The similarities in ability of Formula 1's top drivers are way more notable than the differences. But that only enhances the distinctions between them, those variations in style, technique and preference that form the flourishes of their performances as clearly as handwriting. How these differences play out is often significant in deciding which drivers shine or struggle in specific circumstances.
Former Lotus team principal Peter Collins is someone who has been involved in pretty much every category of racing, from karting to F1 and back to karting again, and it's his experience that driver traits are pretty much set in stone: "They don't change. You can watch them as a 10-year-old kid and see them progress all the way to F1 and you see the same underlying characteristics. They gain experience and knowledge and sometimes wisdom, but the way they drive stays as constant as their personalities."
THE HUMAN BIOLOGY
Collins's opinion figures if, at the root of it all, it's all about the physical sensations the driver feels in the car - how they sense g-force (grip), rotation (the turning motion) and yaw (the sliding). These are the three fundamentals but are almost certainly experienced slightly differently for each person according to their physiology. In F1 every aspect of car performance is put under the microscope, researched and developed, continually refined in permanent optimisation loops. But from the category's engineering-led perspective the performance of the driver is just an assumed number, with no real knowledge of what's behind it.
Just a slackening of pace by a couple of tenths reduces the brain load enormously. The less of that breathing time the brain needs, the more consistently close the driver can be to his own limits and it's about training the brain to be more energy-efficient in its tasks.
"I would say that even in F1, comparing theoretical optimums for any given driver to actual performance, there will typically be a difference over a grand prix distance of 20 seconds, maybe even 30 in some cases," says Ceccarelli.
This is said with the experience of having had at least half of the current F1 grid through his course at some stage. But ask Ceccarelli what research has been done about why different drivers drive in different ways and he snorts: "What you are asking is like asking a third-world country if it has a programme to go to the moon! To do such research properly would require the involvement of a team, a university, a serious budget and perhaps three or four years, and in F1 the driver is thought of as just a component. There is no thought for how to maximise his potential."
But if such research ever were to be undertaken, it might well take as its starting point some preliminary studies undertaken by QinetiQ, the defence agency and former Williams partner. It shared with Williams part of its research into military pilot selection that it thought might transfer to racing, namely human sensitivity to g-force, rotation and yaw...
It found that these sensations were picked up by sensors located between the coccyx and the third vertebra and that they were relayed to the brain sub-consciously - and therefore without any of the reaction-time delay of conscious stimulus. These sensors clearly form a profoundly important part in the workings of our inner gyroscopes. What's not yet fully understood is how they link up to the inner ear that forms such a crucial part of our balance. Those mysterious neuron pathways will define not only the quality of a driver's feel - the fundamental core of what makes one guy fast and another not - but also his preference for how the car should behave, its understeer or oversteer and the transitions to those states.
It is those preferences that form the essential differences in technique between the drivers - on the slow-to-medium speed corners at least, where the cars still need to be 'massaged' into a corner, where they are moving around sufficiently that variation in technique is possible. Any differences in technique tend to evaporate away in high-speed corners, where the speed-squaring force of the aerodynamics will dictate much more adamantly one 'correct' approach. On these corners the car will not be moving around anything like so much and the opportunity of variation is therefore very small. Take the two extremes of techniques from the current grid, put them each in a fast corner and there'd be virtually nothing to distinguish them.
But on slower corners - which on today's tracks are actually more prevalent than high-speed bends - a driver such as Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton is very comfortable with the rear of the car being loose. They carry commitment into the turn, secure in the knowledge that if the rear end becomes a little lively between turn-in and apex they can comfortably correct it while still maintaining a lot of momentum. The advantages they gain from the positive front end - faster direction change - they will reckon to be greater than the time losses incurred by any momentary and quickly-corrected instability at the rear.
In certain situations - slow-speed turns with preferably only a short straight following - they can even deliberately use some initial oversteer to hurry up the direction change and get the car pointed at the apex earlier, enabling them to get earlier on the power. It's a technique Vettel often used to great effect in qualifying last year and it's a key reason why Hamilton is so quick around Monaco.
The hazard of such an approach is that the sliding rear may have some momentum - and keep sliding. The margin between a momentary direction-change-enhancing twitch of oversteer early in the corner and a slide that goes on too long (and costs more time than is gained by the quicker direction change) is grass-blade thin. But those who can feel that margin and sit themselves upon it can be very quick in almost all conditions.
The slower the corner, the better the chances of that momentum not building, and the better therefore the chances of the time bought in direction change not then being lost by sliding for too long. Furthermore, if there is only a short straight following the slow corner - like in Monaco for much of the lap - even if you do exit the corner more slowly, you may still have bought more time on entry than you've lost on exit.
