New World Champion Jenson Button has always been praised for being a notably smooth driver, not only when he was bog-slow – as the average extremely smooth driver often is – but also when he was running right on the pace. His drive in the title-clinching Brazilian GP saw him venturing most untypically into banzai territory, but it’s worth mentioning that it was the sharp contrast with his characteristic smoothness that made those – as it happened – perfectly-timed lunges and wheel-sawing fluttery moments so noticeable.
But when was the last time you heard a bunch of bar-room enthusiasts discussing a Formula 1 driver’s ‘style’? In my case it must be at least 25-30 years ago – when the metronomic Alain Prost emerged. The contrarian Jenks was of course unimpressed: “I’d rather watch paint dry”. In stark contrast, the antics of Gilles Villeneuve fired his enthusiasm, and that of most other racing writers of the time.
Yet in the era when a spectator could actually see enough of a passing racing driver to witness muscular effort in open-air action, Louis Chiron – for example – was acclaimed as the most masterly and stylish of all drivers. In contrast our own WB – Bill Boddy – was deeply unimpressed by drivers “showing off”. His race reports cited ‘Phi-Phi’ Etancelin as a “sawing master”, while the theatrical Raymond Mays seems to have disappointed in the first Ferrari ‘ThinWall Special’ when Bill tartly described him as cornering with “rather less wheel-wrestling than usual”.
Meanwhile it was common for reporters to praise “the debonair” Chiron (left) for his stylish mastery behind the wheel. Yeah, but… quite a lot of contemporary film footage and one or two still photographs seem to suggest that the masterly Monegasque was not always quite as smooth and impassive as the published record suggests. It was the irrepressible Innes Ireland who entitled his autobiography All Arms and Elbows – and there’s quite a body of evidence that in period Louis the Debonair could also be less than impassive and relaxed while plying his trade. Smooth driving is not a definitive capability. It’s in the eye of the beholder. Post-race, how much of the car’s tyres, brakes, gearbox and engine survive is the defining giveaway. Interestingly Ken Tyrrell once complained “…you haven’t been doing much of a job – there’s too much of the car left!”.