The newly-branded Arrow McLaren SP team’s aggressive young driver approach will be fascinating to watch. Based on years of study and real life experience, I’m not so sure that Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew can be successful for the same reason that Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist failed at AJ Foyt Racing. They are both super-talented drivers, but may struggle to support each other and carry the team to the heights of IndyCar’s big three teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.
I’ve watched O’Ward since his early junior years and have been highly impressed with his raw speed and bravery. Askew, likewise, has built an impressive junior success resume at every level of the Road to Indy development series. However, pairing them together at this stage of their careers just might be a big mistake.
In 1996, Derek Daly Academy did a driver development program on behalf of Team Kool Green, and over the course of two years we ran 44 young American drivers through a series of on and off track exercises to try to determine who might be a future star. Perhaps the biggest epiphany during the program was understanding that racing drivers, just like other athletes, are born with one of two types of talent: instant/reflex or feel sensitive talent. This realization was so powerful that it led me to write my first book on driver development, Race to Win.
Instinct/reflex talent is flat-out all the time, getting maximum performance, with little time to think about what the car is doing (think Montoya or Kanaan). The feel sensitive driver is forever working to engineer maximum grip and performance from the car, and provides good feedback to the engineers (think Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti). One or the other is not right or wrong, but each type of talent needs a very different support system to extract its maximum potential. Twenty-three years later, I’m still amazed that so few team managers actually understand this, despite the fact that it makes such a huge difference to the structure of a team and its potential for success.
Instinct/reflex talent is the gunslinger; feel sensitive is the technician. Think Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Both super-successful NFL quarterbacks, but very different in their approach and execution of their game. What made both of their styles work is that they had teams built around them that allowed their styles to flourish. Manning’s receivers knew precisely where they had to be to catch the ball, whereas Favre’s core group knew they just had to be ready for anything – just get open because the ball could arrive from any angle. Favre could not play a Manning style of football, nor could Manning dare to emulate Favre’s approach. Manning was the clear-thinking set-up technician; Favre was a flat-out, on-the-rev-limiter-every-play type of player. Two very different talents who achieved similar success.
Now think about the optimization side of IndyCar. There are almost no development areas available that can make a car faster, so optimized set-ups are king. No driver in the world can drive a bad car fast. So with set-up being king, the most important asset to a successful team is a good feedback driver. Don’t think for a minute that a good engineer can overcome poor feedback – it just doesn’t happen in a spec series. Formula 1 comes closest to being able to control car set-up without a constant input of strong feedback because of the number of sensors and data captured when the car is on track, and the amount invested in wind tunnels, CFD and simulation. However, even Red Bull design genius Adrian Newey says that no matter how many sensors are on a car, the ultimate development of the race car during a season is driven by accurate driver feedback.
So for O’Ward to flourish, he will need to be stepping into a well set-up car. How will he get that? There is no way that a rookie teammate can be expected to provide that type of support and team guidance. Colton Herta flourished as a rookie by plugging into the strength of Andretti’s deep and rich engineering notebook. Make no mistake about it, he looks like a superstar in the making, but he also had the vital set-up information and could compare notes with experienced drivers every day at every race. O’Ward won’t have that opportunity. This is exactly the situation that Kanaan found himself in at A.J. Foyt Racing. T.K. has always been an instinct/reflex driver who needs a good feel sensitive support driver for set up feedback. Leist was a fast rookie who was almost certainly another instinct/reflex driver, and therefore the downward spiral started as soon as the contracts were signed.
Understanding a drivers talent is not an exact science because there are so many other aspects that come into play, but I’ve seen enough drivers, both young and old, to know that understanding the talent type of your driver was born with is a key anchor to building a successful team structure. And yet, so few team managers understand it. The magical team set-up would be having one of each type. The feel sensitive driver keeps the team within a good development and set-up window, providing the instinct/reflex driver the perfect platform to perform. This structure also pushes each driver to his/her limits through trying to keep up with each other. A perfect example of this was Nico Rosberg/Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in F1. Frank Williams said Nico Rosberg debriefed like an engineer, whereas Hamilton is more of an instinct/reflex driver. Think back to what happened last year without Rosberg. Valteri Bottas (who appears to be an instinct/reflex driver) took his seat, but did not have the Rosberg engineering savvy. Hence, and despite having a team of more than 400 development engineers, the car proved so difficult to sort and develop that it was called a ‘diva’.
Red Bull had the perfect driver combination with Max Verstappen/Daniel Riccardo. The team could lean on the feedback skills of Riccardo to develop the car and keep them within a set-up window, allowing Verstappen to perform at his gunslinger best. I don’t believe Red Bull fully understood or fully appreciated Riccardo’s true value. He felt the same way, and left for Renault. Verstappen recently voiced that he thought his pairing with Riccardo was the strongest the team had been. Since then Verstappen has been paired with rookies, and it’s probably fair to say that the team’s rate of development is not what it needs to be to win consistently, despite Verstappen’s exceptional talent.