to Europe and was in some odd way disappointing Ferrari’s team manager because he liked the factory’s car. What was going on?

Phil later told me that Dan was in effect too good for his own good. ”He can adjust to work with a car’s quirks and get a great performance. “That’s fine for the level at which he has been racing, but not on the international scene.” At the top, drivers were expected to work with the mechanics and engineers to adjust the car to compliment the driver’s style, augment his strong points and thus reach a performance level of car and driver in synergy.

Phil had come quickly to that understanding but had made a different mistake, “I’d tell the mechanics what they needed to do to fix a problem.” He laughed. That had broken some code of each to his own specialty. “I learned to tell them exactly what the car would do when I did this or that and what I wished it would do instead. It was like playing charades, but they came to see in their own way what it was I wanted. They did it and we were all happy.” Especially after Phil learned to do that not only in Italian but in Modenese, the local patois. They loved that.

Dan soon realized that as good as he was he was even better getting his race cars tweaked to suit his better self rather than dealing with what the car presented to him. He became so good at that he built his own race cars with admirable successes. (He even learned to adapt champagne to his unique preferences. It was Dan that began the now universal habit for race winners to spray the world with bubbly instead of ingesting it.)

Sebastian Vettel

But back to Red Bull and this year’s trials of a champion. Sebastian Vettel perhaps is less inclined, or perhaps even less able than his competitors, to adapt to a car’s flukes and foibles. (Clearly Ricciardo has had a smoother time of it this year than Vettel.) Historically Vettel has been extremely sensitive to characteristics of his race cars. Some will recall the struggle he had when blown diffusers were banned for 2012. (Thus, in brief, decreasing the downforce.) Mark Webber, the then Aussie teammate, had an easier time adapting than did Seb. But then something else came along and once again the downforce was more to Vettel’s liking and he was driving happy again.

The new V6 turbo cars are as short on downforce as they are on ear-punishing sound. I was wondering which drivers would have trouble with that. I was surprised that Vettel was one of them because I had watched in awe a truly supernatural performance of his in the rain last season. But maybe a general absence of grip, a friction-free swim in effect, is a different coping problem than rather sudden changes in slip angle front and rear can be.

RB10

Whatever it is about the RB10 that makes Vettel uncomfortable and makes him drive in such a way that tire wear becomes a problem etc. it is something he is aware of, unhappy about and is trying hard to figure out. As is the entire team. (Except maybe a clam-happy Daniel Ricciardo.)

Does being so dependent on getting your car to match your driving style make you less a driver than one who can adapt easily to whatever he is driving? If that adaptability makes you collect more points then the answer is yes. But it’s the season-end point-count that matters. Let’s wait for that.

No doubt the process of reworking a car to mesh with the driver takes time, precise communication between the driver and engineers and real-world testing. At this point though testing is racing so time is tight. But the result in the long run is more dependable and more successful. Four championships mean something.

It will be exciting if the Red Bull team can tailor the RB10 to Vettel. It may be character-building for Vettel if they can’t. And he has to change his style or flounder. Can he do that? Either way it behooves us all to watch the process and not jump to judgments too soon.

In the meantime are you not enjoying Hamilton and Rosberg, those “star” teammates, as well? Formula 1 this year, in spite of its goofy green notions, is mighty entertaining though I will be glad when it gets back to a time zone more compatible to my Mountain Time. (I refuse to watch racing in anything but real time.)

Am I, after all, as intransigent as Vettel?

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