The racing driver's ego


The subject of racing driver egos is always a fascinating one; ego-centricity at some level is a vital ingredient of the competitive make-up. But for a few moments on Thursday afternoon in Budapest, as those drivers in the FIA press conference reflected on the man that was Jules Bianchi, the guard came down. Romain Grosjean started it, with: “He was a much better driver in go karts than I was,” as he discussed their rise through the ranks.

Then Felipe Massa offered up what he’d observed from his own series of karting events: “He was an amazing driver… the best go kart driver I saw. It was amazing the way he was driving go karts.”

Roberto Merhi went yet further: “He was always the driver – the reference. [In karts and into Formula Renault and F3] he was all the time the quickest and doing really great things… For me he was the biggest talent I saw in motor sport… He was the best driver I raced against.”

But it wasn’t long before the protective ego screens came back up. Nico Hülkenberg: “He was my team-mate in F3. In 2008 I was in my second year, supposed to win the championship, and he came in as a rookie, his first year. I remember his race in Mugello. I was starting from pole and he was starting second or third. Anyway, we take off, I’m leading, he’s second and I’m seeing him in my mirrors, pushing really hard, really chasing me down, trying to get me. He was burning his tyres at the time, I was saving them, but it just showed how competitive he was.” Translation: yes, he was a very good driver. He must have been if he could give me such a hard time.

A little while later it was time for a chat with the Mercedes drivers, Nico Rosberg first, Lewis Hamilton a few minutes later. Nico was explaining the challenges ahead of him, at both the Hungaroring and in the season ahead. Everything was in reach, he felt. Hamilton’s advantage over him in the championship was bridgeable, he had everything in his power to close down that gap and get in front. His only niggle really was his brakes.

His brakes? “Yes, just my usual issue with them.” What exactly was that? “The feel. They just feel kind of variable.” Was it losing him time? “I don’t like it, so is it losing me time? The thing is, it’s not easy to solve. It takes so long to make any progress at all because it takes six months to bake a disc. Then if it’s right, another six months to make a full set. So there’s not really any hope of improving [the brakes] at the moment.”

Braking feel was a significant issue for Hamilton when he first joined the team from McLaren in 2013. He’d loved the feel of his Akebono brakes at McLaren, but McLaren had – and continues to have – an exclusive contract for their use. He couldn’t replicate that exact feel in his Mercedes but after a lot of work, by his second Merc season was much happier with what he did have – and he no longer mentions braking feel.

So when he’s asked about braking feel in relation to what Rosberg had just said, the competitive ego kicked in: “He was perfectly fine on the brakes at the last race. I’m just letting you know that. He knows you would ask me that. We don’t have any problems with the brakes but naturally we always want to improve them – particularly in these hot climates as the brakes begin to fade as they get over temperature. When the temperature gets high the initial bite drops off, then they fade. But I enjoy that – it’s a challenge.” Translation: I don’t accept that as the reason he’s behind me in the championship.

Ego is the engine driving the performances of these guys and it doesn’t take much to uncover it.

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