MEDLAND: Perception problems

MEDLAND: Perception problems

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Perception problems

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I’ve been told by much more seasoned journalists than myself that you should never feel sorry for a Formula 1 driver.

They get paid huge sums of money to drive incredible cars ridiculously fast around some of the greatest racetracks all over the world, with millions of fans watching them.

When it’s put like that, it’s a fair point. Nevertheless, I’ve found myself feeling sorry for a few in recent weeks.

The first of those is Nico Hulkenberg. When he arrived in Formula 1, he was seen as the shining light among the sport’s next generation. Then he secured pole position on slick tires on a wet track at the Brazilian Grand Prix in his rookie season for Williams, and he really looked like a star of the future.

The following season out didn’t help as he became Force India’s reserve driver, but much like Esteban Ocon this year, it was clearly just a matter of time before he’d be back in a race seat and showing what he could do.

Since then, the story hasn’t quite gone according to the script. Podium-less from 171 starts and yet to secure a ride for next season, the now-32-year-old Hulkenberg appears to be staring down the barrel of the end of his F1 career.

The German and Haas couldn’t land on the same page, and as romantic a notion as it is to think of him returning to Williams following Robert Kubica’s decision to leave, the team ideally needs money that Hulkenberg can’t bring – but that Nicholas Latifi can.

That leaves Alfa Romeo as his only realistic hope for a seat in 2020, and even that is not a straightforward situation. Team principal Frederic Vasseur is clearly a fan of Hulkenberg’s, having worked with him earlier in his career and brought him to Renault in the first place, but Ferrari is keen on seeing Antonio Giovinazzi develop, and the Italian has bounced back from his error in Belgium with two strong drives to points in Italy and Singapore.

Part of the reason I feel sorry for Hulkenberg is because he is clearly talented, and shows the temperament to suggest he could have achieved so much more in his career. His consistency and straightforward approach would work well in a front-running team, but when the big opportunities for a special result have been presented to him, he’s tended not to take them – in the knowledge they’re few and far between in the cars he’s been provided with – and that can’t be a coincidence after all this time.

If indeed this does prove Hulkenberg’s last season – at least for now – then he deserves more than to be remembered as the record holder for most starts without a podium. But he won’t get it, because he’s perceived to be not good enough based on the times he didn’t outperform his machinery to finish in the top three, instead of the times he did outperform his machinery in a lesser position.

But paradoxically, I also feel sorry for the man that he was up against for the available Haas seat: Romain Grosjean.

The reaction from fans to Grosjean’s contract extension was pretty brutal. Granted, last year was not a good one from the Frenchman, but he turned his form around after a shocking start to pick up 37 points in the final 13 races (and lost a further eight for the team’s exclusion at Monza). In comparison, Kevin Magnussen scored 29 points in the same period, losing two for his disqualification in Austin.

Hulkenberg laid down a marker with his stunning qualifying run in Brazil in 2010, but the highlight reel has been somewhat sparse ever since. Dunbar/LAT

Hulkenberg laid down a marker with his stunning qualifying run in Brazil in 2010, but the highlight reel has been somewhat sparse ever since. Dunbar/LAT

This season, his eight points have been hard-fought in a very difficult car, and six of the 10-point gap to Magnussen can be attributed to the Australian Grand Prix, where Magnussen finished sixth and Grosjean retired due to pit stop issues when seventh having outqualified the Dane.

In 13 fewer starts than Hulkenberg, Grosjean has 10 podiums to his credit. Yet there was social media outrage at the decision to stick with him. And that’s because it’s all about perception.

Most of Grosjean’s podiums came in a car capable of securing such a result. But his last – in Belgium in 2015 with the bailiffs in the Lotus garage – was outstanding. He finished fourth for Haas in Austria last year, and has a number of other top-six finishes for the team. When he’s on it, he’s really on it.

But errors such as crashing behind the Safety Car in Baku last year or on the way to the grid in Brazil in 2016 are hard to forget, and as a midfield driver with few opportunities to deliver similarly significant positive moments, it sticks in the mind.

The car is clearly immensely difficult to drive this year, which often leads to low finishing positions and complaints on the radio (they don’t help, either). That combination lowers the opinion many observers have of a driver, and that means the impressive moments are missed.

You might have seen the final lap scrap in Singapore by now (if you haven’t, it’s below) and the onboards are largely from Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo. Both were lauded for impressive comeback drives at the weekend, and both are widely supported.

But they were failing to get past some excellent defending from Grosjean, who was struggling massively on worn medium tires. It was ‘only’ for 11th place, but the racing spirit was clear to see from all involved – including Lance Stroll, who got the better of Ricciardo – and displayed the immense skill these drivers have to be fighting just inches apart from the walls and each other after two hours in sweltering conditions.

Instead, Grosjean’s race will be remembered more for the collision with George Russell; one for which he was blamed on the basis of his reputation, but that was then deemed a racing incident by the stewards after viewing the clash from Grosjean’s onboard.

Perceptions and opinions now are so influenced by social media; by polarized camps on two sides. Grosjean and Russell discussed the collision, moved on and even flew to Sochi together on a private jet including other drivers. Both drivers posted the same picture, with the same witty caption (Flying to Sochi with friends… and George/Romain) and got different engagement.

Grosjean has 670,000 followers and his post received 25,000 likes, with a pretty mixed set of responses. For Russell, 351,000 followers gained him 61,000 likes, and plenty of praise for how hilarious his post was – even from members of the F1 paddock. Grosjean actually posted it first.

Without delving into engagement rates and posting habits, it’s just an example of how the exact same thing can result in a different reaction based on perception, and not the actual action.

These are drivers all operating at the absolute pinnacle of their profession. The differences between them are minuscule, but nevertheless have a huge impact on how they are viewed.

Perceptions are hard to shift, but these guys are not here by chance. Unlike Hulkenberg (for now), at least the likes of Grosjean and Stroll have the opportunity to change that perception next season. They’re just clearly going to have to work even harder to do so.

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