Pastor Maldonado: A Diamond in the Rough

It was with a sense of bittersweet disappointment that I read of Pastor Maldonado’s likely replacement at Renault yesterday. Bittersweet because I would be relieved to see Kevin Magnussen make the 2016 F1 grid before his career goes the same way as those of other recent Formula Renault 3.5 drivers Antonio Felix da Costa and Robin Frijns. Disappointment because it could have been so much more for Maldonado.

Pastor_Maldonado_Kanada_2011

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I was always in the small minority who believed Maldonado to be a driver of underrated quality. In my opinion he had the potential to be a more than decent Formula One driver, a view that was vindicated by his 2012 Spanish Grand Prix victory. On that balmy May afternoon he achieved something that precious few “mediocre” (the kindest description of Maldonado I have seen) F1 drivers have managed to do. He beat Fernando Alonso in a straight fight.

In the face of immense pressure from a double world champion, Maldonado produced a flawless drive, successfully nursing his tyres and maintaining a strong pace until the chequered flag fell, and took a deserved victory. Yes his Williams was probably the quicker car, but against a driver like Alonso that isn’t always the advantage it should be. Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica and Jenson Button have all lost races to Alonso that their respective cars should have seen them win.

Just three races earlier Sergio Perez had failed to use his Sauber’s pace advantage against him in the Malaysian Grand Prix. With a simple DRS assisted pass seemingly all that stood between him and his first grand prix win and at least a second per lap in hand over the Ferrari, Perez choked, took too much kerb at turn 14, and lost around 6-7 seconds in the excursion that followed. It almost certainly cost him the race. Yes, Maldonado’s was a rare achievement, one that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Natural speed took Maldonado to the top step of the podium in Barcelona. It is his greatest asset, one that would often carry him into strong grid and race positions, like 4th place in Valencia in 2012, or 7th place in China in 2015, only to be squandered with a clumsy mistake. His propensity for error was always Maldonado’s biggest weakness, one that saw him ridiculed at best and reviled at worst. Some of the online disparagement verged on bullying and was referenced with disappointing frequency in Sky F1’s “fair” and “balanced” coverage.

Pastor_Maldonado's_crash_2011_Malaysia_FP2_1

“Crashtor” in action Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, the nature of “Crashtor’s” mistakes didn’t help. They were often absurd, like the pitlane entry lock-up that cost him that 7th place in China last season, or flipping Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber in Bahrain in 2014, but I always felt that his reputation preceded him and led to harsh judgement from fans, media and drivers (for example Bahrain 2014 was caused by a small error – one that Sebastian Vettel repeated in 2015 against Sergio Perez but with less spectacular results). Maldonado became a scapegoat, an easy target for blame in any incident that occurred near him.

Did hasmaldonadocrashedtoday.com care that his first corner exits in Australia and Abu Dhabi 2015 weren’t his fault? They were other people’s accidents, ones that he became an unfortunate victim of, but as he was involved they were readily attributed to him. Jenson Button even tried to blame Maldonado after he drove into the back of him in Singapore last year, rudely declaring him ‘mental’ on his team radio. He even tried to blame him for their collision in the Chinese Grand Prix, before admitting it was ‘just a misjudgement’ on his part, an excuse Maldonado would never get away with.

Whether his reputation is fair or not, it can’t be denied that without his mistakes, Maldonado would be close to the finished product as far as F1 drivers go. It is understandable that Maldonado made mistakes in his early career, but it is perhaps less forgivable that they continued to occur in more recent seasons. Why, after five seasons of F1, was Maldonado still as error prone as he was in his debut year?

2011_Canadian_GP_-_Maldonado

A familiar sight during Maldonado’s rookie season Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mistakes usually occur because of a lack of concentration or because of overdriving. In Maldonado’s case it seemed to be a combination of the two. Often he would ruin his race with a brief lapse in attention and make another mistake by overdriving in an attempt to make up for the first. His lost 7th place in China was a case in point: he was inch perfect for two thirds of the race but overshot the pitlane before his second stop and then spun his E23 trying to recover the lost time. That left him in range of the struggling McLaren Hondas of Alonso and Button, who then of course hit him.

Struggling to maintain concentration is a symptom of a driver massively out of his depth but I would be uncomfortable calling a driver who can brake as late as Maldonado untalented. To me, Maldonado was always a diamond in the rough. He was the kind of driver who could have a weekend like Spain 2012 and then go and completely disgrace himself at the very next race, as he did at that year’s Monaco Grand Prix. Over the course of a lap in FP3 he hit Perez at Portier and then crashed at Casino. Both were clumsy and unnecessary errors that cost him a combined 15 places on the grid – ten places from the penalty for the collision and five for the new gear box his car required after his accident – and with them, any chance of points. A self-inflicted first lap exit the following day was the icing on the cake. Still, he had drives like that grand prix win in him, and not everyone does.

However, he seemed equally unable to understand why he had delivered such a perfect performance in Spain as he was able to understand what caused his error strewn weekends, a problem which was reflected in his “improvisational” driving style. Like Felipe Massa when he first arrived in F1, Maldonado likes to aggressively dominate the car, especially in slow corners, and seems to rarely use the exact same line twice. While a year of polishing from Ferrari allowed Massa to consistently show his talent behind the wheel, a similar transformation has not taken place for Maldonado and therein lies his biggest problem.

Pastor_Maldonado_2013_Malaysia_FP2_2

Maldonado in 2013 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Most drivers keep improving after they reach F1 but Maldonado appears to be untrainable. It is notable that while he was happy to leave Williams at the end of 2013, they seemed to be equally pleased to see the back of him. A team can only take so much frustration before they lose patience. Maldonado came across as arrogant in his assessment of the situation, claiming ‘I delivered more to the team than they did for me’ and that perhaps speaks of his pig-headed approach to his development as a driver. Williams have enjoyed an upturn in performance since Maldonado left and together Massa and Valtteri Bottas have performed at a similar level, scoring a combined 577 points and 13 podiums over the last two seasons. Even as a staunch Maldonado defender, I cannot believe that he would have contributed such impressive numbers.

