An F1 racing car can only perform to a certain level, and while that level is astonishingly high, a car that can hit speeds of 210 mph won’t hit 300 mph just because a driver wants it to. However, there are still instances of F1 drivers outperforming their cars.
Outperforming the car in F1 is a racing term that means a driver has taken a car beyond its expected potential. When race results are better than the apparent capabilities of an F1 car, it’s the driver that makes the difference by being able to shave seconds off laps by pushing the car even further.
The best cars usually win, but from time to time a driver or team stands out as they appear to be getting better results than their cars suggest they should. This is where a driver outperforms their car, through skill and daring. Below, we take a closer look at what this means.
When a driver outperforms their car, they’re usually driving the car faster than they are expected to. Typically, they’ll put in faster lap times than their teammate can manage, even though they have the same car, making it look like they are pushing the car further than it ‘should’ be able to go.
F1 cars are designed to exact specifications, everything is tested and built to perform a specific task, and analysts and engineers know exactly what each F1 car is capable of. After pre-season testing, and through each race of the Formula One season, cars are tweaked and checked, and performance is monitored thoroughly.
This performance is calculable. The speeds, expectations, and capabilities of an F1 car are known. And while some cars are better than others – Mercedes, for example, has been dominant for almost a decade due to them having built an excellent car – the two cars each constructor has at their disposal are often very evenly matched.
A mid-table F1 car invariably finishes, you guessed it, mid-table, and an excellent F1 car will usually be closer to the front in qualifying and the actual races than a car whose performances suggest they will be at the back.
Results should be predictable to a certain level. It is impossible to account for crashes, and driver error in another car could impact another driver. The weather can also have a huge effect. But over a full season, a car’s performance will even out as expected.
But this doesn’t always happen. Every year, a driver seems to stand out as overperforming compared to expectations, and this is due to them ‘outperforming the car.’
A driver that is full of confidence can suddenly take a lower quality F1 car and drive it above and beyond what is expected of it. This can be for many reasons, and confidence is a huge factor, but so is skill, and even simply clicking with their car, where everything seems to just work well.
If each F1 car has a quantifiable performance – it can only go so fast, brake so well, accelerate at an expected rate etc. – what is the only variable that cannot be quantified? The driver is the only one who can overperform, but how does this increase in performance come about?
When a driver finds their groove, their driving often improves dramatically, and they are able to find that extra speed or confidence to be able to push themselves and their cars to the very limits of what they are capable of.
F1 drivers are already excellent drivers with great reflexes and peripheral vision, but to outperform a car the driver needs to take things to another level. Eliminating errors is one of the first things that is noticeable. A driver seems to start making all the right choices at all the right times.
Suddenly their confidence begins to soar, they know what they are doing, and what is expected of them, and when the decisions become easy, a driver starts finding an extra second of pace. An expected 12th position becomes 10th position, and suddenly they are in the points.
Winning in F1 is everything, but for some drivers, and some constructors, winning doesn’t necessarily mean crossing the line in first place. It can mean third or fourth in a constructors’ championship, or just finishing a race in the points. Winning races may not be the goal, and gathering points and the occasional podium place is often a sign of a team that is progressing.
A car’s reliability is another key indicator that things are going well. An F1 car is a finely tuned and temperamental beast, and when things are going the driver’s way, they have the reassurance that they can push the car even further.
Knowing that they can squeeze that extra performance out of their car, whether that performance is real or imaginary, allows a driver to try their luck more often. Two similarly powered F1 cars can suddenly become mismatched as the outperforming driver makes a judgment call that they can, and will, be able to overtake their rival.
A driver that is apparently outperforming their car is more likely to feel happier with skirting the edge of safety as they squeeze everything they can out of their car.
Examples Of F1 Drivers Outperforming Their Car
One excellent example of an F1 driver outperforming their car is AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, who in the 2020 and 2021 seasons consistently overperformed with a car that many expected to be towards the back of the F1 grid. Gasly showed that through determination and confidence, a driver can exceed expectations through guile and commitment.
