With all the talk of Formula 1 trying to narrow the chasm that has developed between the teams at the top and the teams at the bottom, it can lead many to wonder how important the talent of the driver is to a team, and whether F1 races are instead won and lost because of the driver or the car.
The driver is very important in F1, and it is not all the car. Without a competent driver, a team would not be able to mount a serious challenge for the championship. However, how competitive the car is clearly is an important factor, and it can often seem like the deciding one.
Give a good F1 driver a bad car and they will likely find it difficult to remain at the top end of the leaderboard. In this article, we will discuss whether a Formula 1 team with a bad driver could ever do well and go into further detail on the importance of having a good driver on your team.
Is The Driver Or The Car More Important In F1?
This is a loaded question, stacked with variables, and very much subject to change each year. If there is a huge difference in ability between the car out in front to the rest of the field, there will be less of a strong case for the driver being the most important factor. However, if the performance levels of the cars are similar, then we will begin to see the effect of having a great driver.
In order to fully gauge a driver’s brilliance, it makes more sense to compare them with their teammate who drives the same car as them, rather than the rest of the field.
World Champions And Their Teammates
Since Formula 1 as we know it began in 1950, only 10 times has a driver won the World Championship without their team also winning the Constructors’ Championship. The most recent example of this was when Mercedes took the constructors’ prize when Max Verstappen won the championship in 2021.
This doesn’t necessarily give too much away, as it could mean the driver has won because of their great car, or the team has won because of their great driver. Instead, we must look at the teammate of the winning driver. This data isn’t as consistent, with one example being in 1963, when Lotus took home the constructors’ title with one driver finishing the season in 1st and the other in 17th.
A gap of this magnitude remains an anomaly between teammates, with the second largest gap between a winning driver and their colleague being 1st to 10th in 1985. While the gap isn’t usually so large, it is uncommon for a team to finish a season with their drivers occupying the first and second positions. In fact, between 2001-2021, this has only happened six times.
This leans the argument in favor of the driver rather than the team, although you could make a further argument that the team’s secondary driver would be able to achieve a higher ranking if they were given the same prioritization as their colleague. This is all purely hypothetical though, with no real way of gathering any statistical proof to back the argument up.
A Driver’s Impact Behind The Scenes
Drivers are more than just racers. They are key figures behind the scenes at a team’s headquarters, providing feedback on how the car is doing, as well as helping with testing, operating the simulators, and being an all-around figurehead of the team. The best, most eye-catching drivers will attract more sponsorships for their teams, providing them with the funding to help move them up the table.
This is where the talent of the driver can really transform a team, improving the car instead of the car improving them.
The Importance Of Both
There may be an edge to the argument that the power of the car has more of a chance of dictating the overall outcome of the race. However, the importance of the driver cannot be overlooked. You just have to look at the 2021 championship, which was fought out until the very last lap of the season between Hamilton and Verstappen.
The top 4 in the Drivers’ Championship consisted of both sets of Red Bull and Mercedes drivers, displaying the dominance of those two cars throughout the season. But ultimately, the fight was solely between Hamilton and Verstappen, with Perez and Bottas finishing considerably further behind the two front runners.
This highlights the importance of a driver’s ability, especially when they won ten and eight races respectively, compared to the solitary victories that both of their teammates picked up.
Can An F1 Team With A Bad Driver Do Well?
An F1 team with a bad driver can do well, although they will be limited as to how well they can do. For all the advantages that a good car will have on its opposition, if it is piloted by a sub-standard driver, it will be difficult to win races with consistency.
If a driver doesn’t overtake as well as their competition, or is prone to cornering inconsistently, then it will be hard for them to make the most of their car. Consistency is the main goal for any team if they want to experience extended periods of success. This is why drivers like Hamilton, Vettel, and Schumacher are so revered, because they consistently perform(ed) at the top.
While they may have had the best cars on the grid, they very rarely gave anything away in terms of silly mistakes or dips in concentration. If either of those three names weren’t as good or as consistent as what they were, then it is highly likely they would have conceded victory in many of the races where they had to fight hard for the victory.
A lot of whether a bad driver will perform well in a good car comes down to how good their opposition’s cars and drivers are. If the car that this so-called bad driver is operating is substantially ahead of the pack, then the chances are that they will do alright, barring any DNFs.
If the car is better, but not by a great deal, then they will likely find themselves being found out throughout the course of a race. This is simply down to the fact that so many seconds can be won and lost throughout a race on various turns and technical sectors, meaning that if the other cars can keep within a reasonable speed to keep up with the car in front, they will be able to catch it.
Great Drivers In Bad Cars
As Formula 1 doesn’t start with an even playing field, the signing of a big-name driver won’t necessarily have the same impact as signing a star name would in other sports. For example, when McLaren signed former world champion Fernando Alonso for the second time in 2015, they entered one of the most underwhelming periods in their history.
Alonso’s Honda-powered car was slow, leaving him vulnerable to being overtaken, so much so, that he was only able to score points twice throughout the entirety of the 2015 season. Alonso is regarded by many as one of the greatest drivers to race in F1, but there was very little that he could do to get anything of note out of the poor McLaren car.
While having the strongest car may be more important than having the most talented driver, if you want to experience success in F1, you need both. A great car won’t win a Constructors’ Championship if the drivers are sub-par, and a great driver won’t be able to win races if their car is too slow.