Diamonds are rare gems of significant value, but some come out of their rocks unusable. Perhaps Maldonado is one such diamond.

Who was the Rightful 2005 World Champion?

Rightful Champion?Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rightful Champion? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Whenever the topic of the 2005 Formula One World Championship comes up I’m always disappointed by the number of fans who agree that Kimi Raikkonen should have won the title that season. Just last week I saw a McLaren fan proclaim him the ‘moral winner’ on Twitter. That trope is rife in all of sport, the competitor who would have won if they weren’t thwarted by the cruelty of sport, but in F1, where the driver is often at the mercy of his own equipment and the behaviour of those around him, it is particularly common and sometimes, appropriate.

Whether that is true of the 2005 season is debatable. A glance at social media and online forums quickly forms such a narrative. In a recent survey 87% of Raikkonen fans – not known for their impartiality – claimed that the unreliability of the McLaren MP4-20 and general bad luck conspired to deprive him of the title. 59% of them also agreed that Alonso did not deserve his first world championship because he was allowed to “cruise and collect” race wins and podiums. That interpretation of the season is unfortunate because it does a huge injustice to what was a brilliant championship campaign from Alonso, and I can’t believe that a decade has gone by without anyone properly addressing this fallacy.

It is easy to understand the above frustrations. Raikkonen did lose the title as part of what is generally accepted as the fastest driver/car package of the year, but it is important to make a distinction between fastest and best. To be considered the best over a season a driver has to deliver in the three areas of performance by which they can alter the outcome of the season: pure speed, consistency of performance and driver reliability. How Raikkonen matched up to Alonso in each of these areas should be the real measurement of how much he deserved to win the 2005 championship.

Pure Speed

It goes without saying that to be world champion a driver has to be fast, but sometimes his speed can be the factor that tips a championship in his favour. When measuring a driver’s performance during a season we should consider his speed in both qualifying and races and how much that had an effect on his results.

2005 was undoubtedly Raikkonen’s finest season speed wise. Some of his high fuel qualifying laps were truly incredible, the most memorable being France where he set a time just 0.147s off pole with eight laps more worth of fuel onboard. Fuel corrected, he was around 0.7s quicker than Alonso’s pole lap, which even with the typically extraordinary track evolution of the Magny-Cours circuit considered, is quite a margin. However Alonso was by no means slow. It is true that Raikkonen qualified ahead of him 11-8, making him statistically the quicker driver, but the facts are nevertheless misleading. Often his own one-lap performance was blunted by the characteristics of the Renault R25, which struggled with tyre warm up. That and its general inferiority to the MP4-20 – which, as with many Adrian Newey cars, was in another league – meant the R25 was not the car to have in qualifying so Alonso’s performances were often underrated.

MP4-20 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MP4-20 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During his ITV commentary on the 2005 French Grand Prix, James Allen – well known for his appreciation of the less overt factors of F1 performance – pointed out that Alonso’s qualifying so far that season, with the superiority of the McLaren in mind, had actually been extremely good. ‘There’s been a bit of criticism of him in terms of his performances in quali, but when you go away after a race and you work out how much fuel he was carrying in the qualifying sessions, adjust the times for fuel, time and again Alonso comes out as having done the best job.’ Raikkonen may have been grabbing headlines, but that wasn’t because Alonso was slow.

The idea that Raikkonen was quicker than Alonso in 2005 is further undermined by their performances relative to their teammates. Raikkonen outqualified his three teammates (Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa and Alexander Wurz) 13-6 with an average margin of 0.364s, but was actually beaten 5-4 in races where he and his teammate both finished. Alonso dominated Giancarlo Fisichella in both areas, 14-5 in qualifying with an average margin of 0.725s and 10-3 in races. His dominance in the races and his average grand prix distance pace advantage of 47s strongly contradict the “cruise and collect” argument and illustrate how his speed directly enabled him to take valuable championship points.

It was this speed which helped him beat at least one McLaren in a straight fight on multiple occasions, most notably in Turkey where he split the dominant MP4-20s, and in China where – free of the reliability concerns that had shackled him all season – he took victory by four seconds from Raikkonen. This McLaren-threatening speed is what led to an average finishing position 2.6 places higher than Fisichella. That was usually the difference between the podium and fifth or sixth place. Had a lesser driver been sitting in the Renault R25, then Toyotas, BARs and Williams’ might have got between him and the podium more often and deprived him of all the points that came with it. It can therefore be argued that Alonso’s speed made more of a difference to the outcome of his season than did Raikkonen’s to his.

 Consistency of Performance

It’s useless for a driver to turn in just one or two great drives every season even if he can rely on the quickest car to carry him to the title. The world champion should be the driver that best maximises the car he has at every race, because then if bad luck does cause him to lose points he can at least be sure that he couldn’t have done any more to change the outcome of the season.

That Raikkonen’s 2005 speed gained mythological status helped to obscure the idiosyncratic inconsistency which hurt his performances during the year. It was the early rounds of the championship which put Raikkonen on the back foot in his challenge for the title and that was almost entirely down to him. In Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain he just wasn’t quick enough and he had a familiar excuse – he was struggling with the front-end feel of his McLaren and losing time on entry to corners. McLaren worked hard on new suspension geometries to fix the issue, but until then, the inherent pace of the MP4-20 was plainly hindered by its driver’s failings.

He was particularly bad in Bahrain; slower than his fill-in teammate de la Rosa in both qualifying and the race, he only made the podium from ninth on the grid because of his car’s innate speed and the retirements of Nick Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher. It might have looked like a good save but he should have achieved a better result than third place. A prospective world champion should never be the weak element of the car/driver package.

