Driving Style and Car Characteristics


Not my cup of cake
Valued Member
There are often discussions about whether a driver feels comfortable in car, how the car suits their driving style or hampers them in some way. Some say that Hamilton and Raikkonen like a car that is "tail happy"; Massa likes a car that "turns in more" which, apparently, was why he was able to better exploit the 2008 Ferrari. Button is said to have a "smooth" style which has allowed him to exploit the current Brawn car to but when heat was needed to be generated in the tyres Barrichello’s more “aggressive” style was supposedly better (not that the results on the track would suggest that this is particularly true).

I understand that some of the car’s driving character is determined by the set up, which the driver can influence, other parts by the basic design of the machine. Some drivers are reputed to like a car which oversteers, others one which understeers - Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite were apparently at polar ends of their desires in this area which led to many problems when they were driving together at Williams as they both followed very different set up routes.

My fundamental problem with all of this is that these are supposed to be the best drivers in the world. If that is true surely they should be able to adapt their style to suit the car given to them and then get the best from it?

I recall reading an interview with Jody Scheckter who, when he joined Tyrrell, complained that the car he was given was "designed around Jackie Stewart's driving style" and therefore, from his perspective, undriveable. This was the car that Stewart had, in the previous season, won 5 Grands Prix, allowed Tyrrell to finish 2nd in the WCC and Stewart and Francois Cevert to finish 1st and 4th respectively in the WDC. Did someone not think to take Scheckter to one side and suggest he drove it in the same way Stewart did?

Perhaps I am being too simplistic; however, some drivers appear to be able to drive through the perceived handling problems their car presents better than others. Ayrton Senna seemed to be able to make just about anything go fast, similarly Michael Schumacher appeared to be able to compensate for any problems in the way his car drove. This doesn’t mean that they would have been able to turn a Minardi or a Spyker into a race winner but perhaps they would have been half a dozen places higher up the grid? Maybe these two exceptional drivers are not the yard stick by which others should be measured but if all racing drivers aspire to one day be the Formula One World Champion drivers of this ilk are who they will have to beat.
How odd, I almost made a similar post myself yesterday.
That was prompted by this article on the ITV website:

Heikki Kovalainen says he cannot do better than his current disappointing results until he can adapt the McLaren in a way that suits his driving style better.
"I was able to drive the pace that I can with this car all the way from the beginning to the very end," said the Finn.

"I cannot go quicker.

"I struggle to maintain the tyre performance if I accelerate any more.

"And for me the car gets out of shape if I increase the pace and I cannot carry more speed through the corners, so we need to work more to get the car better for me."
I was going to raise the question of why a car has the characteristics it does and whether it is possible to change them fundamentally through set up.
For example, if a car is inherently "understeery", is it possible to turn that into oversteer so if you had 2 drivers who preferred one or the other style, they would both be happy?

The other point is the same one you've raised. Why can't drivers adapt their style to suit the car?
I understand that everyone has a natural style but as with other sports, that can be overcome with training.
Surely it's the same for driving? You just take a different line into the corner, turn in earlier/later, etc.

Kovalainen: I cannot go quicker
Not got experience with cars but if bike racing is anything to go by then your style is something you're lumbered with and can only be changed significantly by a select few pilots. Remember what we're talking about here is the tenths of seconds it takes to take a lap from good to brilliant. It's just about having the complete confidence to go into a corner when the difference between nailing it and having second thoughts is usually measured in fractions of a metre for braking points and powering on, if there is a fraction of doubt about whether the front is going to push then all is lost. Obviously the design of the car influences the basic handling characteristics but being able to set the car up so it is consistent to your style is imperative. I seem to remember that Villeneueve had his car set up like a champ car for one race (Silverstone?) and was told by the mechanics it would be undriveable and winning, he needed it to slide in and out of corners to feel comfortable.
Your driving style tends to be an almost subconscious thing. Most drivers are aware of what they need, but its all in what feels comfortable for them. They may be able to try to race in a given style for a little while but will undoubtedly revert back to their style when they begin to fatigue or the car goes away. Our differences are what makes us human, not everyone can do the same thing as some one else and that goes for driving cars as well.
But driving is a skill you learn and if you can learn certain habits you must surely be able to change them? (apart from Heikki who believes the team must change the car he team mate is winning in to suit him better :givemestrength: )

Golfers can completely change the way they swing a club; cricketers, with bat and ball, can reinvent the way that they play, tennis players similarly. Certainly with tennis and cricket these are reactive sports, requiring the sportsman to make split second decisions in the same way driving a car does. Are we suggesting that F1 drivers are not capable of learning a different way to drive?

Perhaps, going back to one of my other points, this is what seperates the good from the great drivers.
The classic partnership of "Drive the wheels off anything" matched with "Set the car up to the ultimate level" must be Ronnie Peterson and Mario Andretti.

Andretti was well known for importing many of the finer details of US Indy racing into the Lotus team during his time with there, that helped to make the Types 78 and 79 the fantastic cars they were. Andretti would adjust things like wheel stagger and tyre pressure which were vital in American racing but not often seen if F1. Peterson on the other hand would more often than not be given Marios set up and go out and drive the wheels off the car. Both styles hugely different but very effective.

Ronnie proved his point when after 3 failures in the hugely complex Lotus type 76 which included such things as left foot braking and a semi automatic gearbox (and all that in 1974!!) Ronnie told the team to shelve the car and as he put it "Get the old ones out". Lotus did just that and in the 4 year old Lotus 72E, Ronnie promptly won the Monaco GP.

I think a good driver can out drive the cars characteristics but a great driver can set up the car to his style of driving and that makes the difference. There could never be a closer relationship between driver and car than that of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari and just look how that went.
Likewise I think you often see this in Golf and Tennis, players can often alter their style but when things get tough, they lose their concentration, or they get tired they almost always revert to their previous habits. At this point I think they are far beyond the formative stages of driving skills and are not going to be able to make substantial permanent changes. I would imagine they would be much better off attempting to work the setup to work within their comfort level.
I take the point O_D_B makes about a sportsman reverting to type when they are tired or stressed but as FB says, a truly good driver should be able to adapt their driving style to suit the car at least to some extent.

Take Séb Loeb's much publicised desire to drive in F1.
If he drives a Toro Rosso as he does his Citroën WRC car then he's not going to get very far :D

Granted that's an extreme case but surely the same principle applies to different cars in the same series as it does with different forms of motorsport?
The thing we have to remember is that these guys are the top drivers and the gap between them is very small. If the car and driver are incompatible they will always be behind a combination that works. The smallest inconsistencies can be rectified to a point but because it is still not his natural style he will always lose hundreths somewhere. Now, Schumacher joined Ferrari in 96 and didn't win his first title with them until 2000 (albeit his leg break didn't help!) so it shows that no matter how great the driver is, if the car doesn't particularly suit his style then he can't win championships as there is always a very high level of competition. When the driver and car combination came together in this case, it was magnificent - even if it wasn't always exciting to watch!

Like you guys say, all drivers must adapt - and to an extent they do - but if the car suits their teammate's natural style then they are at a disadvantage.

I'm not excusing Heikki for one second as he is simply under-performing and should at least be getting up into the higher points positions.
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