Car or Driver

[Abed Ismail Photo]

[Abed Ismail Photo]

by Pete Gorski

Here we are at the cusp of the new Formula One season. We’ve made it through the debut of the teams’ new cars, accompanied by Formula One team principals making some of the most meaningless statements of the year. (Of course they’re going to say the car is better than the previous version; how hilarious and refreshing would it be to hear somebody say, “Wow! We missed on this one big time! We’ll be lucky to outpace the safety car!”) But lost in the excitement and hope that a new F1 season brings (“We think we have the pace to take the fight to Red Bull!) (please please somebody take the fight to Red Bull, last year was such a snooze…), is an unacknowledged but unavoidable reality.

It probably wasn’t the first thing to come to mind as Max Verstappen emerged from the cockpit of his RB19 at the end of his stunning successful 2023 season, smoke from his celebratory burnout hanging in the air while fireworks splashed across the sky behind, all for the benefit of a phalanx of photographers, but last season cemented, at least in my mind, that the world’s premiere form of motorsports had completed its transformation into something that anybody who cares about racing should be a little discouraged by.

Formula One is now golf.

* * *

You may be thinking, “How’s that now?” Beyond the occasional promotional car located behind a tee box and the recent tie-up with Saudi Arabia, on its surface golf has very little to do with cars and nothing to do with racing. Let me explain. Circuitously.

A huge part of being a fan of sports, especially a sport with a long history is arguing about the past versus the present. (Pickleball fans are going to have to wait a while before they can join the club.) Pick a sport, pick a current star, then wait for the “sure, but is he/she better than X?” The end of these discussions usually features the phrase, “Well, they’re from different eras, so you can’t really compare.” Which is true; it’s difficult and ultimately pointless to compare somebody who competes today with somebody from even just twenty-five years ago. But we do because it’s something to pass the time on the internet.

Motorsports provides ample fodder for these kind of discussions — Richard Petty vs. Dale Earnhardt vs. Jimmy Johnson; A.J. Foyt vs. Rick Mears vs. Scott Dixon; and in Formula One, Fangio vs. Clark vs. Schumacher. While other sports like football and basketball have defined eras that make comparisons a little easier and less esoteric, in a certain way, the games are functionally the same, which encourages the impulse to rank. But motorsports…

How can you compare drivers when the cars have changed so much in the past seventy-three years? Well Clark is the best because…well how great would Fangio have done in cars like Clark drove…Clark was great sure but Jackie Stewart, he had to deal with early days of aero and Senna, he could do things with the car that …

And that’s where the comparison game begins to breakdown. Wanna argue about Mahomes vs. Brady vs. Montana vs. Bradshaw? Yes there have been changes to football (we’re not here to have that discussion), but the game is similar enough that you could get into it if you wanted to. But as F1 moved fully into the aero space, the ability to compare across eras disappeared like an overboosted turbo-era engine.

Racing history is full of stories of drivers manhandling their cars into the points or to the top step in unexpected victories — Fangio’s amazing drive at the Nürburgring in 1957 is one of the most famous. NASCAR used to regularly feature statements like, “Well we had a top 10 car today, but X muscled that thing into the top five,” or “So-and-so got up on the wheel and willed it into the top three,” although that too has largely gone away. Fernando Alonso is the last driver I recall being credited with getting more out of the car than was expected through raw talent, and that was more than 10 years ago.

Take a look at the list of F1 champions. Fangio wins five of the first eight titles. Jack Brabham went back-to-back in 1959 and 1960, but the next driver to string together consecutive titles was Alain Prost…in 1985! Two-fers become common across the next 15 years as Senna, Schumacher, and Mika Häkkinen maintained form across two seasons. But then the Schumacher/Ferrari juggernaut steamrollered everybody and everything for five straight years. Alonso bagged his double (more on him later) in 2005 and 2006, and after three years of different champions, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel banged out four in a row, followed by Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton, and Nico Rosberg winning the next seven titles. And now Red Bull and Max Verstappen put together the hat trick. (We could debate whether it’s a “pure” hat trick, what with all the shenanigans at the 2021 Abu Dhabi race, but that’s another 2,000 words, so…)

* * *

So, how is it again that Formula One is now golf? There’s a widely known formula that when it comes to F1 performance, the car/team is 80% and the driver 20%. After last year, I’d say it’s closer to 90% car/team. Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Pérez took second in the standings, but that makes it sound closer than it was. Double Pérez’s point total and he still comes up short, such was the Verstappen domination. (Wait, did I just establish that it is Max who made the difference? Hmm…)

Max wasn’t racing the other cars on the grid as much as he was racing the circuit and himself, and that’s why F1 is now golf. Everybody in a tournament is out there playing at the same time and on the same holes as everybody else, but they’re not playing each other. They’re playing against themselves and the course. (Yes yes, team play four person scramble and all that. Anyway…) Realistically, after the first five races, Max had no direct competitor. As long as he avoided any turn-one-lap-one shunts, victory was pretty much assured — it was just him and the track.

It’s not just Max last year. All those dominant years at Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes, more often than not the championship driver, with a few exceptions (Alonso came so close twice, and the Rosberg/Hamilton fight in 2016 was a season-long battle) didn’t face much in the way of a challenge from outside his own team.

If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself this. After winning four titles, Vettel forgot how to drive? Alonso forgot but then this year remembered? George Russell suddenly became faster than Hamilton? Valtteri Bottas was fast, then wasn’t? Schumacher forgot? Of course not. The rules/formula changed or the team went in a different direction and the previously dominant driver didn’t mesh with the car in the same way. And that’s how George Russell outscored Hamilton in 2022. And why Vettel went from 34 wins during his championship years to only 14 more (only one more than his total in 2013) over the next nine years. And why Alonso tied for fourth last year.

* * *

With the 80/20 theory so widely known, this column is pretty much the definition of a cold take. So why did I sit down to write it? Let’s be honest, last year was kind of boring, David Croft’s yelling notwithstanding. I’d record a race, but if I didn’t get to the recording in a timely manner…eh. How much did Max win by? And this isn’t hating on Max either. I like Hamilton, but at a certain point in his streak, I was fairly bored by the whole Mercedes-dominance spectacle.

The problem is, the 2022 season was so good. Yes Max won handily, but the new aero rules enabled cars to run closer to each other than they had in years. Racing was back in F1! Hurrah! But for 2023, tweaks to the aero rules resulted in fewer overtakes and less close running than in the previous season. (sigh)

So here we are. New cars have broken cover, we’ve seen some potentially-useful-potentially-dubious testing (Is X sandbagging? Are they showing their true pace?!?), and practice laps have been logged. Within a few days speculation will become reality and we’ll have a better idea of if we’re in for another Red Bull runaway. Maybe Adrian Newey will miss spectacularly and the RB 20 will regress. Looking over the past 24 years, I’m not holding my breath. Let me suggest you pay a bit more attention to the podium celebrations. Sure Max is holding the trophy, but show a little love for the engineer/staffer who gets to slide out for a moment of champagne-sprayed celebrity. They have just as much (if not more) to do with the win as the guy in the fire suit.

Addendum after the Bahrain race — Wow. 22.4sec back to Perez. This could be a looooong season…

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