The 2014 season should have ended the Alonso/Raikkonen debate but some still insist that the Raikkonen of 2002-2006 would have beaten Alonso last year. They argue that he was somehow different to the Raikkonen who later drove for Ferrari and Lotus, but his early 2005 form is proof that he has always lacked the ability to get the most out of a car that required him to deviate from his natural style. The only difference is that in more recent times he has been without the car to cover his inadequacies.

A good indication of how well a driver is using his car can be found through comparison to his teammate and as the season wore on, and more and more suspension solutions were cast aside, Raikkonen became increasingly fallible in the intra-team battle. That was most notable at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the race where Alonso secured the title. It was a must win race for him but Raikkonen was no threat to Montoya, who led him and the new world champion home ten years ago today. It was the last in a sequence of races where Montoya could justifiably claim to be the quicker McLaren driver. After easily outpacing him in six of their first seven races together, Raikkonen was slower in four of the next eight. If being slower than your teammate is the definition of failing to get the most out of the car then Raikkonen did just that five times.

In total, Raikkonen had eight weekends where he arguably didn’t get the best result available to him and that is too many for a championship campaign especially when your rival has none. Martin Brundle made a pertinent observation during his ITV commentary that season in defence of Alonso’s perceived run of luck during the summer. He believed that Alonso, and not Raikkonen, was showing all the signs that he was a worthy champion – speed, mental toughness and consistency: ‘He delivers every weekend, all kinds of different race tracks, conditions, dramas.’ He can’t be criticised for doing nothing wrong.

Renault R25 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Renault R25 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In eighteen races, Fisichella was never really the quicker Renault driver, especially in race conditions. Although Alonso was beaten three times by him on track, it was not for lack of performance. Twice he was hindered by rain in qualifying – starting 14th in Australia and 16th in Japan – while Fisichella, making rare top three starts, enjoyed a clear run ahead. He was given another free pass when Ralf Schumacher assaulted Alonso at the first corner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, who then had to complete a lap without a front wing before making an unscheduled pitstop.

Hungary was also unusual as one of only two races Alonso finished off the podium, the other being Monaco where he suffered with a badly timed safety car and poor tyre compound choices by his Renault engineers. Although disappointing, that result was somewhat miraculous because his rear tyres became almost useless in the race’s closing stages. Mark Webber, who passed him for third, said he saw him almost crash several times and Alonso agreed that the result could have been a lot worse. With perfect judgement, he managed to walk the line between speed and conservatism and lost only one position, eventually finishing 4th, 1.1s ahead of 8th placed Barrichello.

His otherwise constant presence on the podium besides these two unavoidable hiccups, is the clearest evidence that he was far more consistent than Raikkonen. It would have been acceptable for Raikkonen to have one or two races where he didn’t get the best out of his car – everyone has off weekends – but he did not and that was in great contrast to Alonso. Each weekend his level of performance was in another realm to that of his teammate and that made the difference in the championship. That relentlessness, which would later become Alonso’s trademark, means he easily wins this category.

Driver Reliability

In a just world, the driver who makes the least mistakes would always win the world championship. It proves his skill and is a measure of his ability to deal with pressure. As with consistency, a driver can have no grievances about bad luck or reliability if he can’t perform reliably himself. If he missed opportunities to score points then he can’t complain about points lost to bad luck. The 2008 season is a good example of how frustrations with reliability are misplaced if the driver squandered points with errors. People say that Felipe Massa would have been champion without the engine failure in Hungary and the pitstop issue in Singapore which cost him two clear race wins. While that is true, it is also indisputable that he could have punished the error prone Lewis Hamilton if he had been perfect himself, but he was not. Massa blew at least 16 points with mistakes in Australia, Malaysia and Japan. Ultimately the blame for losing the title by one point falls to him because he didn’t succeed in the areas that he could control. Rare is the season where a driver can justifiably believe that he could have done no more in his pursuit of the title.

2005 was no different. A world champion should be expected to make no more than one or two errors a season but Raikkonen made five. The first was a simple one that could not have come at a worse time. After suffering the same misfortune as Alonso in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, Raikkonen cancelled out his right to be aggrieved about that by stalling on the grid. That turned a 10th place grid slot into a pitlane start and that, combined with a sloppy race drive where he damaged his car running wide at Turn 1, deprived him of a likely third place. Retirements ahead of him allowed him to take a point away from the race but it could have been so much more. By contrast Alonso, who started back in 13th, drove a clean race and took third place, the maximum he could have hoped for after his qualifying trouble.

In Bahrain, a race where he should have challenged Alonso, Raikkonen squandered more points with a Turn 14 lock-up in qualifying which turned a probable second row start into 9th on the grid. His car was quick enough for third place even with another untidy race drive but that only leaves more questions about where he could have finished if he’d started where he should have. It may sound finicky to criticise small qualifying errors but if you want to beat the best in the world at something then you must be close to perfect. A good start to the season is essential for a strong championship campaign and Raikkonen lost between twelve and eight points with avoidable mistakes in two of the first three races. In the old points system that was already a substantial gap to recover.

It was another lock-up that lost Raikkonen all ten points in the European Grand Prix. Fans often try to count this as one of the wins he lost to pure bad luck but the suspension failure that sent a horrified Raikkonen straight on at the first corner of the penultimate lap was completely avoidable. It was a direct result of the particularly malignant flat-spot his lock-up inflicted which caused the brutal vibrations that eventually broke the suspension.

