Formula 1 is a complex sport to say the least with hundreds of people working together to build two cars, but how fast that machine is driven comes down to the hands of a racing driver.
In F1‘s 72-year history, 772 drivers have started a Grand Prix – as of the 2022 Italian GP – with 112 becoming race winners and just 34 world champions.
During that time, some of the greatest motor racing machinery have been pioneered and crafted by people who simply don’t get the limelight they so deserve.
It begs the question: Is F1 about the car or the driver? Let’s take a look.
How much difference does the car make in F1
The short answer is a lot. There are countless instances which show when you put a fast driver in a slower car, he will struggle.
Fernando Alonso is a great modern example of this. He ended the reign of Michael Schumacher in 2005 when he took full advantage of Ferrari‘s disappointing campaign and won seven races for Renault.
In a much closer affair a year later in 2006, Alonso just beat Schumacher to the title which has turned out to be his last in F1.
Fast forward to 2015 when Alonso left Ferrari for McLaren-Honda, the situation couldn’t be more different.
Alonso was, without doubt, one of the best drivers on the grid yet struggled to get his car out of Q1 and was fighting to score points. That was when the Honda power unit wasn’t failing too.
It’s a massive shame Alonso has spent the majority of his F1 career without a car that was capable of fighting for the title.
Even now, at Alpine, the two-time F1 champion and teammate Esteban Ocon can’t get close to the front without a chaotic race.
“It’s all about Red Bull and Ferrari,” Alonso told Nos.nl. “Only Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez can win. I don’t know any other sport where it’s like this.
“The Grand Prix have become more fun, and with these cars you can fight better. Still, I think it’s too boring, but it’s also part of F1. There will always be teams that are faster than others.”
Alonso has been the most outspoken driver this in recent years about the importance of having a fast car in F1 which may sound like he’s just whining. However, the Spaniard is simply telling the harsh truth.
“It has been like this always,” continued Alonso when speaking after April’s 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola.
“When [Ayrton] Senna won the championships and the races, he had the fastest car. When I won the championship, I had the fastest car. Michael had the fastest car. Lewis broke all the records and pole positions because he had the fastest car.
“Today, Lewis is driving super well and he’s 13th. It’s Formula 1. In other words he no longer has the fastest car.”
Do drivers or teams win in F1?
Let’s say you have a car that’s capable of winning, ultimately you still have to deliver but so do the team.
Look at the 2022 season where Red Bull and Ferrari are separated by almost nothing. It’s all about setup, strategy and the driver executing on that final run in Q3.
It goes without seeing months and years of work goes into being able to be in a position to qualify on pole position or win the race.
There is a belief in F1 that 80 percent of the success is down to the team and 20 percent is driver skill.
However, a statistical model which looked at the seasons between 2012 and 2019 has dismissed the claim.
“The car and team’s input has been greatly overestimated,” said lead author Duane Rockerbie.
“Rather than 80 percent, it is closer to 20 percent. The driver’s input accounts for roughly 15 percent.
“The biggest factor is more nuanced and it’s the interaction between the driver and the team, which accounts for 30-40 percent. Random factors that occur during the race make up the rest.
“Our findings are particularly validating for drivers as it shows they do not just drive the cars but also provide valuable input and feedback on the development of the cars.
“More skilled drivers improve the return to team technology and vice-versa. After all, F1 cars do not drive themselves and drivers cannot ply their trade without an F1 car.
“The 80-20 rule vastly underestimates the role of the driver, given the critical complementarity between driver and team.”
At the 2022 United States GP, Pierre Gasly gave a specific figure and stated performance in F1 is 90 percent down to the team and 10 percent the driver.
“Hopefully one day we can change things around,” Gasly told the press. “But for now I will say that.”
Alpine‘s Esteban Ocon added: “I was gonna say the same as Pierre. Obviously, it hasn’t moved enough in that direction.
