F1's greats can't show their talent in made-for-TV grands prix — MPH


When F1 tyres could be raced hard for a full GP, the mega-talents on the grid were obvious even if they weren't spectacular to watch. In the current era, the best no longer stand out, says Mark Hughes


Charles Leclerc passes Nicholas Latifi at Paul Ricard

Florent Gooden / DPPI

It was fascinating listening in on Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean having a post-F1 chat about their new American racing adventures.

Grosjean was relating his first Indycar test. “First run I was all smooth, all good exits. I come in thinking I must be fast. I say to Olivier my engineer, ‘What’s the lap time?’ and he says, ‘You’re 3.2sec off.’ And I think holy shit, really? Then you go out again and get it sideways and then he’s, ‘Yeah, now you’re fast’.” Compared to F1, coarser is faster. But being coarse to go fast is much easier – even though it looks harder, because the car is moving around more.

“The other great thing is the tyres have almost no deg, the whole race,” said Magnussen of his LMP2 car. “Yeah, well it’s Michelin,” said Grosjean.

Back when F1 last had full-fat performance tyres – in 2006, the final year of the Michelin/Bridgestone tyre war – they had to be raced hard throughout. With the current tyres and heavy cars, at most tracks drivers are having to drive whole chunks of the race well off the pace to get the required stint lengths. But when they are pushed hard in qualifying or on, say, a critical in-lap on old tyres, you can see the driver working far more than when they were in the responsive, light, tyre war cars. Watch a Charles Leclerc qualifying lap or a Max Verstappen in-lap and the car is moving more, the driver’s inputs more obvious, than a top car of 2006. So pros and cons.


Schumacher and Alonso’s supremacy might not have been visible trackside but it was clear on the timing screens

Jean Michel Le Meur/DPPI

If we had 2006 cars/tyres now, the very best drivers would have a much bigger advantage than currently over the merely very good. Having the confidence in the ability to go beyond the norm and being able to stay relentlessly there through a stint – the very thing that Schumacher and Alonso were doing so exquisitely that year in their title fight – would expand that gap.

In the light car/tyre war days there was a much bigger reward for the megas to show their superiority over the merely good. But those nervy, responsive cars and low-deg mega tyres that allowed you to be flat-out all the time meant the skills weren’t as visible behind the wheel or from the outside — only from the lap times. Now there’s a much smaller lap time difference, because it’s easier. But looks harder.

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Instead, the demands now are more multi-faceted. So we see more clearly the differences in attitudes and circumstances between drivers. Lewis Hamilton this year is often considered and calculated in his driving, working within the narrow parameters of his car, often driving off line from the car ahead, trying to keep his tyres cool. Verstappen we see hustling like crazy in a Red Bull that rewards such an approach, we see Leclerc stretching the elastic of possibility – and occasionally snapping it. Lando Norris has that great smart hustle in traffic, decisive and hard.

Which is better? Purist 2006 style or now? Personally, I prefer the former. I like the idea that there’s a higher ceiling only select few can reach. The top guys are still the top guys now and still emerge on top, but the margins are narrower, the ‘very goods’ can compete with the ‘greats’ more often. So the show is closer, even if the positions are still largely static barring a crucial in or out-lap. So it looks better, makes for better TV and isn’t without its merits, something which is so much more apparent now that Mercedes has got genuine competition from Red Bull. But the days when the greats were on the limit virtually the whole way rather than just in qualifying or for a few laps of ‘hammer time’ around the stops are gone. Which is a shame.