This race is often cited as an example of Alonso’s “cruise and collect” mentality that season but it can just as easily be seen as a parable for the counter intuitive nature of the “win it or bin it” philosophy that is so celebrated by racing “purists”. Raikkonen was under no threat from Alonso and had no need to be pushing as hard as he was when he locked-up lapping a backmarker. It was immediately clear that he had inflicted no ordinary flat-spot and pitting to change the tyre seemed like a logical course of action. Despite having a sufficient lead to stop – which he could do under the force majeure rule – and re-emerge in second place, he chose to risk trying to make it to the end of the race. It didn’t pay off and instead of minimising his self-inflicted points loss, Raikkonen lost another ten in the title race. Had he chosen to “cruise and collect”, then he would have saved himself eight points.

Alonso’s 28s deficit to Raikkonen in Belgium is another oft cited cruise and collect weekend, but what is not as well documented is that, as in Monaco, he did well to finish in the circumstances. That weekend the underpowered Renaults were running low downforce in order to have some hope of competing on the long straights of Spa-Francorchamps and so were twitchy and difficult to drive, a problem further exacerbated by the rain that came on race day. It was why Fisichella crashed spectacularly at Eau Rouge and after surviving a big moment there Alonso decided to pull back his approach and settle for second. It was either that or crash. This was Alonso assessing the risks and delivering what was necessary for his championship – a skill Raikkonen failed to use at the Nurburgring.

Alonso spent all of 2005 defending his lead Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Raikkonen spent 2005 chasing Alonso
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Raikkonen also threw away victory with another bad qualifying performance at the previously mentioned Brazilian Grand Prix. A major error on his one and only lap left him down in fifth, and gave Montoya plenty of breathing space in their exclusive battle for victory. It meant that Alonso sealed the championship on a day that illustrated what had ultimately separated them that season. Alonso had been guilty of just one mistake all season – albeit a silly one which cost him victory in the Canadian Grand Prix – but Raikkonen’s fourth of the year added two more points to his total lost to his own mistakes. Can Raikkonen really blame reliability for his 21 point deficit to Alonso in the championship when his mistakes cost him at least 22?

 The Question of Bad Luck

It is only fair to sympathise with Raikkonen on this front. He did suffer an unusual amount of misfortune during the season. Eight individual incidences of bad luck, beginning in Malaysia and ending in Japan, cost him two wins and around 35 points. In the purest interpretation of that statistic, yes, he would have won the title without that bad luck. However that argument is too simplistic. It ignores the fact that everyone is affected by luck – Alonso lost 18 points to bad luck too – and has led to a lot of misperceptions about Raikkonen and Alonso’s differing fortunes during the season.

Good fortune plays a big role in all sports. A good result requires a number of factors to be pulled together by that draw string called luck. Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfect free kick technique won’t count for anything if a sudden gust of wind sends an accurately hit shot off course. Equally, it won’t help the goalkeeper if that sudden gust comes too late for him to change his positioning and he concedes a goal that he would otherwise have covered. Luck definitely exists in the descriptive sense – there are some events that just can’t be explained by any other force. It is the factor most outside of drivers’ control, although studies have shown that lucky people can have some hand in generating their good fortune. That idea definitely applies in F1 where the concept of making your own luck holds up in some instances as in the case of Alonso in 2005.

Nobody could accuse Alonso of lucking in to his San Marino Grand Prix win for example. Raikkonen was unfortunate to lose an easy win at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, but to suggest that Alonso didn’t deserve the victory instead is to admit that you turned off the TV on lap nine of the grand prix after Raikkonen pulled his MP4-20 onto the white clovers that lined the track. Nobody who watched the subsequent battle between Alonso and Schumacher would deny that Alonso had to fight for his win.

On that day, Schumacher’s heavily upgraded Ferrari F2005 and its Bridgestone tyres – working better than the Michelins in the cool spring of the Apennine Mountains – was simply the best package on the track. Alonso’s Renault was further hindered by his engine which had been damaged by sand during the Bahrain Grand Prix and so was heavily detuned. The car wasn’t fit for the purpose of defending against the powerful Ferrari V10 of his adversary and yet for the final suspenseful twelve laps Alonso barely gave Schumacher a sniff.

Schumacher tried every trick he had to find a way past but Alonso was immaculate, his car positioning as frustrating for Schumacher as it was enchanting for everyone else. Schumacher attempted to get alongside several times but Alonso had every angle intelligently covered. Schumacher overtook Button as if he wasn’t there at Variente Alta, but Alonso recognised the danger and changed his entry line there, and at other corners he deemed high risk, to deter any passing attempts. He also slowed markedly through Tosa and Rivazza Two to gain precious metres in the following traction zones and make up for his lack of straight line speed.

Imola 2005 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Imola 2005
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This riveting duel, in which the protagonists were never separated by more than 0.465s, ended with Alonso ahead by only 0.215 as they crossed the line. His winner’s trophy was solid evidence of the brilliance of his defensive racecraft and was well deserved. Had he not driven as well as he did then he would not have gained the two points he did from Raikkonen’s misfortune. By the same rule, if Alonso hadn’t put himself into second place from third on the grid with a perfect first lap of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim then he wouldn’t have been the one to benefit from Raikkonen’s hydraulics failure. You make your own luck.

Ironically, considering the claims about his losing out to bad luck, Raikkonen was, by the protestors’ definition, “handed” five victories. His win in Canada could have easily gone to Montoya without a badly timed safety car or Fisichella without his hydraulics issue, his easy cruise in Hungary would have been to second place if Montoya had not been halted by a driveshaft problem, at Spa, Montoya would have been the clear winner if McLaren had not indulged in some very unsubtle race manipulation and it may be sacrilege to say it, but the good fortune that helped Raikkonen to take his greatest ever win in Japan was also what stopped Alonso from winning that race instead. (The reasons behind that claim are numerous and complex and are enough to fill a separate blog post). What this proves is that during the course of a season everyone has bad luck, and if we reverse Raikkonen’s bad luck then it would only be fair to reverse that of everyone else or it would be unrealistic.

