During a discussion we spoke of drivers, past and present, and the inevitable Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart battle raged. We agreed that as Stewart never raced a front-engined GP car, and Fangio never raced a rear-engined car, they could not be compared. However, one faction thought that no matter what the car the 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 we decided it was because the things the drivers had to do were so different. While analysing what the driver of today has to do we realised that many things have changed, not only since 1907 but since 1957, when Fangio reigned. This became so interesting that we forgot our idea of comparing drivers and started comparing the work of the driver today and just a few years ago.
With the introduction of the Cosworth V8 engine the Lucas technicians produced a device in the ignition system that could be pre-set to any desired rpm.When the engine reached this figure the power of the spark was weakened so the engine could not exceed this figure. Set at 9200rpm, the driver could forget his tachometer, from
the point of view of bursting the engine, though it was still useful for keeping on the peak of the power curve. Anyone without this device, still has to keep an eye on the rev-counter for fear of over-revving and breaking valve gear or connecting rods. Today, racing engines will stand quite a lot of over-revving, unlike a few years back when peak rpm were only reached briefly on the test-bed and drivers drove their races on the rev-counter, not for fear of losing ground, as in F2 or F3 today, but to be sure of keeping the engine in one piece.
And today’s driver can virtually forget his gearbox. With the modem Hewland, BRM, Ferrari or ZF grand prix gearbox, you just flick the small lever this way and that; there is no need to grasp a large knob at the end of a long lever and time your changes, and certainly not like Jenatzy or Nazzaro had to change gear.
Perhaps the biggest advance has been with brakes. The driver of today can use his brakes as hard on the last lap of a Grand Prix as on the first, there is no need to calculate whether his brakes are going to last the whole race, he just bangs his foot as hard as he can on the brake and the car stops in the minimum distance. It was not so long since it was 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 have come in the realm of suspension, not only from the point of view of 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 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 to the steering the driver needed something to grip. Today, steering is so smooth and sensitive the driver has a delicate leather-bound wheel rim that he can hold between finger and thumb. The advance made by people like Borg & Beck with clutches means the modern racing car can have a light pedal pressure and no driver of today is going to suffer leg pains from operating the clutch.
Apart from punctures our driver can forget tyres as far as wear is concerned. There is no need to adjust speed to conserve tyres, or stop for new ones. For a long time in Grand Prix racing, wear was the limiting factor to performance, and many drivers arrived at the pits with rear tyres in ribbons due to too much acceleration. Today’s tyres and rear suspension allow 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.
After all that we wondered what our driver actually had to do. He could barely break his engine, muff a gear-change, wear out his brakes or tyres or suffer physical fatigue; he just had to lie there and drive. Then we began to analyse what there was to do, and it was still a great deal. He still has to judge pedal movements at the start to millisecond accuracy. He still has to judge braking distances for a corner. He cannot afford to be a few feet out on his braking point, nor can he afford to over-estimate his approach speed into a corner. Because of higher reliability he can race for the whole two hours, and often has to, whereas the last phase in many of the longer Grand Prix of old was one of nursing the car without with no opponents to worry you. The driver of today has to put much more effort into the actual driving than his counterpart of yesterday ever did, driving at the limit of performance, braking and road-holding if need be for the whole race. This calls for more concentration and a keener sense of judgement, even though it calls for less mechanical ability. Because maximum speeds and lap speeds are higher the driver today suffers more mental strain, though less physical strain.
All things considered, the Grand Prix driver still does an outstanding job; it is different in many respects, but he still needs good eyesight, superb judgement, reflexes and a sharp brain; it is simply that today he applies them to different things.