Just how relevant is personal driver coaching in Formula 1? Sir Jackie Stewart believes the benefits could be manifold but another former GP winner disagrees fundamentally
Ever wondered why F1 drivers do not have personal driving coaches? The world’s greatest tennis players, golfers and other athletes have them, so why not drivers? A coach wouldn’t need to be a better driver, just as a tennis coach doesn’t need to be a better player in order to spot weaknesses in technique.
It’s a question that vexes Jackie Stewart, too. “Drivers have a blindness towards being helped,” he says. “That I just do not understand. Do these guys know more about their game than Linford Christie did about his? Or Tiger Woods does about his?
I cannot believe that is true. Yet our guys seem to think they don’t need help. Since I retired from driving 34 years ago, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been asked by a driver ‘can I have a word’ and it’s invariably been when they’ve lost the plot.
“I know that when I was racing I milked Jim Clark for knowledge – and Graham Hill, too.”
There is an appealing logic to what he says. He was, after all, a fantastic tutor to Françcois Cevert in their four years at Tyrrell together. Cevert had reached a level by 1973 considerably beyond that suggested by his initial promise. But subsequently, in his time at Stewart Grand Prix, Jackie’s attempts at coaching Jan Magnussen and Johnny Herbert were widely felt to be counter-productive. Was this their fault or Jackie’s? Jos Verstappen point blank refused to be told how to drive, even if it was by a three-time world champion.
John Watson is another that disputes the relevance of a coach to an F1 driver. “It’s just too complex an activity, and too much to do with your relationship with the machinery – how you and the car are communicating with each other – for any coach to have the relevant insight. Even if you can see what the driver is doing – and the visibility is far less than with other sports, even with the benefit of telemetry and in-car cameras – you don’t necessarily understand the full implications of why he’s doing it. Because a coach isn’t there interacting with the car, isn’t feeling the same messages.
“An F1 car today is incredibly sophisticated and there are so many ways of getting it to behave to suit what the driver feels. I think coaching may be relevant in the junior formulae but once you’ve reached a certain level it becomes too esoteric and the machinery becomes too complex for coaching to be useful.
“The thing that allows a driver to perform is to have confidence in the car every time he turns the wheel. And that’s about so much more than driving technique, it opens out into self-realisation and psychology.”
Watson has some personal insight in this latter area. Back in 1983 he was a McLaren driver, team-mate to Niki Lauda. Between the Brazilian and Long Beach grands prix there was a Marlboro promotional tour of south America. It was attended by Lauda and Keke Rosberg – but not Watson. The tour included Argentina and, this being in the wake of the Falklands War, Watson felt uneasy about attending and excused himself and headed straight for Long Beach. This resulted in his spending 10 days exclusively with Willi Dungl, the dietician who had helped Lauda recover from his 1976 accident and who had since been brought by Niki into the McLaren camp, with Lauda, Watson and Ron Dennis each contributing one-third of his fees. For Watson, those 10 days with Dungl were revelatory.
“I was a very willing student to Willi’s approach,” he recalls. “It was all about diet and blood sugar levels. You undergo a physiological change when you’re racing and that has a real impact upon your performance. His diet was about optimising your physical performance. I felt myself growing stronger and it had a hugely beneficial effect on me mentally. It gave me a strength where I lost any inhibitions in the car, where I was able to express myself more. I think that losing the inhibitions of your personality when in the car can open up a whole new area of performance.”
Despite starting only 22nd on the grid, Watson went on to win the Long Beach Grand Prix ahead of Lauda. “Dungl said to me he knew I was going to beat Niki that day. So I think that having someone that helps you with self-realisation is a far more useful thing than someone trying to tell you where to turn the wheel. Motor racing is psychologically a way more difficult sport than any other because you are fundamentally trying to go as fast as possible without hurting or killing yourself. So there are all sorts of deep psychological reasons, combined with complex technical reasons to do with the car, behind why you are pressing the pedals the way you are.”
Yet in Watson’s refutation of Stewart’s assertion, there is actually some common ground: namely Wattie’s talk of the relationship between psychology and technique sounds very much like Stewart talking of the importance of divorcing emotion from driving. “I watch drivers’ eye movements in the pits during qualifying or on the grid and you can see that while on the surface they’re relaxed and calm, they’re not. Senna even had it – calm on the surface but really way up in the high zone. Prost was more controlled emotionally.”
But was Senna’s emotion the reason why he was able to beat Prost? Could a driver coach have found anything to teach either of them? The jury’s still out.