Formula 1: Making the No. 2 drivers count

Formula 1: Making the No. 2 drivers count

Formula 1

Formula 1: Making the No. 2 drivers count

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Red Bull Racing is about to replace its “second” driver, and maybe Ferrari should do the same. Edd Straw explains how the formula for the perfect No. 2 driver has changed through the eras. 

Quiz the average Formula 1 team principal about their philosophy of driver pairings and you usually get variations on the same theme. “We want the best two drivers available,” is the clarion call. But historically, it has rarely been that straightforward and very often the status quo has been better-preserved by a number one/number two arrangement. It might come as a surprise to learn that only six times has anyone dared to pair two drivers already with world titles on their CV.

On four occasions, McLaren has tried it with mixed results: Emerson Fittipaldi/Denny Hulme (1974), Alain Prost/Keke Rosberg (1986), Prost/Ayrton Senna (’89) and Jenson Button/Lewis Hamilton (2010-’12). Ferrari fielded Alberto Ascari/Giuseppe Farina in 1953 and Lotus ran Jim Clark/Graham Hill (PICTURED LEFT) in 1967-’68. Even taking into account the fact there are only 32 drivers who have won the World Championship, given the sparsity of top seats over the years, it’s an astonishingly rare phenomenon. A little more common are pairings of an established star and a future champion, but the dynamic there is usually very different and, as McLaren learned in 2007 with Fernando Alonso and Hamilton, that can turn sour fast.

Clearly, merely signing the best two drivers available is not what it’s all about. Either that, or the definition of “best” has become so loose as to be meaningless. But given how close grand prix racing is today and the reliability of the machinery, carrying a number two driver in the conventional sense of the word is becoming an obsolete modus operandi.

Take Ferrari as an example. Alongside Alonso (a driver who, for all the recent ructions with his employer, remains a topliner you can stake your mortgage on) we have Felipe Massa. The Brazilian’s frailties in post-accident trim are well-documented and the suggestion that Ferrari can win a constructors’ title with him at the wheel of its second car is laughable. He is simply too erratic. Yet there remains a serious possibility of him remaining at Ferrari in 2014, even though his presence also compromises Ferrari’s championship chances.

Not convinced? Look at the numbers.

MASSA vs. ALONSO 2010-’13, points

2010: 144 to 252 (57.15%)
2011: 118 to 257 (45.9%)
2012: 122 to 278 (43.9%)
2013: 67 to 151 (44.4%)

Not only does Massa’s scoring rate weaken Ferrari in the teams’ championship historically, the second driver needs to net around 63 per cent of the team leader’s points to win that but it actually hurts Alonso. Last year, Massa took points off Sebastian Vettel just once, while Mark Webber did so to Alonso six times. Vettel won the title by three points. Go figure

As well as the sport becoming increasingly competitive, with small time gaps separating the frontrunners, reliability also places a premium on performance. Some 30 years ago, a good safe pair of hands who didn’t make mistakes and was kind to the machinery could be relied upon to bank good points. But simply making the finish is no longer enough. This year, the top three in the championship have retired only eight times (three each for Ferrari and Mercedes and two for Red Bull) and only five of those were not down either to driver errors or a team blunder in the pits.

This is what makes it so difficult for top teams. Take Red Bull, for example.  Webber has been a very good teammate to Vettel despite the flashpoints between them over the years. On his day, he can and has beaten the German and he has scored points at a rate good enough to ensure Red Bull has clinched the constructors’ title. Fortunately for the sake of the Drivers’ Championship, on average Vettel is better than Webber by enough to be ahead of him more often than not. They are usually not robbing points from each other.

This is what has made picking his successor so difficult. Kimi Raikkonen is a proven performer. He will win races and will score more than enough points to win the Constructors’ Championship provided the car is good enough. But he will require the team to do things his way and could trouble Vettel more often than is helpful. The scenario Christian Horner fears is the one Williams had with Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell in 1986 (ABOVE), when the team won the title but McLaren-mounted Prost stole the drivers’ championship.