I’ve already numerically demonstrated how Raikkonen lost himself the world championship but just to be sure I have adjusted the points to reverse all instances of bad luck. While Raikkonen gains more points than Alonso from this adjustment he also loses more points. He gained 14 points from other drivers bad luck during the season, four more than Alonso, which rather contradicts the general consensus of the season according to surveyed fans. The final standings are closer but still favour Alonso 140-137.

Conclusions

What the non-bad luck extrapolation emphatically shows is that while Alonso didn’t lose as many points to bad luck as his championship rival, he also didn’t waste as many or benefit from the bad luck of those around him to aid his relentless points collection. The adjusted points are by no means gospel. They’re as much conjecture as the claims they attempt to refute but what is fact is that Alonso made less mistakes than Raikkonen and unlike him, was devastatingly fast and effective every single weekend. It proves that Alonso’s detractors cannot hide behind the excuse that although the MP4-20 was the fastest car of 2005, it was not a championship worthy car because it was unreliable. Raikkonen had the fastest car and should still have won the world championship. If, like Alonso, he had got everything out of the only factor he could control – his own performance – then he would have done just that. The outcome of the 2005 Formula One season, where a driver took the title without the quickest car, is testament to the fact that it doesn’t matter how quick the car is, if its driver isn’t good enough, then it will not win.

Don’t agree? Tell me what you think in the comments or on Twitter. (@aggreracer)

Singapore GP Preview: The Rise of Marcus Ericsson

Ericsson during 2014 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ericsson in 2014 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Marcus Ericsson comes into this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix on the back of three consecutive points finishes. Since Hungary he has been 10th, 10th and 9th and while it may not look like much, it makes him one of F1’s current form men. It also strengthens his counter-argument to the opinion amongst fans that he is a mere pay driver unworthy of his place on the grid.

Before the Singapore Grand Prix last year I might have agreed with that assessment but it was at that race, one year ago, where he finally began to come good. An electrical issue hindered his qualifying and he started his habitual last but he finished the race as the leading car of the four back markers, holding off Jules Bianchi on old rubber for 15th. It was an eye-catching display and marked a genuine turning point in his season.

Before Singapore his stats – outqualified 10-2, outraced 5-1 – were not befitting of a driver who belonged on the F1 grid, but there was marked improvement thereafter. Ericsson only featured in two more races that season as he had already signed for Sauber when Caterham returned for the season finale, but he outqualified Kamui Kobayashi in both and delivered two impressive race drives, defeating Kobayashi in Japan. It was as if something changed in Singapore, literally overnight.

Holding off Bianchi in Singapore Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Holding off Bianchi in Singapore
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At the time, Ericsson attributed his good form to Caterham changing their use of their extremely troublesome brake-by-wire system. For almost the entire season they had problems with front and rear locking which were penalising Ericsson as he tried to gain confidence and command over his first F1 car. He was struggling for feel in the braking zone, which considering how much time an F1 car makes there, explains Kobayashi’s embarrassing average qualifying advantage of 0.842s. Tellingly, Ericsson said that it not only gave him confidence in the car but it was also mentally good for him, remembering “it was really great for myself as well to see that I could do it.”

During his 2013 podium run Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During his 2013 podium run Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ericsson has always been a confidence driver, the kind who performs well under his potential when he is not feeling mentally or technically comfortable but who is as good as anyone when he is. In GP2 – where he debuted in 2010 – he mostly struggled until late in the 2012 season when he took a feature race win at Spa. It transformed him into one of the season’s strongest performers and began a run of six consecutive points finishes that included two more podiums. The pressure of his 2013 move to reigning champions DAMS seemed to unnerve him and he struggled again, taking just one points finish all season until a sprint race win in Germany kick started a run of consistent points and four more podiums.

It can be argued that the same thing has happened again this year. Riding high on the back of his 2014 form, he made a reasonable start to the season but suffered a pointless dip between China and Britain. However, since Hungary he’s put together a string of three points finishes and has been comfortably the strongest Sauber driver in qualifying and races. He credits it to a change in his approach to weekends, where he now works hard on Friday to perfect his car set-up, something that is key for that all important confidence.

Once again he’s detected and solved his issues, found his feet, and now his confidence is beginning to snowball. What he has proved is that he is a strong willed driver, the kind who doesn’t lose interest and just keeps working, the kind of driver who deserves to be on the F1 grid. Let’s see if he can mark one year since he finally hit his F1 stride with another strong performance this weekend.

In Memory of Jules

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Even if the pessimist in me knew this was coming, it was still with great shock and sadness that I read at 2am last night that Jules Bianchi had left us. I have been a motorsport fan for a long time and have seen its true dark side before. I have faced up to and accepted the shock and horror of seeing drivers and riders die on the track, but this one cuts particularly deep. As well as being extremely shocked – because if I’m really honest then I have to admit that I was guilty of that arrogant F1 complacency, that 1994 evoking “F1 drivers don’t die anymore” attitude – I am also about as sad as anyone can be about the death of someone they never met.

I had a lot of personal affection for Jules. His was the first name I heard when I started following junior motorsport in my teens and from the moment I saw his picture in Autosport I was behind the shy looking kid from France. I read with delight about his championship win in F3 Euro Series in 2009 and always had my fingers crossed for him as he raced through GP2 and FR3.5. When he finally made it to F1 he was more than just another driver to me, he was Jules Bianchi, the guy I had been following since the beginning of his career.

My attachment to Jules was more than just sentimental though. Coming to know Jules Bianchi the racing driver was entertaining, and in him I saw all the attributes that I so admired in my current F1 heroes. Jules only made it as far as he did because he was a fighter, a warrior with a gentle smile that belied his serious determination.

