Features - News Feature

AUGUST 1, 1997

How to win F1 races


Every driver in Formula 1 is fast and yet only handful of them are ever able to win Grands Prix. Winning is not just about speed, it is something which requires a variety of different talents in a driver.

Every driver in Formula 1 is fast and yet only handful of them are ever able to win Grands Prix. Winning is not just about speed, it is something which requires a variety of different talents in a driver.

There are almost always reasons why things go wrong and more often than not the driver is the key.

A fast driver may push his car too fast and cause it to break. He may take took many risks and crash. He may not be able to find the correct set-up to make the car easy to drive. A top driver, therefore, needs a combination of different talents: he must be intelligent and able to understand the mechanical side of the car and the strategies; he must be in the right team at the right time and so must be able to do the right deals; he must be dedicated and must really want to win and he must be mentally tough enough to soak up pressure and cope with difficult situations when things are not going well.

Most of the F1 drivers possess some of these abilities but just occasionally one comes along who has it all. Then you get a real star: an Alain Prost, an Ayrton Senna or a Michael Schumacher. They always find their way into the best machinery and so tend to remain at the top as long until they lose motivation. Getting into this position is not easy - even if you have a car which you can win you races.

"It is a question of chemistry," explains Jacques Villeneuve - currently struggling to get all the elements together at Williams. "Within a team you have got to have understanding and trust. It is pointless having the best car, the best engineer, the best of everything if they don't all work together."

There is little doubt that the Williams-Renault FW19 is the most competitive package and yet Villeneuve is not leading the World Championship.

"Even if you are perceived to have the best equipment," says former Williams driver Damon Hill, "you still have to get the best out of it. You have to deliver the goods and it's just not that easy."

Damon proved at the recent Hungarian Grand Prix that you can do everything right and you will still not win races. He had surprised everyone by getting his Bridgestone-shod Arrows-Yamaha into a dominant position in the race and was only three laps from taking the chequered flag when there was a hydraulic problem, which meant he could not use the throttle and the gearbox. He was stuck in third gear and had to motor round to the finish. By the time he got there Jacques Villeneuve, who had been half a minute behind, had got past him.

"You just cannot control these things," Damon said later. "I am really pleased to finish second but I have mixed emotions. I would love to have won this race - but second place is a good result nonetheless."

It was an unexpected result for the team, which has been struggling this year. Hill reckons that the performance in Hungary will be a big boost to the team's morale. That will have an influence on the confidence of everyone involved and that will make the team work better in the future.

It should always be remembered that Grand Prix racing is a team sport and, as such, requires much more than just a quick driver. If you put Michael Schumacher in a Minardi he might be impressive but he is not likely to win any races.

Hill learned the value of a good team working at Williams and also learned from a series of great team mates: Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna. Damon was a late starter in F1 and he reckons that this is another reason why he has been able to win.

"Throughout my career I have been surrounded by people who have dreamt about nothing else but being in F1, since they were six years old. That was not the case for me. I started racing a lot later than most people and I think my age worked in my favour. I didn't feel the same pressure and I didn't make mistakes you make when you are younger."

A good illustration of this is this year's Jordan team. Hill decided not to join Jordan and so the team found itself with two inexperienced drivers in Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. So far this year Jordan has had two chances of winning a race: in Argentina Schumacher looked like a possible winner but drove into Fisichella, delaying himself and putting his team mate out of the race; in Germany Fisichella was in the lead and made a mistake which allowed Gerhard Berger to pass him. It was a failure under pressure, typical of a young driver.

One has to ask whether Jordan would have won both races if Hill had been driving for the team. Schumacher and Fisichella will probably learn but it will not bring back the lost chances for Jordan.

The ability to learn is an important part in the formation of any great driver. Ayrton Senna always used to say that you never stop learning.

Mark Blundell never made it in F1 but is now winning races in CART. He reckons he learned a lot when he was McLaren's test driver, working with Ayrton Senna.

