Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, April 24, 1998

In Formula One, a Driver Needs Slick Skills Outside the Car, Too

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Formula One drivers do some of their most important work off the racetrack. The best drivers steer their teams as well as they steer their cars.

The Grand Prix circuit moves to Europe this weekend with the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola on Sunday. The McLaren cars have proved this season that they are the fastest in Formula One and yet the team is struggling to hold the initiative after being outfought and out-thought by Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari in the Argentine Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Schumacher showed, once again, that a great racer drives not only his car but his team too.

''We thought for a long time that the top 10 or 15 drivers in the best car were capable of winning a championship,'' said Bernard Dudot, a former technical director for Renault Sport, the engine supplier to the Williams team. ''We now know that it is more difficult than that and that the driver's role is considerable. And not just in having talent - knowing how to drive - but knowing how to be a stimulating presence in his team.''

For years, many teams, especially Williams, thought a great car was all that was needed, but it should have learned its lesson in 1994. It had the fastest cars that year and won the constructors' title, but Schumacher won the drivers' title in a weaker Benetton.

In Buenos Aires two weeks ago, Schumacher and Ferrari made all the right decisions at the right moments. They made two pit stops - while McLaren made but one. This paid off when Schumacher made his second stop on lap 53 while he was 20 seconds ahead of Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren. Schumacher pulled in just before running into a pack of slower cars who would have held him up. He came back on to the course just ahead of Hakkinen, as the Finn was himself slowed by back markers.

No amount of technological innovation can replace the role of the driver's rapport with the team. Formula One teams have between 100 and 250 employees (except Ferrari, which has 450), and the driver is the tip of the pyramid.

''More than a hundred people make the car,'' said Alain Prost, the Prost Grand Prix team owner and a four-time drivers' champion. ''And the driver has to be considered as part of that group. The driver doesn't just drive the car today.''

An example of team-driver cohesion could be seen during a recent Prost testing day at the track at Magny-Cours, France. For more than an hour, Olivier Panis, a Prost driver, sat in the race car with his helmet off and the engine silent, while a couple of mechanics pushed him in and out of the pits. This enabled 18 other mechanics to practice changing tires in a pit stop simulation. A good tire change takes about five seconds, and every extra second can lead to a place lost during a race. But all Panis did during this practice was press the brake and chit-chat with the mechanics. Anyone could have taken his place.

Christine Marquilie, a Prost spokesperson, said: ''It's really just part of solidifying team spirit.''

The driver must have a talent for describing to mechanics and technicians how the car feels, and they must have confidence in his judgment. Confidence and mutual respect are also crucial in developing a race strategy - what kind of tires to use, how many pit stops to make and when to make them - and in allowing split-second changes to that strategy during, or just before, a race. Schumacher won last year's Monaco Grand Prix after his own last-minute decision to go with a wet-race setup when most of the other cars started with a dry-race setup.

When bad luck comes - a spinoff, mechanical failure or poor pit strategy - the driver must accept it with grace, and show his team that they, and he, can take the pressure.

Henri Pescarolo, a former Formula One driver who now teaches racing at a school in France, said that psychology plays a key role both on and off the track.

''Schumacher certainly has superior driving talent than many others,'' he said, ''but also in his capacity to unify around himself a team, and to give it the desire to work for him. Being a catalyzer in a team is a quality that not everyone has.''

Last year, after Panis broke both legs in an accident at the Canadian Grand Prix in June, the Prost team was destabilized and their race results dropped. Before Panis had healed completely, Prost signed him in August for the next two seasons. So important was it for the team to know its future.

Similarly, Hakkinen suffered life-threatening head injuries in an accident during practice in 1995 at the Australian Grand Prix. But the team kept him, and he came back to take third place at the first race the following season. At the European Grand Prix in Jerez last year, the team, partly as a gesture of thanks, ordered the other McLaren driver, David Coulthard, to pull aside to give Hakkinen his first victory.

Hakkinen won the opening two races this season and finished second in Argentina, where Coulthard started from pole position. Coulthard led until he collided with Schumacher on lap six.

There is a danger in backing one driver over another, however. The second driver may be neglected and fail to garner enough points for the team to win the constructors' title, which is awarded for the most points totaled by both of a team's cars. According to Damon Hill, the former world champion and ex-Williams driver, maintaining good relations with one's teammate is not easy.

''It's like Tyson and Holyfield having to train in the same camp,'' he said.

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