Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, September 19, 1996

Drivers or Mechanics: Who Makes the Cars Go Fast?

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
''In my day it was 75 percent car and mechanics, 25 percent driver and luck. Today it is 95 percent car. A driver can emerge in a good new car, become world champion, and a year later disappear to the back of the queue. Driving skill hardly counts anymore.''

Juan-Manuel Fangio, in 1983.


DAMON HILL is likely to become world drivers' champion this weekend in Portugal, yet he is having difficulty finding an employer for next season.

When team boss Frank Williams said he was dropping Hill for a driver who regularly finishes at the back of the queue, many fans wondered why.

The choice of Heinz-Harald Frentzen to replace Hill was probably based on Frentzen's past. When he drove in sports-car championships before Formula One, Frentzen was often faster than the driver Williams fears most: double World Champion Michael Schumacher.

Williams has a reputation for believing that his cars make drivers win, rather than the reverse. But his decision to change drivers suggests this is not entirely true.

Some team owners, like Ken Tyrrell, believe the driver makes a difference. Since Jackie Stewart drove his team to victory for the first time in 1969, Tyrrell has discovered and hired some of the best drivers, including Jody Scheckter, Ronnie Peterson, and Jean Alesi.

Tyrrell thinks four qualities can make one driver better than another. ''First, the driver's natural talent to be able to drive fast,'' he said in a recent interview. ''Some have it and some don't. Secondly, the desire to win. You would be surprised at the number of drivers who enjoy driving racing cars but the desire to actually win is perhaps lacking.

''Third, the willingness to undertake thousands of kilometers of testing. You can put some of that work out to a so-called test driver if you're just doing reliability tests, but if you're looking to improve the car, you really want your Grand Prix drivers driving the car and you want them to be wanting to do that.

''My fourth point is that, during the testing, his ability to communicate to the team on the way the car is performing is absolutely vital to improving the car.''

Analyzing what makes drivers fast has also occupied scientists in France since 1990 at the Institut Biomedical Sports & Vie. Among those they have studied are Alain Prost, the four-time World Champion, Olivier Panis of the Ligier team, and Tyrrell's test driver, Emmanuel Collard, who visits the institute twice weekly.

''We don't look at the driver as being simply fast because on one lap he can go faster,'' said Francois Duforez, the institute's director ''You have to be fast throughout a whole Grand Prix, through a season, and through a career.''

Good physical condition is the first priority, said Duforez, no matter what natural talent the driver may have. ''For a driver who is less-strong physically, after a certain time his line will start to widen, he will commit an error here, an error there, and that will make him lose time.

''Fast reactions to peripheral vision is extremely important, Duforez said. ''It is still being researched, but we think when they are capable of taking in peripheral information on the edge of the track, on the condition of the tires, while passing or being passed by another driver and then can deal with it very rapidly by a motor movement, either the foot or the hand, that this is excellent.''

But extra-fast reflexes are not always a good thing, Duforez said, as they can lead to overreacting, and accidents.

He said the third factor was psychological. ''It is necessary that these drivers have a very large capacity to surpass themselves,'' he said. ''And they must be resistant to stress and bad luck. They must also be sincere. It is a very important quality so that they may describe very well the impressions they have in the car; they mustn't mask them.

''You would think that a Formula One driver would have to be very aggressive and impulsive. But the top guys are, on the contrary, very self-controlled, very egocentric, very autonomous, and very attentive.''

Henri Pescarolo, a former Formula One driver who has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times, and who works with young drivers at the Elf race-car school, said: ''First, driving is a gift that comes from a certain mixture of chromosomes particular to that individual. Secondly, it's often a question of the psychological ability to climb the stages of a career. Some crack, some don't have the moral force, some don't have the spirit for the high level of competition.''

Also vital, he said, was the desire to work. ''For an individual who is very talented and who is strong psychologically, if he doesn't work a lot, he'll be passed by someone who works more. That's the technological aspect, setting up the car, working with the engineers, developing his capacity to analyze the car to make it evolve.

''In the top teams with cars and a technical team that are more or less equal, I would put it at 50 percent car and 50 percent driver.''

According to Craig Pollock, Jacques Villeneuve's manager, the contract a driver signs with the team is also of crucial importance. ''Take Frentzen and his teammate today, Johnny Herbert,'' said Pollock. ''Herbert is keeping up with, or going faster than Frentzen.''

He said that when Herbert drove with Schumacher last year in a Benetton, Herbert was considerably slower than Schumacher.

''It means that Herbert and Frentzen have like-equipment,'' he said. ''And it means that Herbert, when he was driving with Schumacher in the Benetton, didn't have like-equipment. Which gets back down to management, and how management negotiated the contract. That can affect a driver's career.''

Tyrrell disagreed. He does not see why a team would give a better car to one driver, although one driver may occasionally benefit from a last-minute development.

''So, if you looked on the performance of Schumacher and Herbert during the course of the season,'' Tyrrell said, ''whatever the average difference was in lap times, that's the difference between them.

''When Schumacher drove the Benetton it was a winner, and now he's not driving it, and it's not a winner.''

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