Barriers to Success – An Introduction

Talent. It’s perhaps the most intangible of all human qualities. It is immeasurable and undefinable and it’s no different in Formula One. In a sport where everything is measured, monitored and computed, it is still impossible to quantify talent. Some say it is the great unknown that separates the good from the great. Yet more recent theories argue that it doesn’t really exist at all, that talent is just a meaningless catchall term to describe something too multi-layered and complex to understand.

If those two opinions are the extremes then my own thoughts fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I believe that there is a certain kind of talent that balances the fine line between success and failure in F1, but it’s not necessarily pure driving talent. That is an idealistic notion that ignores the multitude of performance determinants. As Derek Daly put it in his excellent book Race to Win: How to Become a Complete Champion Driver: ‘There is no real magic to becoming a champion’.  I think that about 90 per cent of all top F1 drivers – the kind that would make The Aggregator – are blessed with extremely similar levels of that sacred quality, and that the tightrope of success – by which I mean achievement of potential and/or world championships and/or media acclaim – is suspended by a number of other factors.

The first, and most obvious, is opportunity. If a driver never gets the chance to express his talent to the fullest then naturally he will under achieve. Lack of opportunity might mean never getting to drive a fully competitive car. That is the current predicament for Nico Hulkenberg (44th) who few doubt could compete with and beat the best if he ever gets to race them. It could also be argued that it was the main hindrance in the career of Giorgio Pantano, who came out of karts as a prospective motorsport legend, but never made an impact at the very pinnacle of open-wheel racing.

It took a long time for Pantano to secure a potential Formula One opportunity, and in 2004 when that chance did come along – with Jaguar – he had it cruelly snatched away from him by the Red Bull backed Christian Klien. He ended up in the unenviable situation of driving for Jordan that season. His dream F1 opportunity had come, but at the worst time. Jordan were a team in financial trouble and Pantano was in a constant struggle to provide the funds they demanded. Adding to his difficulties were the technical challenges posed by the extremely uncompetitive EJ14 and the fact that 2004 – the height of the tyre war – was not the year to be learning the ropes. Pantano sympathisers would argue that it wasn’t an F1 opportunity at all and that he was always going to fail in those abnormally adverse circumstances.

Robin Frijns. Too Arrogant? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Robin Frijns. Too Arrogant? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

More recently, the meteoric rise of Robin Frijns has faltered in an even more dramatic manner. After a decent karting career he enjoyed a junior career better than those of Hamilton, Alonso or Vettel. (Ironically it is most comparable with Hulkenberg’s). He won every single-seater category he entered at the first attempt right up to Formula Renault 3.5 in 2012. After that he tested for a couple of F1 teams and his ascension to the premier class seemed inevitable. But it didn’t happen and now he is racing a world away from Formula One, for WRT Audi in the Blancpain Endurance and Sprint series.

There is a strong case for any of the three to be the biggest waste of talent of the 21st Century. You can find people throughout the motorsport world who will tell you that ‘[insert Frijns, Pantano or Hulkenberg here] had the talent to go all the way,’ so there must be a reason why they did not succeed. Perhaps it is bad choices or management. Should Hulkenberg have left Force India at the end of 2012? Perhaps the momentary loss of career momentum it caused is what tipped the balance in Raikkonen’s favour in the race for the 2014 Ferrari seat? Should Frijns have said no to the reputed offer to join the 2013 Red Bull Junior Team? Should Pantano have listened to his (anti-Briatore) advisers and refused to accept a contract with Benetton in 2000?

Or maybe their respective unsuccessful F1 careers can be attributed to the drivers themselves. Frijns is widely reported to be arrogant and he supposedly upset Sauber by refusing some good GP2 drives for 2013. According to reports from Dutch media Monisha Kaltenbourn felt he was out of touch with the financial realities of F1 and showed contempt for both Sauber and his competitors. He was eventually released by the team before the end of that season. I found it interesting when I read these stories in 2013, because the previous year I sensed this perceived arrogance in a televised interview on Eurosport.

 It wouldn’t be the first time a driver has been undone by his attitude problems. Pantano was himself accused of arrogance during his attempts to climb the F1 mountain. Amongst the criticisms levelled at him by the F1 teams with which he tested were claims that he was too conceited to learn about the many technical complexities of F1. It is true that if he’s talented enough then technical apathy might not catch a driver out before he reaches F1, but it certainly will after that. And what about Hulkenberg? Well there may be some problem with his driving, or his attitude that we are yet to understand. Who knows?

