Musings on the Motoring World

Will racing spec cars reveal who the best Formula One driver is? Yes, and No

“Who is the best Formula One driver?” is one of those questions where everyone has their answer. But not everyone can come to an agreement. Formula One pundits, historians, and statisticians will usually name one of a few handfuls of drivers.

Fans, on the other hand, would prefer the good old gladiator treatment. Get all the greats together and slug it out in equal machinery on track. At least Sebastian Vettel would like to be part of something like that.

The Ferrari driver recently expressed his interest participating in a “spec race” as the Formula One circus returns to the Nürburgring after a six-year absence. Vettel believed that such a race would be a revival of the famous 1984 ‘Race of Champions’ event that inaugurated the circuit.

The original Race of Champions

For those too young to remember, the 1984 race is probably all schoolyard fights and pub debates made manifest. To inaugurate the new circuit, organisers of the race invited as many living Formula One world champions to participate.

In the end, the grid of 20 cars saw a total of nine world champions and Sir Stirling Moss. All drivers were to race in identical Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16. All of whom were beaten by an up and coming Brazilian rookie from Toleman named Ayrton Senna. Wonder what became of him?

If anything, a “spec-race” in the 2020 season would be a welcome relief for both drivers and fans. For fans, they will get to enjoy a gloves-off match between drivers. For pundits, it will be a test to see who is profiting off or being hampered, by the pace of their weekend chariot. Whereas drivers who are not Lewis Hamilton will relish at the opportunity for some wheel-to-wheel racing. Instead of becoming part of the weekend Mercedes-AMG 1-2 parade to the chequered flag.

Though many of the sport’s greatest like Niki Lauda, Moss, and Michael Schumacher, won’t be around to participate, a spec race today would still feature plenty of what many consider to be the sport’s greatest ever. A race with drivers like Hamilton, Vettel, Max Verstappen, Alain Prost, and Fernando Alonso would be a race of the ages.

Not answering the right question

However, will such a race today answer who the best in Formula One is? Not really. It will certainly answer who the fastest behind a wheel is. But the best? A spec race would be the wrong format to provide a convincing answer.

To see what I’m talking about, look at the results of the annual Race of Champions where racing drivers from all disciplines go head-to-head in identical cars. Despite participating in the pinnacle of motorsports, Formula One drivers only won six of the past 20 events. Rally drivers made the majority with a whopping win tally of 13 out of the 20 events.

The only Formula One champion to win the event was Vettel in 2015. Whereas Schumacher finished as the runner-up twice (2007 & 2009).

That isn’t to say that Formula One drivers can’t break the top ranks. Other Formula One drivers who have won the event include David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Heikki Kovalainen, and Romain Grosjean. Not exactly world champions, but they are known for their raw speed. And that is an important distinction between what makes a fast driver and what defines greatness in a Formula One driver

More than being the quickest

The job of piloting a Formula One car is one that demands supernatural skill and bravery. However, to push beyond the merely quick, a driver needs to possess a great amount of technical understanding and instinct. And that bit is important as much of what separates the good from the greats is their ability to optimise their cars.

A case study of what happens when a driver is given a car that wasn’t set up for him is already playing out at this weekend’s Eifel Grand Prix. With Lance Stroll falling ill, Racing Point parachuted Nico Hulkenberg in to fill in at the 11th hour.

The German ended up qualifying a distant last with a yawning 0.204sec gap to 19th place Kimi Raikkonen. A disappointing result from an experienced driver in one of the top mid-field cars.

It isn’t as though Hulkenberg is out of form. When he replaced a COVID-19 infected Sergio Perez for two back-to-back races at Silverstone, he qualified 13th and 3rd respectively. Though he was only able to finish 6th in the second race, with a mechanical failure ending his first race. Not great, but not as bad as a back-of-the-grid qualifying result.

Going by past performance, Hulkenberg’s poor result was an anomaly. But not entirely unexpected as he only made it for qualifying. In that context, it is probable that Hulkenberg isn’t sitting well with a car that has been optimised for Stroll.

Different by nature

Similarly, Vettel’s inability to stop his car from pirouetting at every corner and Leclerc resurgent form of late could be explained by Ferrari’s focus on reducing downforce in search of more speed from its underpowered engines. Ralf Schumacher believed that Leclerc came from a generation of drivers who are more used to working with less grip. A driving preference that Vettel has since been unable to adapt to.

Vettel’s situation isn’t all that unique. A difference in a car’s behaviour also explains Takuma Sato’s inability to convert his raw pace into Formula One results. And explains Daniel Ricciardo’s frustrations in being unable to pull off his signature late braking in last year’s Renault RS19.

The great optimiser

Nowhere is this relation between driver optimisation playing a part in winning more evident than Michael Schumacher’s performance. When Schumacher started his racing career in the World Sports-Prototype Championship, his bosses thought he lacked raw pace.

Instead, many saw that Schumacher’s teammate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, was the quickest off the bat. However, Schumacher displayed a steely resolve to go quicker coupled to a prodigious analytical ability. People who have worked with Schumacher believed it was this mental fortitude and capacity that made him one of the greats.

A sentiment shared by Formula One engineer Andrea Stella who worked with Schumacher and Alonso. Stella shared in an interview that he believed Alonso was the quicker driver. However, Alonso lacked Schumacher’s incredible ability to pinpoint the technical tweaks needed to optimise his car.

A different ball game

This technical ability is more prominent among Formula One drivers as there are hundreds of aspects that can be tweaked to their driving style. Each aspect can be an advantage or disadvantage to a driver’s individual preference in getting the car to work for them and eking out minute performance gains.

This focus and optimisation could explain why rally and endurance racing drivers perform better when racing similar race cars. Rally drivers are trained to think on their feet. Similarly, instead of being focused on one driver, endurance cars are tuned to accommodate the driving styles of a team of drivers. As a result, these two disciplines require more raw talent than technical optimisation and fine-tuning.  

Raw pace doesn’t mean greatness

As a spec race would require identical cars, it would only go to show who can drive the fastest. It isn’t surprising that a person like Senna could best the field. Senna’s supernatural pace is undeniable, but many believe he comes short of Prost or Schumacher’s calculative ability. Because of that, it is unsurprising to find Senna name atop the “fastest Formula One driver” list.

However, when one takes all the small nuances that determine a Formula One driver’s performance, the results are far more different. Like many things in the world, answering a simple question for a complex subject requires more than just butting heads.

All things considered, the question of who is the best Formula One driver is one that is never meant to be answered. Not only would it be impossible to wholly qualify a driver’s personal capabilities or circumstances that are necessary for success, but it is impossible to boil down the complexity of such a subject to a simple and quantifiable absolute. Attempting to do so, would be devaluing the allure and mythos that had made the sport so great in the first place.