—It has changed
During a recent discussion on Grand Prix racing we fell to discussing drivers, past and present, and the inevitable Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart battle raged. We agreed that as Stewart had never raced a front-engined Grand Prix car, and Fangio had never raced a little rear-engined car, they could not be compared. However, we wondered if this was reasonable and one faction thought that no matter what the car the driving ability of the top driver did not differ greatly. Taking extremes, it did not seem reasonable to compare Jenatzy or Nazzaro of 1907 with Clark and Stewart of 1967, and when we discussed why it would not be reasonable we decided it was mainly because the things the drivers of the two periods had to do were so different. While analysing what the driver of today has to do in a Grand Prix race we realised that many things have changed, not only since 1907 but since 1957, when Fangio reigned supreme, and even later. This became so interesting that we forgot our idea of comparing drivers and started comparing the work of a driver today and just a few years ago.
With the introduction of the Cosworth V8 engine the Lucas electrical technicians produced a device in the ignition system that could be pre-set to any desired maximum r.p.m. When the engine reached this figure the power of the ignition spark was weakened so that the engine would not go over this figure. It was not an electrical cut-out that switched off the spark, it was much more sophisticated, and caused the sparks to fade, thus limiting power. Set at 9,200 r.p.m. the driver could forget his tachometer, from the point of view of bursting the engine, though it was still useful for keeping up on the peak of the power curve. Anyone without this device, and that means anyone without a Cosworth V8, still has to keep an eye on the rev.-counter for fear of over-revving and breaking valve gear or even connecting rods. Today, racing engines will stand quite a lot of over-revving, unlike a few years ago when peak-r.p.m. were only reached very briefly on the test-bed and drivers had to conduct their races on the rev.-counter, not for fear of losing ground, as in F.2 or F.3 today, but in order to be sure of keeping the engine in one piece for the length of the race. Compared with the driver of yesterday, though exactly when yesterday was is not very clear, the driver of today can almost forget his engine and can certainly drive it as hard as it will go for the whole race, with a good chance of it staying in one piece, and, of course, he can forget his sparking plugs.
By the same comparison he can virtually forget his gearbox, and he can certainly not waste thought on the matter of changing gear. With the modern Hewland, B.R.M., Ferrari or ZF Grand Prix gearbox, with five or six close ratios and multi-dog engagement, there are no gear-changing problems. You just flick the small lever this way and that with finger and thumb, there is no need to grasp a large knob at the end of a long lever and time your gear-changes, as on a pre-war Maserati or Alfa Romeo, and certainly not like Jenatzy or Nazzaro had to change gear, or change speed as they said in those days. Perhaps the biggest advance has been with brakes, especially since the advent of the disc brake, for wear is almost unheard of. The driver of today can use his brakes as hard on the last lap of a Grand Prix as on the first lap, there is no need to calculate whether his brakes are going to last the whole race, nor whether they are going to pull up evenly, he just bangs his foot as hard as he can on the brake pedal and, if the Lockheed and Girling specialists have done their job properly, the car stops in the minimum distance. It was not so long ago since it was quite usual to see a driver doing all his braking on the gearbox by the end of a race, his brake shoes having worn right away.
Other changes that have come about have been in the realm of suspension, not only from the point of view of improved road-holding, but also the ride. Today many drivers are content to recline in a shaped aluminium or glass-fibre seat with no padding whatsoever, whereas a few years ago racing car seats were luxuriously padded with sorbo-rubber and covered in leather. In the same province, steering-wheel rims used to be bound with cord, because there was so much shake and kick to the steering that the driver needed something to grip. Today, steering is so smooth, light and sensitive that the driver has a delicate sponge-filled, leather-bound steering-wheel rim that he can hold between finger and thumb. The advance made by people like Borg and Beck with clutches, means that the modern racing car can have a very light pedal pressure and no driver of today is going to suffer leg pains from operating the clutch.
Apart from unforeseen punctures our driver of today can forget tyres as far as wear or failure are concerned. There is no need to adjust his lap speeds to conserve tyres, or make pit stops for new ones. For a long time in Grand Prix racing tyre wear was the limiting factor to performance, and many drivers arrived at the pits with rear tyres in ribbons due to too much violent acceleration. Today’s tyres and today’s rear suspension allow a driver to use as much acceleration as the car will generate. Added to all this, Grand Prix races today only last two hours or so, instead of many hours, so he does not need to be built like an all-in wrestler, as witness drivers like Stewart or Ickx.
After all this we began to wonder just what our driver of today had to do, he could barely break his engine, he could not muff a gearchange, he could not wear out his brakes or tyres, he did not suffer physical fatigue, he just had to lay there and drive. Then we began to analyse what there was to do, and while it was different to some years ago, it was still a great deal, and those things that were unchanged were much more critical and vital. He still had to judge pedal movements at the start, and because so many cars have equal performance, he has to make every movement at the start to almost milli-second accuracy. He still has to judge braking distances for a corner, but because of improved brakes, tyres and road-holding he can brake much later than before, and anyway his approach speed is far higher. He cannot afford to be a few feet out on his braking point, nor can he afford to under- or over-estimate his approach speed into a corner. Because of an overall higher reliability factor he can race for the whole two hours, and often has to, whereas the last phase in many longer Grand Prix races was one of nursing the car along with no opponents to worry you. The driver of today has to put more effort into the actual driving than his counterpart of yesterday ever did, driving at the limit of braking, accelerating, and cornering if need be for the whole race. This calls for much more concentration and a much keener sense of judgment, even though it calls for less mechanical ability. Because maximum speeds and lap speeds are higher the driver of today suffers much more mental strain, though far less physical strain.
Taking all things into consideration the Grand Prix driver still does an outstanding job of work; it is very different in many respects, but he still needs good eyesight, superb judgment, super reflexes, quick reactions and a sharp brain; it is simply that today be has to apply them to different things.—D. S. J.