Worse still is the prospect of signing Alonso. Sign the Spaniard and he and Vettel will definitely take points off each other at the same time as grappling for ascendancy within the team. One team boss describes that scenario as “potentially catastrophic” for Red Bull. This makes Daniel Ricciardo’s graduation from the Toro Rosso team a logical compromise. Stunningly quick on his day, he still has to prove he can join the dots of his peaks of performance, and so should be an effective de facto number two.

But the formula is not that simple to strike. McLaren sporting director Sam Michael has had experience of both sides of the coin. He was at Williams during the years when Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya struggled to work together for the good of the team and joined McLaren as sporting director last year to work with Button and Hamilton.

“Should you combine two world champions together with all the agro that comes with that?” Michael asks himself. “Sometimes it can work really well. You’ll normally have a lot of friction in the team but if that means you win the championship, so be it. Right now, there aren’t any of those combinations in the teams.”

Probably the closest to that is at Mercedes, where Hamilton is partnering old karting teammate Nico Rosberg. Rosberg has shown well this year, winning at Monaco and Silverstone and initially having the upper hand in general, but Hamilton has started to assert himself over the German. Four consecutive pole positions is the consequence of that, although the points gap between the pair is distorted by Rosberg having retired twice. If there is a hierarchy, the difference between the two is tiny.

But Michael’s reference to the risk of friction is key. Although you can make predictions, it’s impossible to know how drivers will get on in the same team environment until you put them together. As an engineer, Michael focuses more on the necessity for complementary qualities. This is one of the reasons why the Button/Hamilton relationship avoided becoming dysfunctional as they were very different drivers. But put a Vettel and an Alonso together and the level of friction is likely to slow the whole team down.

“You can have good technical drivers that are going to contribute a lot to the development of the car,” says Michael. “If you have two drivers who don’t get it technically then you are going to get in trouble because there’s no-one to give you the feedback even if they are naturally quick. Normally, if you are quick, you develop some basic engineering skills anyway. By the same token, if you have two really good technical guys but they are not quick enough then they never are going to be fast enough.”

This brings in a whole new dimension to the art of finding the perfect driver pairing. For a top team, the wishlist is complicated. Red Bull is the perfect example. Its checklist for running alongside Vettel reads:

1) Capable of scoring 200-plus points in a sufficiently competitive car and able to mount a title challenge should Vettel hit trouble.

2) Fast enough to back up Vettel, but only occasionally able to beat him.

3) Able to take points off Vettel’s rivals without taking too many off Vettel.

4) Not likely to cause ructions in the team or try and destabilize his teammate.

5) Capable of making a good technical contribution.

6) Willing and able to take on a heavy promotional workload.

The checklist is similar for Ferrari in looking for a partner for Alonso. It’s extremely difficult to find an individual who ticks all of those boxes. Get too good a driver and you risk undermining the whole team through intra-team war; pick one who is not good enough and you will compromise both your drivers’ and constructors’ championship hopes. McLaren learned from this in 2008, when it signed Heikki Kovalainen to partner Hamilton. Despite some promising showings, he scored 22 fewer points than Ferrari’s second driver, Raikkonen, and thus McLaren did not add the constructors’ crown to Hamilton’s drivers’ title.

Another factor to remember is that while the drivers’ title is the one that grabs the headlines, it’s the team ranking that dictates the prize money it receives. What’s more, staff bonuses are very often tied to constructors’ championship performance. That makes it far more important within a team than it is to the outside world. To score the kinds of points tally you need, and to deny others, you need the second driver to be within, say, 10 seconds of his teammate at the end of a grand prix. Over a 50-lap race, that equates to a difference of around two-tenths of a second per lap. Some 20 years ago, it could easily be several times that without weakening the team.

In modern F1, where margins between success and failure are so tiny, team bosses have to thread the eye of a needle when they choose their drivers. Perhaps that explains why they are so often so conservative. But with the stakes rising ever-higher, there comes a time when the risk of that caution far outweigh the benefits. In Ferrari’s case, that means risking upsetting Alonso by bringing in a wing-man who can give him a hard time.

The bottom line is that talking about number two drivers is old language. While there are dangers to taking two incompatible proven stars, a big difference in performance level between a team’s two drivers is unacceptable. What teams really need today is perhaps best dubbed a number one-plus-two-tenths

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