I recognised his true nature the first time I saw him race live on the day of his maiden GP2 victory at Silverstone in 2011. It was a ferociously contested race with his old F3 rival Christian Vietoris on a drying track, and prompted a standing ovation from the grandstand I was sitting in at Farm. On lap 16 he pulled off two hair raising “repasses” at Copse and Vale which proved he had bravery, incredible racecraft and an unbreakable will to win. I wasn’t sure about it until then but as he came past in the lead on the next lap, having just put one of the most ruthless moves in GP2 history on Vietoris, I felt I was looking at a future world champion.

As I have outlined in previous posts, making it to F1 requires everything to come together and that certainly didn’t happen for Jules. He is one of those rare cases where we can say he made it in spite of everything. After his F3 success in 2009, everything that could go wrong for Bianchi did. Timing is important in a drivers’ career and it was certainly against Bianchi; not only was he trying to break into F1 at a time when opportunities were limited, but he arrived at ART – GP2’s preeminent team –when their period of dominance was just ending, and they failed to consistently challenge at the front of the grid. He struggled to distinguish himself in those circumstances and he was further hindered by a spine injury he suffered in a first lap accident in Hungary.

But Jules did not give up. The two years he spent in GP2 damaged his reputation but not his confidence, and in 2012 he challenged for the FR3.5 title with Tech 1 Racing. Without taking anything away from the rookie triumph of Robin Frijns, Bianchi was extremely unlucky not to win the championship that year. He did make mistakes, but a lot of the points he lost were out of his control, such as the 18 he lost to exclusion for an illegal car in Race 1 at Aragon and the bodged pitstop which lost him third place at Spa. After all that he could still have won the title at the season finale if Frijns hadn’t channelled his inner Michael Schumacher and dumped him in the gravel on lap 21 of the final race.

A dark 2012/13 winter was made worse when he was passed over for a race seat by Force India less than a month before the new season began. It was a huge snub after a year as their test and reserve driver. That set-back would have killed the career and the spirit of most young drivers but Jules kept pushing for his big break. Jules was the leading light in a generation of talented French drivers (Grosjean, Pic, Vergne) and yet he was the only one who hadn’t made it to F1. He was also the only one who could have made the jump from the dock to that ship as it left the harbour and that is what he did.

Finally his Ferrari backing, which had so far been a blessing and curse (Ferrari would never put a rookie/inexperienced driver in one of their cars like McLaren or Red Bull) came good for him and helped him secure a seat with Marussia for the 2013 F1 season. Ferrari’s unwavering faith in him during his difficult climb up the junior ladder – they are as cannibalistic and disloyal towards their young drivers as they are towards their F1 team employees – told us all we needed to know about Bianchi’s potential.

As was typical for Jules, his F1 chance had come in less than ideal circumstances. Racing for one of the back of the grid “new teams” is F1 purgatory. Normally a driver there will race until they run out of money as the paddock passes harsh judgement on their appalling results and pockets of cash, before kissing F1 and their dreams goodbye. But Jules was different, he was always destined to get out.

In his first season he embarrassed Max Chilton – his unfortunate teammate – outscoring him 17-2 in qualifying with an Jules Bianchi In F1average margin of half a second and out racing him 14-2. He also won the “back of the grid championship” with a best finish of 13th place elevating him above Chilton and the Caterham drivers. F1 changed a lot between 2013 and 2014 but Bianchi’s results didn’t and he continued to dominate his little arena behind the F1 midfield. The statistics weren’t everything though, there were plenty of eye catching results during his 34 Grand Prix career, but none more so than the day that will define Jules Bianchi and his legacy.

On May 25th 2014, Bianchi finished 9th in the Monaco Grand Prix. The two points he received were his and Marussia’s first and would prove extremely significant. When reminiscing about this result it is important to remember that it wasn’t just attrition that gave Jules those points. He left his mark on this race with exceptional speed, inch perfect driving and a ruthless and a brave overtaking manoeuvre on Kamui Kobayashi. He really earned those points and it was that 9th place and his Caterham toppling performances of 2013 which helped Marussia – who before 2013 had always propped up the Constructors’ Championship – survive as Manor today.

As I think about Jules’ family and friends, I will also spare a thought for his Manor colleagues. I hope that in his memory they will be able to continue to fight as Jules did to get to F1, while he was in F1, and in his final battle: right until the end.

Mythical Monaco Masters

Lewis Hamilton, Monaco GP 2011 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Hamilton, Monaco GP 2011 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Monaco is special. It’s different. There is no other circuit or race like it in the world. Over time it has gained legendary status and winning there, although worth the same amount of points as every other grand prix, means something more.

Maybe that is because of proximity. Proximity to the glamour that follows F1 around the world, proximity to the history of this sport, proximity to the barriers. Between those barriers, it is said, talent becomes more tangible. That is why there is such great reverence for Monaco Masters. They are the drivers who we regard as kings of the principality and by definition, virtuoso in the art of driving.

Past crown bearers include a triumvirate of multiple world champions and motorsport greats: Graham Hill, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. These three men proved capable of achieving the most difficult of feats – putting a brilliant weekend together on this the most challenging and mistake inducing of tracks – again and again and again. All are serial winners and all outqualified and outraced their teammates here at least 70% of the time. That is the criteria for being crowned a Monaco Master.

It’s a label that we use too liberally now. Its mythical status means that fans and media use it flippantly, judging more on Monaco Mastersopinion than fact. I decided to see how the records of the present day Monaco GP winners compared with those of the recognised Monaco Masters to determine where the crown truly belongs.

There was a time when every May Autosport would feverishly build up Hamilton and his impressive junior record at the track. Every year he would be expected to win because of the misconception that overt talent makes for the fastest driver around Monaco. It’s not black and white, but there is a certain style of driving which is rewarded more on the tight and twisty streets, although whether it is indicative of greater talent is up for debate. Being good at Monaco is more about bravery and confidence. It’s about being the kind of driver who, when the streets bite, bites back. Nevertheless it’s an idea that stuck, and Hamilton is considered a Monaco Master amongst F1 fans and media despite never backing it up.