The opposite approach would be that of someone like Jenson Button or, as we used to see, Robert Kubica. "I hate rear instability on corner entry," said Button during his Brawn title-winning season of 2009. "It's not something I can deal with well. If I look at the telemetry and compare what Rubens [Barrichello, his team-mate that season] does in those situations, I can't do that. If he has rear instability he just throws on a lot of steering lock very suddenly, making the car understeer, and balancing it just right so that by the time the understeer's reducing you're into the corner and the transient instability is gone, or has been sort of damped out. I've seen it time and time again on the telemetry. When I try to do that, I just lose all feeling for the car; I cannot judge how much to do it by, it just feels so alien."
Kubica was similarly disadvantaged by rear instability. "I need the rear of the car to be stable," he explained, "So preferably with a little bit of understeer so I can take a lot of speed into the corner. So long as it's grippy understeer, so that I can still ask more on the steering and it will respond, then it's good. If I get oversteer on entry, I'm dead. My style of taking the speed in just doesn't work if the back is loose. Obviously you can adapt as you feel the car, but some drivers are better suited to one thing, some to another."
Robert Kubica at Brazil in 2009 © LAT
The cornering forces of a car are obviously generated by the front tyres first, and only as they have built that up and begun to turn the car do the rear tyres begin assuming their share of the load. With an understeering car this transfer to the rear is slower, more progressive. In certain circumstances this can give an advantage - by keeping the maximum load onto the rear from peaking beyond its grip limits (because of the more-progressive build-up) in those corners maybe too fast to prevent the Hamilton/Vettel approach from giving the rear slide too much momentum.
There would seem to be a strong correlation between the sensitivity of a driver's feel and how much they dislike rear instability - which sort of figures. If the driver has spent his whole career avoiding the onset of sudden breakaway at the rear, he is going to be more attuned to messages informing him of that than someone who doesn't really mind if the rear does break away.
THE TELL-TALE GIVEAWAYS
There was a small moment during qualifying in Bahrain in 2010 that was very illuminating to McLaren's Paddy Lowe. In the final runs the wind had suddenly changed direction and it meant that as the cars arrived at Turns 5-6 - into the extended loop - they traversed a crosswind. Button turned into the corner, instantly sensed there was momentarily less grip than before and was spooked, thinking something was wrong with the car. He proceeded very carefully through the next few turns and the lap was gone. Hamilton arrived at the turn, felt nothing different to before and blasted through there, full-attack.
"We saw from the loadings on the cars and the various data that both cars had been affected in exactly the same way," said Lowe. "Yet Lewis didn't feel it and Jenson did. As it happened, that worked in Lewis's favour." But on another occasion - a genuine reduction in surface grip through the corner from spilt oil, say - it might have worked in Button's.
Jenson Button during qualifying for the Bahrain GP in 2010 © LAT
"Ninety per cent of the feedback you get in a racing car is irrelevant," says Martin Brundle. "It's part of the driver's skill to filter out the irrelevant stuff and just act upon that vital 10 per cent." A driver quite relaxed about sudden rear instability will probably be using a coarser filter for such messages than one who cannot tolerate such a trait. That greater sensitivity can bring benefits in other situations.
Hamilton and Button - being at opposite ends of the style spectrum, yet driving the same car - make for particularly intriguing comparisons. Button's sensitivity to the car's microbehaviour has probably played its part in how the team looks to him more than Hamilton for set-up/development direction through a race weekend. Whenever there is a divergence of opinion on Friday over which direction to follow, the team invariably follows Button's preference, probably secure in the knowledge that Hamilton will be able to drive well regardless of the car's traits, whereas Button loses more of his performance if the car is not exactly as he needs it. We see also just how such sensitivity allows Button to shine in wet - or even better, variably wet - conditions.
THE STROKES OF GENIUS
The gung-ho driver perfectly at ease with whatever the car throws at him can conjure supreme wet-weather performances - Vettel Monza '08, Hamilton Silverstone '08, Ayrton Senna Donington '93. But so too can the super-sensitive, silky-smooth driver and, when conditions are changeable rather than full wet, so that style comes into its own. Button's drive in China '10 comes to mind, as does his 8s faster in-lap over Nico Rosberg as they each made their way to the pits during a sudden downpour in Malaysia in '09. Think of these traits in terms of those neural pathways and inner ears, the body's sensors and inner gyroscopes, and it paints a fascinating, albeit incomplete, picture.
