Formula 1 in the 21st century doesn’t leave much room for the bold technical idea that pushes the envelope, or a left-field moment of genius that instantly obsoletes the opposition. Instead, it’s about evolution, not revolution, and relentless iterations around a theme.
So when the rules are almost suffocatingly constrictive, what marks out the great from the merely good? Will future generations look on a 2013 Red Bull or a 2016 Mercedes with the reverie reserved for a Lotus 49 or a Ferrari 312T2? What defines modern greatness?
“Mainly it’s the performance against other cars,” says 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg. “In its day – in its day – how good was it compared to everybody else out there? I think that has to define a great car most of all.”
Rosberg threw everything at winning his F1 title in 2016, to the extent that he couldn’t ask himself to go through it again the following year, choosing retirement instead. But ask him to name the greatest car he’s raced and the obvious choice of his championship-winning Mercedes F1 W07 Hybrid lasts all of two seconds before he corrects himself: “I was thinking of that car, but perhaps it should be the 2014 Mercedes, the W05. That was the first car in F1’s hybrid era and it was so much better than anything else out there, just unbelievable.
“As well as how good it was competitively, it’s also about the innovation, the forward thinking. It was such a change in regulations going to that engine — the hybrid — and Mercedes absolutely nailed it. I mean, since then they haven’t really had to make huge changes because the initial concept and execution was so perfect.”
While Rosberg took the ultimate prize of a championship in his final year, Jacques Villeneuve achieved that as an F1 sophomore. Runner-up in his 1996 rookie season, Villeneuve took the crown next time around, thanks to a sevenwin season in the Williams-Renault FW19.
“The car that was giving me the most was the 1997 Williams, because it did everything that I wanted it to,” Villeneuve says. “It wasn’t the fastest racecar I ever drove, and it was very difficult to drive, but it was built around me and it was like a second skin. I would just get in and almost always it did exactly what I wanted it to do. You could make tiny setup adjustments and it would react; it was in that perfect window.
“It was a car that gave you the opportunity to make that little extra push in qualifying. You knew that by taking the risk you could go that little bit quicker. It’s not something you’d do in the race, but you could trust it when you needed to push the limit that bit more. That was amazing.”
Rosberg’s assertion that greatness is a comparative measure holds up for Villeneuve’s FW19 – perhaps never more so than in the ‘97 season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
“Melbourne was amazing,” recalls the French-Canadian. “I really pushed it that bit further and it rewarded me, because I was two seconds ahead of everyone and it was just easy. Even then, I could still push it harder and harder. There didn’t seem to be any limit. When it’s like that, the limit becomes you and not the car. It’s a real high. Yeah, just amazing.”
Villeneuve would never hit those heights again, but the relentless pace of F1’s iterative development would mean his final car – the 2006 BMW Sauber F1.06 – would lap Silverstone a second per lap faster than his championship-winning FW19, despite grooved tires having replaced slicks. That’s impressive in isolation, but not when compared to that season’s dominant Renault and Ferrari cars.
“Sure, we were driving a lot faster in 2006,” says Villeneuve, “but that Sauber wasn’t a car that reacted well; it wasn’t a nice car. That’s why when you ask, ‘What’s the greatest car?’ it has to be one that reacts the way you want.
This story is excerpted from an article appearing in The Great Cars Issue of RACER Magazine, on sale now. To subscribe now at a special discount rate, click here, or to buy The Great Cars Issue online, click here.
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