Antonio Felix da Costa Photo: António FC

Antonio Felix da Costa Photo: António FC

If a driver is lucky enough to get his opportunity then it can only be he who is to blame for any failure to succeed. A recent example is the career of Antonio Felix da Costa. Why did he not make the step up to F1? He got the opportunity that his FR3.5 rival, Frijns did not. He was a Red Bull junior and after competing with success in FR3.5 in 2012 all he had to do was continue that momentum in 2013 and he was certain to get a promotion to Toro Rosso’s F1 line-up. That was widely expected to happen, and some thought it might even take place before the end of that season. But, partly due to bad luck, and partly due to underperformance, he failed. He won just three races all season – less than in his part campaign in 2012 – and was a distant third in the championship.

His talent didn’t let him down. This was the same driver that ended 2012 with an aura of invincibility after winning races in GP3, FR3.5, and the Macau Grand Prix following his mid-season recruitment to the Red Bull Junior Team. A driver that Trevor Carlin felt was ‘as good as Vettel.’ It was as if he reacted badly to the pressure of needing to perform in 2013. Perhaps Helmut Marko saw a driver who didn’t have the necessary psychological make-up for Formula One. How could he be expected to fulfil his potential in Formula One if he couldn’t even deliver when the chance was dangling in front of his face?

Talent didn’t stop his fellow Red Bull junior, Jean-Eric Vergne, either. Not long ago he and Daniel Ricciardo were trapped in the midfield together in a duel for the attention of Red Bull Racing and their shot at the big time. For a long time neither really distinguished themselves, with the only real difference being their relative qualifying performances. Vergne, a recognised qualifying master in his F3 days, seemed to struggle more with the need to deliver a lap when it mattered but made up for it with slightly superior race pace and racecraft. Given how Ricciardo later subjected Sebastian Vettel to a heavy defeat in that regard, we can infer that Vergne’s talent was as good as any of the F1 front runners. And yet, while Ricciardo enjoys his well-earned role as RBR’s new talisman, Vergne finds himself out of F1 at just 24.

Jean-Eric Vergne testing prior to  his doomed F1 career Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Eric Vergne testing prior to his doomed F1 career Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It seems odd that two drivers who were so evenly matched across two seasons of racing – Vergne scored 29 to Ricciardo’s 30 points – could have experienced such differing fates, at least until we consider the details. Why did Vergne struggle in qualifying? Perhaps the requirements of contemporary F1 qualifying didn’t suit his style – all aggression and improvisation – compared with the technically perfect Ricciardo. His alleged tendency to try to rely on his talent rather than work on the car to squeeze out every last tenth of performance, as did Ricciardo, can be construed as laziness and that was one of the whispers coming out of Toro Rosso after he was dropped in 2014. His reported failure to take his work seriously may have been what stopped Red Bull from ever considering him for promotion.

Laziness and mental weakness were just two of the accusations levelled at Giancarlo Fisichella during his long and varied career. It is hard to believe it now, but before 2005 Fisichella was one of the most highly rated drivers in F1 and was expected to be a good challenge for the young Fernando Alonso when they teamed up that season. He had spent almost ten years waiting for a good car but once he had it he completely failed to use it. After winning the first race of the season he took only two more podiums, while Alonso collected 15, and ended the season with less than half of Alonso’s points total. How could F1 observers have been so wrong? Surely the gulf in talent between the two drivers wasn’t that big? Maybe it was. Or maybe it really was laziness, or mental frailty, or some other problem that stopped him from taking the fight to Alonso.

I suspect the latter is true for Fisichella and almost any other driver that has failed to fulfil the potential his talent promised. Every now and then Fisichella would have a race that reminded everyone what he was capable of but he couldn’t do it consistently and that was the key. When asked by Autosport to describe the difference between the good and the great in F1, David Coulthard responded: ‘The highly talented probably wouldn’t be able to explain to you why they’re so consistent, they just are.’ Here he indicates where the drivers that fail are falling short. It is not because of a lack of talent but because of a failure to consistently access the full depth of their talent. They put barriers in the way, normally in the form of a mental, physical or technical deficiency that they could easily correct if they identified it. Fisichella was one such example; only when he was able to perform without these barriers – be it weakness under pressure or a lack of work ethic – did Fisichella have weekends like Hockenheim ’97 or Spa ‘09.

These career affecting barriers are, in my opinion, an extremely interesting facet of Formula One and something that I intend to explore further with some drivers profiles from the Aggregator top 100. Starting with Giancarlo Fisichella, I will assess a chosen driver’s career and try to identify what those barriers were for him. Hopefully it will allow me to test my narrow talent margin theory and come up with a definitive conclusion on whether or not it is just talent that can stop a driver from achieving success.

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