Sebastian Vettel exploring the margins of oversteer at Monza in 2008 © LAT
It can be appreciated how the different physiological make-up of even drivers of very similar outright ability can change their effectiveness according to variables such as handling traits and circuit conditions. Another powerful variable in this is ongoing regulation change, which can shuffle the pack not just of car performance, but also that of the drivers. In this, tyre specification seems the most powerful variant of all. Some drivers rely more on overlapping braking with cornering than others, and some tyres are way less tolerant of this than others. Last year's stiff-sidewalled Pirellis hated it, for example.
In the days of high-grip tyre-war Bridgestones, Michael Schumacher used to love to overlap the braking and cornering phases into slow-to-medium-speed turns. Alain Prost used a similar technique. They would begin the turn slightly earlier than the geometric ideal, turning only gently at first and maintaining a lot of momentum. As they loaded the outer front tyre under combined braking and cornering, so they would then begin to release some of the braking force, allowing the tyre to build up more cornering load, and the rear would begin to pivot itself gently around that outer front. The braking kept the fronts from building up lateral grip too quickly and transferring the cornering load too suddenly to the rear, keeping that rear end tamed while still benefiting from the direction change it was introducing to the car.
It required great sensitivity to make it work, but it potentially allowed you to have your cake and eat it; the high entry speed of the understeer-type driver, but with the early direction-change completion of the oversteer-type driver. But it required the tyres to cooperate, needed a nice flexible sidewall to blend the braking with the cornering.
THE OUTSIDE FACTORS
In the days when Felipe Massa was regularly winning grands prix, he was extremely good at taking a lot of braking a long way into the corner, sometimes right up to the apex if the corner was slow enough. This forces you to have a lower minimum corner speed than the guy who has released the brakes earlier - because the tyre is overloaded. But if the corner apex is very slow anyway, that doesn't cost much lap time, probably less than Massa had gained on the way in by braking so late. He was also very adept at maintaining momentum with an understeer balance. Either some of his sensitivity has been lost, or the stiffer control-tyre Bridgestones and Pirellis used since his comeback from injury do not allow that style to work.
If the circuit's layout is slow enough, there are often set-up tweaks - rear ride-height increases or rear suspension geometries giving higher roll axis, diff settings - that can be used to aid the 'rotation' of the car upon corner entry, hurrying up the direction change without it actually sliding. But if there are too many fast turns, such tweaks would be counter-productive over the lap.
Keke Rosberg was out done on set-up by Alain Prost in 1986 © LAT
Generally, an F1 car will tend to understeer in slow corners and oversteer in fast ones, partly because the front tyres, the faster they are going, build cornering force more quickly - and thereby sooner transfer the loads to the rear. So the more you 'improve' its slow-corner balance, the worse you make it in the high-speed turns and vice versa. In a perfect world therefore, the driver more comfortable with oversteer can have a set-up that works better over a lap, as Paddy Lowe explains: "A lot of the performance limit of a car is set by stability in the high-speed zones; if you can't hang onto it, you will have to introduce understeer in that zone. But if you have a driver better able to deal with oversteer in those zones that induce it, then you will have a less-understeery car elsewhere and therefore more total grip over the lap. The great drivers over the years - Senna, Schumacher, Mansell - have all had that ability. Like for like compared to other drivers, they want more front end."
But, as ever, there are disclaimers. If the understeer-type driver is able to use that trait to maintain higher minimum corner speeds in the slow turns than the oversteer-type driver, then he benefits from the better stability in the high-speed turns.
As ever, it all depends upon circumstance and conditions. Back in the turbo days, the oversteering Keke Rosberg could not hold a candle at McLaren to the understeering Alain Prost - and for John Barnard, the team's technical director of the time, the reason was very simple: "Alain would set the car up in a way that to any other driver would feel like it had massive understeer, but he had a way of getting the car into the corner early [with his overlapping of braking and cornering], which for a turbo was fantastic, because it meant he could get early on the power and we could give him some traction. Keke, by contrast, was last of the late brakers and really liked to turn the car very quickly. To do that you need a set-up that's a bit light on rear grip - and that just wasn't the way with these cars because it meant you didn't have the traction to use all that huge power."
There are no right and wrong answers here - and against the stopwatch the differing styles of the drivers are nowhere near as significant as their overall level. But given that in F1 the drivers are all at a very high level, then those differences in preferences/techniques - and specifically how they dovetail with the car/tyres/conditions/track - very often become the decisive factors in success.
To continue reading this feature, subscribe to Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus subscription includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.