His record at Monaco is underwhelming to say the least. He has only outqualified and outraced his teammates there 37.5% of the time – that’s completely inconsistent with his overall career averages of 64.86% (qualifying) and 59.43% (race) – and each of his four teammates did the double (outqualified and outraced) on him at least once there. His teammates have also won the race three times to his one (bizarrely lucky) win in 2008. Losing out to a teammate at Monaco does not automatically exclude a driver from the debate – both Hill and Senna lost a victory to a teammate there – but the fact that Hamilton theoretically had a winning car in Monaco four times and only delivered once probably does.

His record destroys the notion that talent is the only necessity for Monaco success. On the surface Hamilton has all the necessary attributes – talent, bravery, confidence – but perhaps it is not a coincidence that both teammates that beat him to victory here, Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg are regarded as more “cerebral” drivers. It’s notable that the basis of Alonso’s 2007 win – where he struggled under braking all weekend – was his acceptance that he would not beat Hamilton on pace and the strategy that he built around that. Hamilton’s swashbuckling style probably leaves less energy for mental performance than normal in Monaco, which may hinder the huge challenge of driving 78 laps with the intense concentration needed for inch perfect precision.

Monaco Records 2014Hamilton is not the only driver ruled out of contention by his record though. Jenson Button has the worst qualifying record of all the contenders, with 30.76%, and has beaten his teammate in less than 50% of the races. Sebastian Vettel, like Hamilton has seen his teammate win the race more times than he and has records that are completely anomalous in comparison with his overall averages. He has outqualified and outraced his teammates only 42.85% of the time, compared with 70.5% and 63.44% everywhere else. Raikkonen has failed to dominate his teammates here too with only narrow margins over them in both qualifying and the races (58.33% and 66.6% respectively). That leaves only Rosberg and Alonso, joint leaders on the current grid in terms of Monaco wins, in the running.

Alonso, who is underrated on the streets of the principality, has the best record of all the drivers. He has been outqualified only twice there, both times by Monaco specialist Jarno Trulli, and has also been beaten only twice in the race, once by Trulli, who won it in 2004 and by Massa, who he finished right behind, despite starting the race from the pitlane in 2010. That means his percentage record against his teammates is amazing – he is third behind Schumacher and Senna in qualifying with 83.3% and is the leading driver in the races with 84.61%.

The statistics are backed up by some mighty performances there in recent years. It is said that Monaco is a track where a driver’s skill and bravery can make up for the inadequacies of his car, and that would explain why he came so close to winning it in some pretty poor Ferraris. He was unfortunate not to win in 2011, and had the speed and durability on the super soft tyre to leap frog Rosberg and Mark Webber in 2012, but the approaching rain and Ferrari’s conservatism cost him the chance to go for it.

Most disappointing was 2010 where he looked inspired during FP1 and 2 and seemed to have carried that form into Saturday, until he crunched the Armco at Massenet during FP3. He was unlucky that what looked like a fairly innocuous crash irreparably damaged his Ferrari F10’s tub and caused him to miss qualifying while a new car was built up. This was truly the one that got away – his Senna 1988 moment – where the speed was coming so naturally that he relaxed and hit the wall. Had he taken part in qualifying few would have betted against and an Alonso pole and win.

That said, Alonso has been guilty of some pretty ordinary drives there too, most recently in 2013 where he was slow and too easy a victim for Adrian Sutil and Jenson Button at the Hotel Hairpin. He was completely overshadowed by Trulli in 2004 where he crashed out of the race and made multiple mistakes in 2008 which cost him the strong result his pace in the wet promised. Can a Monaco Master really have so many blots on his copybook?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His coronation awaits. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rosberg, who like Alonso has won the race twice, has made less mistakes than Alonso there which perhaps makes up for his slightly underwhelming qualifying record of 60%. His race record is much stronger – he is second to Alonso at 83.3% – and since finding himself in a moderately competitive car for the first time in 2012, has always been a race day protagonist. While his second win was controversial, beating a driver of Hamilton’s calibre two years in a row – a feat that Button could not match – is a worthy achievement.

If not a Monaco Master, he is definitely a track specialist who has the potential to become a master. To properly fit the criteria for coronation as Monaco Master, I think a driver needs to ascend the level of double Monaco winner and become a multiple winner. Winning again this season would put Rosberg into that category and beating Hamilton for a third year in a row would be another impressive item for his CV. The throne is currently unoccupied so if Rosberg is the first man across the line this Sunday then we can officially crown him F1’s modern day Monaco Master.

Spanish GP Preview: El Conquistador

Conquistador, Spanish for conqueror, refers to any one of the leaders in the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of America and Asia. They were responsible for some of the greatest land explorations in history and the discovery of a new world, a world which they conquered and returned to Spain from with gold and silver.

Carlos Sainz Jr  Photo: Willtron

Carlos Sainz Jr Photo: Willtron

This weekend three Spanish drivers will compete in their home race. Alongside the veteran Fernando Alonso will be the two rookies, 24 year old Roberto Merhi and 20 year old Carlos Sainz Jr. As Alonso enters the final third of his career, Spanish fans will be looking for a new hero to cheer and for the first time, they have two genuinely convincing prospects. Both Merhi and Sainz have shown enough talent and speed in their junior careers to be taken seriously as F1 drivers and the future of F1 in Spain looks to be in safe hands.

