Racing in the rain can both equalise car performance and emphasise driver skill difference – and in an open-wheeler it can be hair raising
Last month marked the 25th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s virtuoso first lap in the sodden European Grand Prix at Donington. I can remember watching the race at home on television and being blown away by the Brazilian’s immediate ability to carry speed where others feared to tread. It was as though he could see something blindingly obvious that the rest of the grid had missed.
Never was this more apparent than his charge down the Craner Curves, where having already dispatched Michael Schumacher he simply drove around the outside of Karl Wendlinger. I was aware of the mythical ‘wet line’ – talked about in hushed tones by commentators – but I’d never seen it driven to such brilliant effect. It seemed extraordinary to me that the other drivers – no fools, let’s be honest – didn’t know the line, or simply couldn’t summon the cojonesto try it from the get-go. Then of course he passed Damon Hill and Alain Prost on the conventional (more slippery) line to take the lead at the final corner of the first lap. Class dismissed!
It was the same when Max Verstappen made the rest look stupid at Interlagos in similar conditions. True, Max was still racing karts when many of today’s F1 grid were already established Grand Prix stars, but for many of them to have seemingly forgotten about the karting line (another name for the wet line) proved once again that rain always provides opportunity to those with the feel, confidence and car control to find grip where others can’t.
In historics, where many categories race on the same tyres wet or dry, rain is a massive leveller. You only need to see cars from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s race to know they all have more grunt than grip in the dry, let alone the rain. And without downforce to squeeze them into the asphalt or trick electronics to catch the car when the driver drops it, you have to summon every scrap of sensitivity to explore what little grip there is and then work beyond it.
For years after I first started racing I had a secret dread of rain, but then I used to suffer terribly with pre-race nerves generally. The added jeopardy of precipitation only served to ratchet up anxiety levels, which of course increases tension. And when you’re tense you don’t let the car flow, which makes it feel more edgy, which makes you tenser. It’s a horrible vicious circle.
With experience I’ve learned to control my nerves, but it took multiple races at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in the modern VLN endurance series and famous N24 to get my head around the rain.
The ’Ring is a law unto itself weather-wise, so you can guarantee that at some stage you’ll have to deal with heavy downpours or, worse, rain at one part of the circuit and sunshine at another. Unless the rain is prolonged and torrential, conditions are likely to improve as quickly as they deteriorated. That means you sometimes have to cope with being out on the wrong tyres until such time as they become the right tyres again. It’s a school of hard knocks, but the ’Ring gives you a unique education.
I’ve since raced plenty of historics in the rain, and while a Cobra clearly demands a bit more respect than a Lotus Cortina, the challenge and the thrill is identical. Wet or dry, old cars are all about feel – that’s why I love racing them – but rain adds a whole other dimension to the experience. And because there’s none of modern racing’s Balance of Performance nonsense, you have the tantalising prospect of smaller cars sticking it to the bigger ones.
In historic touring cars Minis are absolute terrors in the rain. Hunting in packs they dive this way and that, slicing through the water with impunity while, wet line or not, the rear-drive Cortinas and BMWs slither impotently from apex to exit, their power advantage squandered in wheelspin and oversteer.
In big, powerful kit such as a Lola T70, it’s not the corners that require particular respect but the straights. Wide tyres, relatively light weight and colossal torque mean you have to tread carefully on the throttle, even in the higher gears. All it takes is some standing water and a greedy right foot and you can spin in a straight line. Or worse, get turned sharp left or right into the barriers. It’s a bit hairy, but racing a 600bhp sports car in the rain should require respect and favour those who can let the car flow, even when common sense tells you to curl up in a ball and find your happy place. It’s what makes historic cars so exciting to race and watch.
And the mythical wet line? Sniff it out and there’s nothing to beat the feeling. Especially if those around you are struggling. It takes some nerve to brake deep and run as close to the outside of the corners as you dare, but if you can just get your outside tyres on the less polished, less rubbery asphalt there can be a miraculous amount of extra grip.
One thing I still cannot get my head around – and something that brings us neatly back to where we came in – is racing a single-seater in the rain. I’ve only done it once, last year in a Chevron F2 car at Spa, but the typically Biblical Ardennes downpour had me well outside my comfort zone. Controlling the car is one thing, controlling the fear quite another.
Chasing an impenetrable ball of spray along the Kemmel Straight guided by the engine note of the car hidden within and looking out of the side of my cockpit for a reference point is an experience I’m glad to have had, if only for the hair-raising insight it offers into what the F1 boys have to deal with. That said, I’d be very happy never to repeat it. Sometimes it pays to know your limits.
Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings