Autosport (UK)

Intro and methodolog­y


These days in Formula 1, it’s generally harder to see driving style characteri­stics than you once could – certainly in the 1970s or the 1980s, and perhaps into the 1990s and 2000s. With every era of the championsh­ip that’s got more aerodynami­cs-dependent, it’s become a little bit trickier to see big difference­s.

In the 1970s, you could see huge variations in the way the drivers would unleash the cars. Jackie Stewart’s smooth inputs versus, say, the spectacula­r Ronnie Peterson. You could see a difference in pretty much every corner. Fast forward to the 1980s, and quite big variations in the way drivers used the turbo engines were detectable. Think Ayrton Senna with the anti-lag and the way he developed his throttle technique. There’s even a contrast into the 1990s, when aero was really starting to be a big performanc­e differenti­ator. But the cars were still much smaller, agile and edgy, and you could see the difference between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen.

Then there were the different driving styles within the same team – Jean Alesi, for example, compared to Gerhard Berger at Ferrari.

Over time, two things happened. The first concerns the Pirelli tyres coming in for 2011. Fundamenta­lly, the drivers all had to somewhat converge in their driving style as a result. With the Bridgeston­es and Michelins, or the Goodyears of previous eras, they were able to brake and lean on the tyres on corner entry. Particular­ly in the Bridgeston­e and Michelin tyre war days of the early 2000s, there was a lot of grip and support from the front axle. As soon as the Pirelli era arrived, that went away.

The other change is how the aero has developed. The modern cars are incredibly aero-sensitive – especially since F1 went to the much bigger cars from 2017 onwards. With these, drivers must be very careful not to slide them around too much. And the weight has gone up too, so as soon as a slight slide starts, or there’s even a little bit of movement, the pendulum effect of this extra weight must be countered. Any sliding also leads to overheatin­g these very temperatur­e-sensitive tyres.

This all means that the drivers are somewhat limited in their creativity, because ultimately race driving is an art form.

So much of driving in F1 nowadays is about getting the feel of the tyre and just trying to work it into a sweet spot and not overdo things. The drivers all must be so careful, even in qualifying, because the Pirellis don’t let you overdrive the tyre at all. And qualifying performanc­e also comes down to confidence. If a driver is not confident to lean on the car, the top times are just not going to happen.

For this exercise of assessing the varying driving styles of the current F1 field, the tyre management requiremen­ts and slower lap times over longer stints mean we’re concentrat­ing specifical­ly on a driver’s actions behind the wheel at full chat in qualifying (see page 19 for race driving style difference­s). To make our assessment­s, we’ve studied multiple flying laps from each driver of the leading crop across the 2023 season. We also checked each at different venues – particular­ly the requiremen­ts for fast, flowing tracks such as Suzuka, in contrast to the point-and-squirt, slower overall nature of a street circuit like Singapore. Onboard video footage makes up our primary study, but we’ve also used GPS trace data to confirm elements of what we’re seeing.

The main element for assessing each driver’s style is their approach to the corners. So much of the difference between why someone is quick, and why someone isn’t, really starts at braking and corner entry. This first phase of the corner sets it all up. The middle phase of the corner is all about settling the car, and the third and final phase is largely dependent on engine driveabili­ty, car traction ability and what tyre grip is available. You might see cock-ups and drivers wheelspinn­ing in the last two parts, but really the difference­s between one driver and another in a particular corner start when they first get on the brakes and initially turn the wheel. That sets up everything that happens from there on in: what line they’re on, and then the knock-on effect of that element, plus the speed they carry to the apex in the decelerati­on phase.

You can’t see a driver’s feet with onboard video, but you can judge, based on their hands and trajectory, how much they’re able to steer the car on the brakes. The balance of steering input and the way they load up a car under braking is a key part of what we’re looking at. Here’s what we make of the drivers from the top five teams of 2023…

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