“I think everything that has been in place now, in Formula 1, with, I was gonna say cost cap, but let’s keep it to that, that should help obviously for the future, to make just everyone closer.
“But it’s not close enough yet for us all and I think it would be more fun if we could all fight at the front.”
Hamilton: Impossible to say
Lewis Hamilton feels it’s impossible to say a specific number, explaining that it’s irrelevant to say what makes the difference.
“It’s impossible to say what the number is really,” said Hamilton. “There is no I in team, and there is no one individual that’s bigger than any other people within the organisation.
“Yes, the one that gets to sit in the car is a part of bringing the attraction, and obviously putting the finishing touches to the amazing creation of all the people that you get to work with, but I think it’s silly putting numbers on it, because it’s irrelevant.
“It doesn’t make any difference, does it? At the end of the day, it is a team and every single person in the team has to be pulling, when we’re rowing all together, in the right direction with the same amount of might.”
Haas driver Kevin Magnussen agreed with the seven-time world champion but also alluded that F1 is all about the team.
“I think it’s difficult to put numbers on it, because in some ways you could say it’s 100 percent team because in F1 the team includes the driver,” said Magnussen.
“F1 is, in many ways, like the most team sport there is. There’s so many people that need to perform to be successful in this sport. So I don’t think it’s easy to say any kind of percentage.”
Can a driver win an F1 championship without the best car?
It’s difficult to judge which team had the fastest car over an F1 season due to the ever-changing development rates from race to race.
But, you can make a good argument for a few world champions who won without the best car this century.
Kimi Raikkonen stole the 2007 drivers’ championship from the squabbling McLaren pair of Hamilton and Alonso.
Hamilton‘s fifth title in 2018 saw him beat Sebastian Vettel who crumbled with a series of spins and mistakes in the second half of the season. Many people think Hamilton could have won the championship in Vettel‘s Ferrari that year.
Then there is 2021 which is remembered for its highly controversial ending, which saw Verstappen overtake Hamilton on the last lap of the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP, following race director Michael Masi‘s decision to allow some lapped cars through to restart the race.
But, Verstappen put together an extraordinary campaign with no bad weekends and maximising nearly all of the races he finished.
“I would be disappointed if I would’ve had the fastest car and not win it,” Verstappen said with four races to go of the 2021 season.
“But if, as I said, I lose out by not having the fastest car, then what can you do? There’s nothing you can do.”
The 2022 season is also a fine example with Ferrari widely accepted to have had the best car at the majority of the races, even though the standings suggest Verstappen has dominated the season.
Mistakes and strategy errors from Ferrari have showed the importance of having a great operational team in modern F1.
What is more important in F1, driver or car?
The car without question is more important than the driver in F1. Like Lando Norris said about Hamilton winning a record-equalling seventh world title, having a car which is the class of the field means you only have to beat your teammate.
“I’m just happy for him, nothing more,” Norris said in 2020. “It doesn’t mean anything to me, really. He [Hamilton] is in a car which should win every race, basically.
“He has to beat one or two other drivers, that’s it. Fair play to him, he’s still doing the job he has to do.”
That final point from Norris is a key point. You still have to execute and deliver on the day and have a winning mentality.
In a close title fight such as 2000, 2007 or 2021, the driver can make the final, crucial difference. Pulling off a special lap in Q3 such as Hamilton‘s Singapore 2018 effort or a heroic, under pressure win like Verstappen at the 2021 Dutch GP is something very few drivers can do and that’s why the top drivers nearly always become champion in F1.
A driver also has to gel with the car they have and the environment of the team. Take Daniel Ricciardo as a perfect example.
Widely rated as a top five driver from 2014 to 2020, only to join McLaren in 2021 and look like someone who shouldn’t even be in F1.
If you’re a team at the back, all priority has to go into making the car better. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your drivers are.
But, a team at the front needs at least one superstar in their team if they want to become world champions and that’s the ultimate target for anyone in F1.