This is the first evidence of the work accomplished by Alonso, F1’s Conquistador. Alonso truly was the first, and so far only Spaniard to conquer F1. Every national record belongs to him (except for that of youngest Spanish points scorer, which belongs to Jaime Alguersuari), and has done for some time. By the time he arrived in Barcelona for his second Spanish Grand Prix in 2003 he had already become the first Spanish pole sitter, the leading Spanish points scorer and had the most podiums for a Spanish driver. By the end of that year he had also become the first Spanish grand prix winner and two years later was also his nation’s first world champion and its most prolific race starter. That he did it quickly was as much a reflection of how little success Spain had enjoyed in F1’s (then) fifty year history as it was of his talent.

If the conquistadors of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries discovered a new world for Spain then Alonso has done the same for the country in motorsport. Before him there was little Spanish tradition in circuit racing. Aside from the two Group C2 World Sportscar Championships of Fermín Vélez – one of a small generation of Spanish circuit racers in the mid-to-late eighties – there was no major success to generate interest. In Spain motorsport meant motorbikes and in Alonso’s home region, the rural and green Asturias, it was all about rallying. Indeed, five of his early karting rivals became regional and national rally drivers, a stark contrast to the assortment of future champions Jenson Button raced in Britain at the same time. Formula One was a minority sport in Spain even as Alonso made his debut in 2001. As well as minimal newspaper reportage and little specialist coverage, there was no television coverage of the championship that season and his parents had to watch his races on Italian TV.

Alonsomania in evidence Photo: Salva Mendez

Alonsomania in evidence Photo: Salva Mendez

F1 is now huge in Spain. According to James Allen’s coverage of the sports analysis company, Repucom, over 98% of people in Spain know who Alonso is. There are hours of TV coverage, pages and pages in newspapers and in the four years after Alonso’s first victory, more than 10 new specialist magazines were launched to meet demand for the sport. In 2003 250,000 people came to watch Alonso finish second in Barcelona. That number went up every year until 2007 and although the economy has seen crowd sizes dwindle in recent years, they are strong when compared with the pre-Alonso years.

The exposure Alonso’s success has brought to the sport has created a new motorsports culture in Spain. That is most evident in the karting world where in recent years, Spanish drivers have been increasing in number and quality. Young drivers are achieving success on the international scene, with Spaniards winning recent KF3 titles in WSK and CIK championships. It’s no surprise that a number of good karters are emerging from Spain as the national karting scene continues to grow. A great amount of investment went into the sport in the 2000s, and a number of new tracks were constructed including the CIK/FIA approved venues Circuito Campillos (opened 2005) and Zuera (2007). That and the increased number of competitors, and therefore larger talent pool, led Vroom Magazine to label Spain ‘the new karting El Dorado’ in 2008.

It is all in great contrast to the state of Spanish karting thirty years ago, when there were just a handful of purpose built kart circuits. When Alonso first began karting in regional children’s championships, most races took place on makeshift circuits in carparks and town squares with the track laid out with hay bales. The few proper circuits at the time were badly maintained, with no kerbs and crumbling tarmac. Alonso, his father Jose Luis, and other karting dads actually helped to construct a small karting circuit in Asturias just to give the kids somewhere to race.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Spain is producing more quality drivers now. When Alonso was growing up his nation’s motorsport heroes all plied their trade on two wheels. Ricardo Tormo had won his second 50cc motorcycle championship the year Alonso was born. When he was three, Angel Nieto – widely considered to be amongst the greatest grand prix riders of all time – won the last of his “12+1” world championships, and when he was seven Jorge ‘Aspar’ Martinez won his third 80cc title as well as the 125cc title. There wasn’t much to inspire a young Spaniard to venture into four wheeled racing, whereas the most recent generation have had the means – great circuits and teams – and motive – a Spanish hero to emulate – to do it.

It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen before. Prior to Emerson Fittipaldi there was no Brazilian tradition in F1, and German drivers weren’t always as common as they have been since Michael Schumacher’s reign. Ten years after Michael Schumacher’s first world championship win, the number of German drivers went up from 1-3 per season to 4-7 between 2004 and 2013. In 2010 there were seven Germans on the grid, while in the decade before Schumacher’s 1991 debut there were just seven German drivers in total. That was Schumacher’s legacy. When a country has a great sportsman in a discipline in which it has never before excelled, there is always increased interest in that sport. That leads to more participation and a larger talent pool from which more stars can emerge.

Roberto Merhi  Photo: Morio

Roberto Merhi Photo: Morio

In Spain there have been comparisons drawn between Alonso and golfer Severiano Ballesteros and the aforementioned Angel Nieto. There is an emerging Alonso-mania line, a point in time after which any Spanish racing driver born is almost guaranteed to have been inspired by Alonso’s F1 career. A driver who was around nine to twelve years old when Alonso brought F1 to the Spanish masses would have been born in 1991 or after, and no doubt inspired by his achievements. Both Merhi and Sainz fit that profile. Indeed, Sainz, who is the son of a two-time World Rally champion, has said himself that it was Alonso who inspired him to choose the open-wheel path that took him to F1. We should expect more post Alonso-mania line drivers to come out of Spain and make it to F1.

Alongside Merhi and Sainz, Spanish hopes rest with the promising Alex Palou who begins his debut GP3 campaign this weekend. He fits the profile of the post Alonso-mania driver. He was born in 1997, he comes from a non-motorsport family (unlike 90% of Spanish F1 drivers so far), began karting when Alonso was at the height of his success in 2006, and has enjoyed a career that shares parallels with Alonso’s. He won four Spanish karting championships and captured a couple of titles in international competition. In 2013 he received a Banco Santander Scholarship – something else he can thank Alonso’s career for – which helped him move into car racing last year with Campos, the team Alonso made his own debut with in 1999. He won three races on his way to third place in last year’s EuroFormula Open Championship and has been strong in GP3 testing. It remains to be seen if his recovery from a broken collarbone he suffered three weeks ago will slow him down, but all signs suggest he is a future Spanish star.

With three excellent drivers already promising much and likely more to come, maybe Alonso won’t be the only Spanish world champion for long.

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.