Over here in the UK we celebrated the day of the country’s patron saint, St George, on Monday. As per tradition, I toasted the dragonslayer’s legacy by stuffing myself with good old English fare and having rather too many real ales to wash it down with. As a result though, I ended up having what’s commonly known as the ‘drunk bar conversation’ (they’re always the best, right?) and the point of discussion was what makes a driver ‘great’ rather than merely ‘good’.
The subject was first addressed as we spoke about Jenson Button’s anger at the aggressive competition he faced in Bahrain from his new, young teammate Sergio Perez. If you missed the race, Perez, who had been comparatively quick all weekend, aggressively attempted a number of overtaking moves on Button, resulting in the two cars making contact twice. Perez eventually passed and went on to finish in a credible sixth place. The speculation revolved around whether or not Perez could become a great driver, or whether, like Button, he was good. Just not great.
So who of the current crop of drivers would be considered “Grade A”? Well for me I’d put Fernando Alonso, Seb Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and possibly Kimi Raikkonen in the top echelon. Up at the top of Grade B, or “good drivers” would come your Buttons, Webbers and Massas. Of course any driver in an F1 team would run rings around any of us on a track, but what are the top 5 non-technical qualities that separate the great from the merely good.
1 – Intelligence
All the true greats, from Fangio through Senna and on to Alonso have all been bright. Both in and out of the car they show an awareness and acuity that serves them well in a pressurized environment where the very smallest margins make the biggest differences. Intelligence is actually perhaps the factor that distinguishes the true greats from one another as well. The absolute ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ speed merchants such as Mansell and, in the current crop, Hamilton, drop towards the bottom of the pile of greats as their intellect is arguably not as developed. A speed merchant will drive hard all the time because they know no other way. A true great drives and thinks at the same time. The greatest exponent of this was Michael Schumacher – he had the mental capacity to think his way through the race and all its implications, and knew precisely when to go ‘balls out’ and when to rein it it a little. Intelligence can make a driver without the outright speed of a Senna into a great. Step forward Alain Prost.
2 – Single-mindedness
Back to our favorite topic of the moment. Call it single-mindedness, call it a brutal will to win, all the greats in the modern era have had this sometime unattractive quality to them. Whatever your moral position on what Sebastian Vettel did in ignoring team orders, his make-up dictates win first, answer questions later. Ask most observers who the two greatest modern era drivers have been and the first answers you’ll likely get will be Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. Never have two men so flagrantly bent and busted rules in their pursuit to win than those two. There was a very interesting discussion between Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve regarding Vettel’s behavior recently with Villeneuve extolling the virtues of ‘winning with honor’. Much as I agreed with both Jacques and Damon on the moral stance of the point, there’s a reason why neither of them could be put in the ‘great’ category. They weren’t prepared to cross that blurred line. The greats do.
3 – Teamwork
Great drivers tend to be part of great teams. If they’re not part of a great team they then build that up. Ferrari was in a shambles when Michael Schumacher joined in 1996. The name was still great, but the team hadn’t won a driver’s championship since 1979 or a constructor’s since 1983. Bringing Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn with him, the three contrived to turn Ferrari into the most successful team in F1 history. A team will naturally lean towards a great driver, usually through talent, sometimes through skilled political maneuvering, and then sometimes through circumstance. Mika Hakkinen’s near fatal crash of 1994 brought the team, and in particular boss Ron Dennis, closer to him. He rewarded their devotion with a double world championship.
4 – Talent
Obviously. But talent alone is not enough. Have their been great talents that have slipped through the net and not made it to F1? Careers stifled in the lower formulas or “wasted” in sportscar races? Quite possibly…..but that in the main will be because of……
5 – Money
Do you know if you could have been a great F1 driver? Really? If we all had the opportunity to race competitively in go-karts from the age of 4, perhaps there might be a latent Michael Schumacher in one of us. It’s entirely possible, of course. But the majority of us haven’t been fortunate enough to have the personal or family wealth to travel that particular journey. Consider that to run a season in GP3 now costs in the region of $700,000 – trust me, the greats tended to have a fair whack of money to get them going!
In other news we have another one of the much-appreciated by the teams, less so for the fans, three week breaks between Grand Prix. Next up is Barcelona and the first real chance for all the teams to bolt on new parts to either push them further forward away from the pack, or for the likes of McLaren to catch up. Many seasoned observers believe that the season starts “for real” when the teams get to Europe and it tends to be the case that the teams with the bigger resources are able to stretch their legs a little.
What to look out for? Well can Mercedes maintain their early season pace whilst finding a way to stop their cars eating rubber too aggressively. Can Lotus develop their car to allow Kimi a genuine shot at the title, over and above his relentlessly consistent delivery. Interesting times ahead for sure. Let’s see if anybody can cement their place in the pantheon of the greats…
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