Formula 1 hasn’t always been super popular this side of the Atlantic, but that’s beginning to change thanks to the documentary Formula 1: Drive to Survive.
The New York Times explains how the Netflix series has opened the eyes of motorsport fans in North America and Canada to the excitement, intrigue and high level of engineering that goes into making a Formula 1 team competitive. Last season’s finish, which saw Max Verstappen pip Lewis Hamilton to the title on the final lap of the final race, was the sort of finish that even the best Hollywood films would barely dare have scripted.
This season is a little clearer cut; Verstappen is an overwhelming favorite in the Ladbrokes racing odds to clinch a second title in a row, beginning what could be a career of dominance for the Belgian driver. Lewis Hamilton is lagging, but is that driver skill at fault? Last season, Hamilton was denied a record-breaking eighth title by a race director misinterpreting the rules. Has he been denied this year because of something beyond his control? Does it pose the question; is the real skill of Formula 1 the engineering behind the cars, not the skill of the driver?
It’s previously been labelled as the 80-20 rule, a long-held belief that success is only 20% down to the driver and 80% to the constructor. One constructor often has both drivers in the top two; Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in 2020 are the most recent examples. That suggests that the Mercedes car was better than all the others, and the only competition was then which of the two drivers 20% was better.
This season, Hamilton’s car has been described as a disaster; Mercedes never got it right after the rule change, which has left them behind Red Bull in the standings. However, Hamilton is currently sixth in the title hunt, behind his Mercedes teammate and both Red Bull and Ferrari drivers. With the top six coming from three constructors, it does suggest that cars, rather than skill, are the defining factor.
So, are the cars, rather than the drivers, accountable for success? Duane Rockerbie, from the University of Lethbridge in Canada, believes there is a third factor that people have not considered, which is the biggest differential for success; communication. “The car and team’s input has been greatly overestimated,” he told Sky Sports. “Rather than 80%, it is closer to 20%. The driver’s input accounts for roughly 15%.”
That accounts for a percentage, but the interaction between the team and driver is thought to be the most important. It would be a good reason the same teams pop up at the top of the table; because they communicate most effectively with their drivers. “The biggest factor is more nuanced, and it’s the interaction between the driver and the team, which accounts for 30-40%,” added Rockerbie. “Random factors that occur during the race make up the rest.”
Those random factors, such as mechanical breakdown, race director interruption and on-track incidents, are certainly troublesome for Hamilton; he’s been quicker than teammate Russell on occasions this season but had a horrible run of luck.
Those in the automotive industry like to think that superior engineering and better cars win races, but perhaps with Formula 1, there is more hidden under the bonnet than you might think. Perhaps, that is why the Drive to Survive documentary has been so successful across the Atlantic; it highlights what seemed to be a one-dimensional sport as being much more complex and engaging.