Formula One: Splash and dash

No-one likes racing in the wet, but there are some who shine when the heavens open. And one of them is a Brit

Every era of grand prix racing produces its own wet weather aces. From Rudolf Caracciola to Jacky Ickx, from Hans-Joachim Stuck to Jean Alesi, there have always been guys whose performance is enhanced when the heavens open and grip levels plummet. Sometimes it’s a case of a genuine ace simply getting the opportunity to make his talent more obvious than in the dry when his machinery is more of a limitation. Other times it’s the contrast between ordinary performances in the dry and extraordinary skills in the wet that mark a driver out as a rain specialist. 

Michael Schumacher, of course, fell into the former class; brilliant in dry or wet, but his margin of advantage over most of the others definitely enhanced when it rained. Arguably the greatest  demonstration of this was during the 1996 Spanish GP, wet from start to finish, during which he at times lapped a full four seconds faster than anyone else. 

Ayrton Senna’s majestic performance at the 1993 European GP at Donington Park, or Gilles Villeneuve’s astonishing display during wet qualifying at Watkins Glen in 1979 when he was 9.6sec faster than the best of the rest, paint a similar picture of the greatest driver of the era simply emphasising the point. Then there are cases like Stuck or Eddie Cheever, each of them very competent F1 drivers rather than absolute aces, yet invariably exceptional in the wet.   

The way they achieve their wet prowess differs. Some use extravagant car control, repeatedly rescuing it from all sorts of angles. This allows them a swashbuckling confidence to tread over the limit, knowing they can bring it back. That was Stuck and Alesi. Others use an extreme smoothness of technique that allows them to nibble up to a higher limit than the rougher styles of their peers. There is constant correction but based on feel of what the car is about to do rather than fantastic reactions to what it’s just done.   

Of today’s crop Fernando Alonso is a superb wet-weather driver. He retired from the lead of last year’s Hungarian GP, having risen from a penalised 15th on the grid, his progress utterly mesmerising as he scythed his way through the pack. Michael Schumacher was similarly impressive from a similarly penalised grid slot. The Bridgestone rubber was no match for the Michelin equivalent, but Schuey was the only one of its users to figure anywhere near the front. By contrast his team-mate Felipe Massa, along with the other Bridgestone users, faded and fell quickly down the field. 

Alonso’s first GP with Renault was the 2003 Australian. On dry tyres on a damp track he was stunning and only a change of strategy cost him victory. In Brazil the race was stopped after he hit Mark Webber’s errant wheel, but prior to that in the wet he’d been closing fast on leaders Kimi Räikkönen and Giancarlo Fisichella, sure he was going to win. Earlier in that race he had received a stop/go penalty for a yellow flag infringement that had put him behind team-mate Jarno Trulli. Within three laps he had caught, passed and pulled out three seconds on him. A different world.

Alonso is not the only wet-weather ace on the current F1 grid. Adrian Sutil, in his first season with Spyker, was stunning in the wet Saturday practice at Monaco, where in his unfancied car he was fastest of all. 

But arguably the greatest wet weather driver on the grid is Jenson Button. His silky-smooth style, beautiful throttle control and velvet smooth steering input makes him devastating in the wet. Think back to his win in the wet Hungarian GP of 2006. Some call it fortunate, in that he inherited the lead when Alonso’s wheel came off. What is less remembered is just how fast Button was closing down Alonso prior to that. After a safety car period Alonso was clean away but Button was delayed trying to lap Massa. By the time he did, Alonso was nine seconds up the road. Within two laps Button had that down to five seconds. Alonso responded, the two of them much the fastest, their nearest rival 20 seconds adrift. But still Button was cutting into the lead every lap. In the end, Alonso’s retirement promoted Button anyway, but there was no doubt he was the quicker in the conditions.

A storm cloud in the opening minutes of this year’s European GP at the Nürburgring painted a similar picture. From 18th on the grid Button fell to 20th at the start, but by the end of that lap he was ninth! A lap later he was pushing Alonso for third place, having lapped 1.8sec faster. He then hit a lake that had formed on the approach to turn one and his race ended in the gravel trap.   

Still to come this year are Spa, Fuji and Interlagos. If we don’t get rain in at least two of those, something’s wrong. As such, the weather could determine the  world championship. If, as looks likely at the time of writing, the title is to be fought out between McLaren drivers Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, what might we see? We’ve only seen glimpses of Hamilton’s wet-weather form. But the clues are encouraging. His first official practice session in F1, in Melbourne, was damp. He drove with beautiful smoothness and generally had a couple of tenths over Alonso, but how hard was the champion trying? In Hamilton’s victorious F3 Euro Series season of 2005 he posted stunning wet weather victories at Spa and Lausitzring. But Alonso too could recite his own heroic wet weather deeds from any number of past races. 

A wet title decider finale at Interlagos, and who would you put your money on for the title? No, I’m not sure either.