"I went to a few races and was lucky enough to listen in on debriefs with Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger," remembers Mark. "I saw how they operated which meant that I could draw on their experience. They have been racing at F1 level a lot longer than me and they knew some of the pitfalls. There were technical problems they had been through with other cars so I could pick their brains. I also learned a lot about how to manoeuvre in and around a top team. I learned from Senna the principle of making sure you are quite comfortable with what is going on around you and also how to put demands on people in key areas to make sure the job gets done. The idea is not to complain but to be constructive.

"You cannot walk down the road and buy experience like that."

Johnny Herbert is another man who has not won as much in F1 as people thought he might, but he is still learning and still trying to get all the right elements together.

"For years people were saying I had the potential to win and that I would make it to the top but I didn't actually win a race. I did not get the chance to prove myself."

Eventually he joined Benetton - alongside Michael Schumacher - and won a couple of races, although only after those ahead of him had dropped out.

"One of the things I noticed about Michael - and it was the same with Senna before him - was the dedication they have for the job. Michael analyses absolutely everything and I have to work hard to do the same to make things happen for me. You must always remember that Michael is only human. People often spoke about Senna being unbeatable but Michael proved that was wrong and one day someone will prove that he too can be beaten."

David Coulthard agrees.

"Schumacher was never invincible but he is bloody quick. The first 10 guys out there are all quick drivers. What makes one exceptional at any one time is the fact that they have everything together: they are strong, they are fit, they are confident in themselves and they have no doubts that the team is confident in them. Those sort of things make a difference. If they lose that confidence in any way that is reflected in their lap times."

Confidence is a vital part of the whole package and that can only come from the knowledge that everything is being done to make the car work properly. It is something which Eddie Irvine feels comes from being able to test a lot.

"Driving the car in testing not only gives you the confidence you need ," he explains, "but it also provides you with a physical work out and, more importantly, keeps you mentally sharp. It is important in Formula 1 to be mentally stronger than the rest."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen has often been accused of being too relaxed about life and not being tough enough. This year he is having a frustrating time with Williams but is showing that he can be tough. In Hungary, for example, he had the confidence and the strength to go his own way on strategy. He used harder tyres and so did not qualify as well as he might have done but this meant that in the race he was able to mount a stronger challenge and might even have won had he not run into mechanical trouble.

"It was looking pretty good for me," he explains. "I was very happy with my strategy and I would have been able to push right until the end with the tyres I had chosen."

But he never got that far. The central part of the refuelling coupling - which is spring-loaded - came undone and was catapulted out of the Williams. This meant that the car could not be refuelled. Someone at Williams has to take the blame for that failure. It was not a question of luck.

No matter how much you analyse everything, however, there is no question that luck does play a role in F1. There are some drivers who never seem to have things go their way. Jean Alesi has won only one race in his career - an inherited victory in Canada in 1995 - but there have been four or five occasions when the Frenchman was in a commanding position in a race and had his car fail beneath him. Jean says one has to accept such things and adopt the right mental attitude.

"I am a professional driver and I have to do my job at the maximum," he explains. "It is not always easy because it is important for a man to have satisfaction. And for me to get the satisfaction I want means getting results. But experience has taught me that what you have to do is improve all the time - little bit by little bit - and not keeping starting everything from new. No winning is a disappointment but you have to be positive."

Luck can work both ways, of course, as Olivier Panis has proved. He drove a brilliant race to win Monaco in 1996 but was only there on the top step of the podium because Damon Hill and Jean Alesi had retired from the lead. This year Panis was in a better position than ever to win races and after the Argentine Grand Prix Olivier remarked that: "I am now convinced that we will often be up there fighting for victory in 1997". A few races later he crashed and broke both his legs and is currently out of action. His winning car is going to waste.

The secret of winning in F1 is, therefore, not a secret at all - it is just a question of finding a driver with all the right skills - and just a little bit of luck!