A breakthrough season in 2018 with Red Bull Racing owned Toro Rosso (now renamed AlphaTauri) saw the young Frenchman compete fairly well. Red Bull spotted a lot of potential in Gasly and promoted him to the senior Red Bull Racing team for the 2019 season.
Unfortunately, a poor season ensued, as Gasly struggled with the expectations of competing at the front of the grid, and also seemed to feel the pressure from teammate Max Verstappens’ excellent season. Red Bull quickly dropped Gasly back to AlphaTauri, and that’s where the story could have ended.
Pierre Gasly soon settled back into his old team, and as his confidence grew, so did his performances, culminating in an astonishingly successful 2020 season. A very first win in F1 at the Monza Grand Prix was an incredible feat given the car Gasly was now driving, and the reinvention culminated in 10th place at the end of the 2020 drivers’ championship.
Race after race Gasly put in superb performances, way above what was expected, not only due to his dip in form at Red Bull but given the obvious deficiencies of the AlphaTauri car itself. Gasly found the will to gain extra places, shaving seconds off laps that in theory weren’t there to find.
Another superb 2021 season followed, with Gasly outperforming both the car and new teammate Yuki Tsunoda, the French star repeatedly outperformed other drivers in better cars as his skills and experience gave him the confidence to excel. In a car with substantially less potential than many others, especially parent team Red Bull, Gasly has been very consistent.
Another consistent outperformer in recent years is George Russell, who is currently at Mercedes, but made the leap to a team with title expectations only because of his ability to outperform in his previous car at Williams.
After an unspectacular debut season with Williams in 2019, Russell improved dramatically in 2020, pushing an extremely slow Williams car to its limits to try and achieve his first points as an F1 driver. Noticeably fast, and with a confidence that belied his age and experience, Russell rarely gave ground up willingly, and clearly outperformed what the Williams car was expected to be able to achieve.
Mercedes then took the young driver for a single race to cover for a Covid-stricken Lewis Hamilton, and had it not been for a late puncture, he would have surely won the race. By 2021 George Russell was still at Williams, still in a slow and often unreliable car, and still pushing the limits and outperforming.
Russell even achieved his first podium and the Belgian Grand Prix in the 2021 season (thanks to his P2 in qualifying – the race never truly happened), and he finally scored some points in the car too, and it was these kinds of consistent ‘overperforming’ displays that eventually led Mercedes to take George Russell for the 2022 season, replacing Valtteri Bottas as Lewis Hamilton’s’ teammate.
There is only one real problem for a constructor when one of their drivers is outperforming their car, and that is when their other driver, who is driving a car that is set up exactly the same, is struggling. Internally, a driver can accept that their F1 car isn’t able to keep up with other constructors, they don’t like it, and it’s frustrating, but it is understandable.
When they can’t keep up with a teammate, however, things can suddenly go very wrong, as they know their cars are of equal capability. Everything discussed in the above section regarding how an F1 driver can outperform their car is suddenly reversed. Bad decisions creep in, second-guessing becomes commonplace, and a driver’s confidence deflates quicker than a flat tire.
Every driver’s biggest rival is their teammate. While they are expected to work together for the good of the team and try to gather as many points as possible for the constructors’ championship, to keep their place in F1 a driver has to prove they can perform. And as their teammate’s car is identical, finishing second says one thing only: my teammate is a better driver than me.
The more confident their teammate becomes, and the more podiums and top ten finishes they achieve, the worse the other driver feels. The fine line between confidence and recklessness becomes blurred, and mistakes creep into the driver’s races. What worked for their colleague isn’t working for them, and the cycle continues. They then appear to be ‘underperforming’ compared to the car’s potential.
An F1 driver is said to be outperforming the car when they achieve better results and faster lap times than the car is apparently capable of. They usually outcompete their teammate by some margin, and to outsiders it appears as if the driver is taking the car beyond what it is capable of.
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