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What makes F1 drivers special?

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A look at the qualities that keep racing drivers ahead of the pack

By Chris Partridge
BBC News

At first glance, the work of a professional racing driver appears little different to what we all have to do each day in our cars.

We both basically manipulate the wheel, gears and pedals according to the conditions ahead. Of course, racing drivers have to do this much more quickly, but just how different can their work really be?

The simple answer is, hugely different.

A racing driver has to push the car to the very limits, attacking corners to the point that the car is always sliding on the edge of adhesion - something that is not always obvious on television.

Anthony Davidson in his Le Mans Peugeot
Anthony Davidson's day job - driving the Peugeot 908 Le Mans car

They have to push the car into a state of instability - and feel comfortable with that - in situations which would hopefully never arise for ordinary road drivers. It's a much higher workload with many more subconscious corrections to the steering wheel and throttle.

For several months now, I have been working on a project to compare a professional driver with an amateur enthusiast. I wanted to put each in the same kind of car, on the same track and in the same conditions.

We would examine our driving by analysing our speed, engine revs, throttle position and gear selection across all points on the track. At a very basic level, we would be doing what F1 teams do every race weekend with their drivers by taking telemetry data straight from the cars.

THE DRIVERS

First of all I needed an experienced driver. Anthony Davidson, the former Super Aguri F1 driver, current Mercedes F1 simulator driver and BBC 5 Live analyst, agreed to the challenge. Anthony also races in sports cars for Peugeot in their Le Mans car.

I was the amateur. I started kart racing earlier this year in a Rotax club championship. Hopefully this form of racing would make a comparison with a professional slightly more meaningful over someone with zero experience.

TRACKS AND CARS

Our track was Bedford Autodrome and our cars 170mph Formula Jaguars. These are fitted with paddle-shift gear changers on the wheel, just like in F1. We did 10 laps before returning to the garage for data analysis. From this our driving styles would be compared.

OUR TIMES

Before getting into the differences, we need to establish our respective times. Anthony recorded a one minute 15.405 seconds for his best lap and I delivered 1:19.907 - I was four and a half seconds slower. In F1 terms, and in a test effectively between team-mates, that's a massive difference. I've identified five key reasons:

Courage in fast corners

As we examined our telemetry, what really hit my lap times was my approach to the two last corners. These are taken at high speed, yet I was easing off heavily compared to Anthony. His speed at the exit of the last corner was 86mph; mine was just 73mph.

Anthony explained: "The faster you go, you can really see the bravery, and putting the car on the edge. Those corners are taken in fourth or fifth gear, depending on how brave you are. You can see in the gear trace that you have dropped down into fourth gear and not carried on in fifth.

What struck me was how good he was at articulating how the car behaved

"It's all about putting the car on the limit and feeling comfortable with the car moving around you at massive high speed."

Phil Broad, data and systems engineer at Palmer Sport, confirmed these last two corners were critical. "Once these are sorted, the rest of the lap works itself out," he said.

Discipline in driving

As well as sheer courage for the fast corners, there were other noticeable differences. Watching Anthony's on-board camera footage, which unfortunately stopped recording after lap three, demonstrated very measured driving early on.

He was at about two-thirds ultimate pace, getting used to the feel of the car and understand each part of the circuit. It was a highly disciplined approach. By contrast, after my out lap, I went for it straight away.

Braking on the limit

I was also struck by how late Anthony managed to hit the brakes. Down the pit straight, he was braking nearly 40 metres later than me.

Anthony Davidson readjusts to single seat driving
Davidson had not driven a single-seater for two years

I did not feel comfortable with the car in what must have been an unstable situation, particularly with the added complication that flicking down the gears has on the way that the car handles.

This was where Anthony is completely at home from years of experience.

An eye for detail

Picking out small details on the circuit is key to choosing braking points. During our debrief in the garage, Anthony talked about the second braking board into Turn One and how he used a bit of concrete just after it as his reference point.

I didn't even notice the second braking board. My brain registered the first one and subconsciously stuck with that as I looked towards the apex for the turn.

Understanding the Car

Anthony described how he used the throttle to make maximise the differential through corners. That was completely new to me as karts have a fixed rear axle. I'm not sure I entirely understood his explanation as he went into some depth.

But it showed just how top drivers fully understand the engineering of their cars for maximum impact on the track.

CONCLUSION

Anthony was a shade less than 6% faster in the same type of machinery on the same track in the same conditions. And this was the first time he had been in a single-seater since F1 in 2008. What struck me was how good he was at articulating how the car behaved.

Recently, I watched him win the Silverstone Le Mans Series 1,000km race in his 908 Peugeot LMP1 monster of a car, where he performed a daring overtaking move, just minutes into the race, to take the lead.

It was a great event made even better by knowing just what is needed to make the grade. Now, how can I improve my racing skills?



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see also
BBC's Formula 1 team
11 Jan 12 |  Formula 1
Davidson returns as Honda tester
12 Jun 08 |  Formula 1
Davidson determined to stay in F1
07 May 08 |  Formula 1


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