F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

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How life after Rosberg affects Mercedes… and Williams

Nico Rosberg’s sudden retirement as world champion (putting him in company with Mike Hawthorn, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost) has changed F1’s landscape in more ways than just the cascading effect it’s had on the driver market. It potentially alters the balance of power within the Mercedes team quite significantly, perhaps highlighting a fault line within the sport. 

In a recent TV interview Lewis Hamilton said he felt ‘disrespected’ by the team when he was radioed to pick up the pace in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as he tried to back Rosberg into the cars behind. You might have heard his reply at the time: “I suggest you just let us race.”

Throughout his career Lewis has strained at the leash of team control. He’s not wired up to be anyone’s employee – and really that’s not how we want our F1 drivers to be, either. But more often than not he’s been enlisted to the cause, been made to understand that it’s the most effective way of achieving his own success. And it’s true in most cases; the team has a much better picture than the driver – in overview and depth – of how the car should be developed, how a particular race should be run, what tyre and pit strategy should be used, how best to react to other teams etc. They have so much data – correlation between tyre temperature and grip, between pace and tyre durability, the lap time penalty for fuel or brake saving, gaps in traffic, undercut/overcut margins – that the place for driver instinct and judgement has been narrowed over the years. Not deliberately; it’s just where technology and money have taken the sport.  

Most drivers accept this and operate within those defined parameters. They may wish it were not so, but they understand why it is and waste no energy worrying about it. But some, like Hamilton and Alonso, rail against it constantly and regularly have to be re-convinced. Because they are made of the stuff that makes them great and which would have been more heavily rewarded (competitively, not financially) in former times. They would have had a lot more fun back then. Back when the teams just gave the driver as quick a car as they could and left the rest of it to him.

That was better. No shades of grey there, no nuance. The teams today may insist it’s a team sport and all the better for that. Of course they believe that – because for them it will be much more satisfying to be more involved in the actual victory then just supplying the car. But they’re wrong. It’s an insular perspective from the inside and the sport doesn’t exist to satisfy those inside. It’s supposed to be projecting outwards to the fans, and the spectacle of a team of brilliantly clever engineers micro-managing a driver, and in the process narrowing the application of his talent, is not an inspiring one for fans. That’s an exercise, not an entertainment. 

I recently met with Chase Carey of Liberty Media, the company that hopes to hold a controlling interest in F1 before the end of the first quarter of 2017. It was just an informal chat, but in the exchange of views one point on which we agreed totally is that for the success of the sport the drivers need to be projected as heroes once more, not employees. 

So the departure of Rosberg from the team – and by definition its greater reliance upon Hamilton – has given Lewis more sway and the indications are that he’s in a stage of his life where he’s ready to go with his instinct more often. If it happens that way it’s going to give the team more headaches, but it’s going to be good for the spectacle and it will be true to the spirit of what a racing driver should be. In the process, however, it’s probably going to cost him on occasions. Should he follow through with the buccaneer approach, there will be times where he will lose races on strategy, on less than perfect judgment calls. Unnecessarily so – as the team will remind him. They had the information at their disposal to help him win the race and he chose to ignore it and lost. 

So the retaming of the racing driver will begin again. It’s technology that’s brought us to this unsatisfactory place. But just because it’s technological doesn’t automatically mean it’s progress. It’s time for F1 to get much more choosy about which technology is useful and which is damaging – and that call should not be made by the teams. It’s hugely encouraging that the prospective new owners of the sport think so, too.

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