When a talent like Max Verstappen sends F1 car design in the wrong direction — MPH


Having a top-level driver like Max Verstappen can be a double-edged sword, such as in 2020 when the Dutchman's skill masked the dead-end development path that Red Bull was taking, writes Mark Hughes

Red Bull F1 cars of Max Verstappen and Alex Albon

Alex Albon struggled with an unstable 2020 Red Bull that suited Verstappen

John Thuys/Getty Images

The equation between driver and car and car performance is a complex one. At F1 level the drivers are close enough in their basic speed that it’s often a fallacy to say driver A is faster than driver B. In one car he might be, in another he might be slower. It depends upon how the traits of a car (or the way it works its tyres) dovetails with the way the driver is physiologically wired up. A big part of the job of an engineering team is in understanding how what the driver is telling them translates to what the car is doing to give the driver those sensations, good or bad.

It can be that the car is not doing what the driver needs it to do in order to fully exploit a particular skill and if the team could just get it to do that, the driver will be able to extract extra performance by unleashing that skill from within. The gain will be bigger than any simulation can account for because there is a human performance element to it. Alternatively, it can be that the driver is so skilled at adapting their technique around what is a shortcoming of the car, they do not recognise it as a shortcoming.

One of the most striking examples of this latter phenomenon was the 2020 Red Bull, as explained by the team’s technical chief Pierre Wache.

“We started that year not far off Mercedes, then we had a massive down in the middle of the season before coming up again. Clearly we went in the wrong direction and we recovered. That’s where we missed something in our analysis in terms of development direction. The car had a characteristic which Max [Verstappen] liked and which allowed him to go faster and so as we went further down this path his lap times would improve. But it brought with it some instability on entry and eventually you come to a point where that is the limiting factor and you cannot go any faster. It also made the car very difficult for the other drivers.”

Red Bull of Max Verstappen cornering at the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix

2020 Red Bull could be rotated easily – at the price of rear stability

Wolfgang Rattay/Getty Images

That car, the RB16, was the first needle-nosed Red Bull after years of wide nose cars. It also had a front wing design which greatly increased its effectiveness once the wheels were steered past a certain point, clearing the area behind the outboard ends of the wing. So at high-steering – ie low-speed – corners, there would be a big move forward of the aero balance. Which is great for getting the car rotated early into the turn, but not great if it is so sudden it induces instability at the rear through not loading up the rear tyres progressively enough and taking them straight past their optimum slip angle. If the driver is as super-skilled as Verstappen that optimum trade-off is way further towards instability than with an ordinary driver – ie he will still be getting faster lap times as that trait is further developed long past the point where the other driver has become slower than before.

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“We identified that,” explained Wache, “and also identified what the driver could actually use as performance. We had some characteristics that made it very difficult to extract the theoretical performance. We identified this after mid-season [2020]. This characteristic was the main limitation of the car and we moved away from it. At the end of that season we could confirm this and that gave us a good foundation for ’21.”

It meant that the front of the car could no longer be loaded up quite as hard as before and that brought certain limitations with the ’21 car, but in the interests of an overall better balance. There were tracks last year – Hungaroring, Istanbul Park – where the car just had too much rear grip for the front and the team had to compromise on rear wing level, surrendering total downforce just to get a driveable balance. But overall it was a much more effective car that the very edgy 2020 RB16.

But the development route to that trait was a fascinating one in how it illustrated the weave between driver and team. “It’s ironic that in 2020 Max’s talent was a contributory cause to the problem we had. He has an ability to control this sort of instability that would be impossible for some others. We know that sometimes, making a car on the edge in this way can create a quicker car – and you don’t realise you went in the wrong direction because you are still extracting more lap time from the car. But you don’t realise at first it’s only because he has so much talent. So you keep going in this direction but you go too far and it takes you a few months to come back from, that and realise you’d gone in the wrong direction.

“The system is so big that to rethink the aero surfaces of the car and remake them, it was a long and painful process. It’s a big gain for Max that he can set a car up with some rear instability and extract more performance from a given car. But if we are giving him a car that is not stable enough, we are limiting the potential of the car and his talent blinded us a little to what was happening.”

Variations of these processes are ongoing up and down the pitlane at every team all the time.