The Contrasting Roles of an F1 Driver
The Belgian GP at Spa Francorchamps has always produced some thrilling races, overtaking moves and talking points, but this time around the post race media frenzy has reached staggering new levels.
A truly brilliant win for underdog, Daniel Ricciardo, has been hugely overshadowed by the events at Mercedes, but I suspect he, along with his Red Bull team, might be more than happy to take a back seat whilst the world focuses on the apparent impending self destruction of the World Champions elect.
It’s a situation I’m not unfamiliar with myself, having been in the McLaren garage during the tumultuous year of 2007, when relations between then teammates, Hamilton and Alonso, broke down completely during a season in which we enjoyed the rare luxury of having the dominant F1 car of the field.
Then, as now, the season began with smiles and mutual appreciation between the two, until it became clear that both drivers were equally matched in the car and both looked in with a genuine shout of the coveted Formula One World Championship title.
That title is the holy grail for F1 drivers, it’s the life long dream and something that the opportunity to grasp, presents itself to very few and on extremely rare occasions. It’s inevitable that, given a sniff of a chance, they’ll chase it with everything they have and won’t let go until they’ve got it. It’s probably the same philosophy that got most of them into F1 in the first place, but something that has very different implications in the sport’s premiere category.
In Formula Ford, Formula 3, GP2 or 3, or whatever else, the drivers are solely out for themselves and it’s the accepted way of the world. The cars, no matter if they’re from the same team or not, are all painted in individual liveries with their own personal sponsors and branding. The driver’s sole goal is to further his or her own career and more often than not, make it to F1. There is no such thing as a team order.
Effectively, in these lower categories, the race teams are being employed by the driver to provide them with a race winning car. That driver, their dad, or their sponsor (often their dad’s company or an associate) are paying the team huge sums of money, often their sole source of income, and as a result, teams are often left in a difficult position when it comes to imposing instructions on their drivers. They know they need to keep drivers happy, or the money disappears.
In F1, in the most part anyway, it works the other way. The teams hold many of the cards. At the front of the grid, they employ drivers on huge salaries, multi-year contracts tie them into global marketing campaigns and they become the next bit-part players in the sport’s Goliath-style heavyweight players. Many of the teams hold huge historical importance within F1 and are often owned by some of the worlds largest companies…the feeling is that no driver is bigger than the team and that they should essentially do as they’re told.
At the back end of the field, although a different financial situation, we still end up with the teams in the driving seat, so to speak.
Even though they may not have the wealth to pay huge wages, the historical success, or the corporate might enjoyed by some, they do still have a trump card to hold over the drivers in their cars. The F1 dream can only be realised if an opportunity to actually get into one of the 22 cars on the grid comes up. With hundreds of hopefuls working their way through the lower formulae trying to get there, the Marussia’s and Caterham’s of this F1 world, still have a large queue of youngsters desperate to do whatever is asked of them to get the chance. They may have to bring huge sponsorship packages with them, but they know if they don’t impress the team, there’s someone else waiting to pay for their seat.
The upshot of all this, is that the role of being a racing driver changes dramatically when you finally make it to Formula One, even though the determination, passion and desire for personal success doesn’t.
Every driver wants to win, no one wants to settle for second, although in this sport that’s exactly what can be asked of you by your team in certain circumstances.
As a driver, if you see a gap, even half a gap that might give you a chance of a win, or even more so, a World Championship, you want to be able to go for it, no matter who it’s against.
As a Formula One team however, the very last thing you want to see is your two drivers crashing into each other in a race. It goes against everything the hundreds of people within that team have worked towards, destroys your constructors championship challenge and can have huge negative impacts on the team’s marketing strategy. So you give clear instructions to your drivers to race hard and fair, but under no circumstances hit each other.
Nico Rosberg undoubtedly made an error of judgement in Spa that went down as a racing incident by the stewards. There aren’t many neutrals who would’ve liked to see either driver punished, least of all Lewis, but it would have surely been better for Nico if he’d just accepted he got it wrong, albeit in a racing incident and that he was just showing the sort of determination that Lewis has shown on so many occasions before.
When Hamilton drove through the field in Germany, colliding with three cars on the way in optimistic overtaking lunges, he and his rivals all escaped with minimal damage, but only through luck, way more than any form of considered judgement.
Some say the difference here is that it was team mates that crashed into each other, but the truth is that for both Lewis and Nico, they are no longer ‘team mates’, neither has even the slightest concern for the other’s fortunes and they’re the fiercest of all rivals out on track. There’s only one person most likely to stop either becoming World Champion and that’s the other one, so why would you not want to get past, wether it be lap 2 or lap 44?
The team, like in 2007, have a very difficult situation to deal with and they’d do well to remember that then, as now, there’s a guy not too far back, just waiting to steal the crown from the two squabbling ‘team mates’.