Formula 1 Insight

A Glimpse of the Future

In the comments section to my last post, a discussion developed regarding two drivers in particular: Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen. Everyone has noticed how uninterested in F1 Kimi seems at the moment and various reasons for this were suggested. The general opinion seems to be that the Finn may well retire at the end of the year, whether or not he becomes champion for a second year.

Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel

The story is very different when we look at Hamilton; two demonstrations of utter superiority in Britan and Germany have convinced many that he is the best driver since Schumacher and perhaps Senna. With McLaren apparently having caught Ferrari on the fast tracks and still better on the tight circuits, we could be in for a period of complete domination by Hamilton. And, if that continues into the new era being readied for 2009, this could be extended into a Schumacher-like series of races won inevitably by one driver and a succession of championships for the golden boy until he retires.

It may look unlikely now but consider how Schumacher's time followed on from Senna's great years. Perhaps this is a developing pattern of one driver in each generation being head and shoulders above the rest.

That is not a situation that I relish; cars were unreliable enough in Senna's time to prevent F1 from becoming too boringly predictable but they improved dramatically during Schumacher's reign, so that races and whole seasons became endless repetition. The main interest in those years was the search for someone to compete with the German.

If things do tend towards the suggested scenario, is there any hope for those who look for a driver to compete with Hamilton? Alonso springs instantly to mind as a result of last year's bitter battle between the two. But will he be able to keep up as Hamilton inexorably improves with experience? That is presuming that Alonso is able to find his way back to a competitive team and that, as we have seen, may not be easy if Ferrari are to continue their decline. Alonso seems to have resigned himself to another season with Renault, judging by his suggestion that a Renault revival will not happen until next year, but a Ferrari seat in 2010 may be too late for him.

Robert Kubica was recently the man of the moment, earning himself favorable comparison with Hamilton after his victory in Canada, but Nick Heidfeld's improvement must threaten Robert's reputation. If Nick can use his breakthrough in qualifying to equal Kubica in the second half of this season, it will be clear that we must look elsewhere for our Hamilton contender. Nick is quick, yes, but he does not have that extra helping of talent that Hamilton shows.

Nico Rosberg perhaps? He is out of favor at the moment but it was not so long ago that he was the preferred replacement for Alonso at McLaren, only losing out through his loyalty to Williams. The decreasing competitiveness of Nico's car has made him look ordinary this season but that could change in an instant if he were given a decent chance. So we can suggest Rosberg but it is a fairly desperate hope - I confess myself unconvinced.

Of the current crop of F1 drivers, there is only one who might prove a match for Hamilton and that is Sebastian Vettel. He is taking the Alonso route, impressing in an inferior car and the results begin to be delivered. I was not impressed with him at first but lately he has produced performances more in line with his reputation. So he is a possibility and we wait to see him in a better car before we can judge him with more confidence.

Of those waiting their turn at the game, only Grosjean looks to be anything special. But the same was true of Glock last year and he has been more a damp squib than a firecracker. If our long term look into the future is proved correct and Hamilton emerges as the man to beat, it is hard to see where any competition might come from. All things considered, I would have to say that Vettel looks the best bet at the moment. And that is a high risk gamble until we know a bit more about him.

There again, BMW might produce a blinder of a car next year and crush all opposition. Or Honda make the breakthrough after a headstart on development. Or Williams suddenly have one of those seasons where they get a massive advantage on the others.

I'm clutching at straws, I think...


As the cars become more and more alike...thanks to our friends at the FIA...the driver will become the key factor. Under those circumstances, I would suggest that your greatest fears will be realized, Clive.
Date Added: 21/07/2008

There has been news on the net today about the technical tweaks that McLaren have used to get ahead of Ferrari. If they keep up that pace of development, the others aren't going to stand a chance and Hamilton will win everything in sight. And it won't be long before we'll be begging for someone to beat him...
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Alianora La Canta
The rate things are going at, it will increasingly be whoever can spend the most money (by sneaking it in through the back door) who will have the best car. The margins will decrease, but the team mobility will decrease. This means that fewer drivers will have a chance of finding out whether they could beat the current best drivers. Dominant cars tend to lead to predictable, dominant drivers, if only because only one other driver has a realistic chance of matching them (and even that depends on how the team has balanced its hierarchy).

Mind you, the driver thing does tend to go in phases; we've just had several good prospects appear in the space of just over a year (Rosberg, Kubica, Hamilton and Vettel - and that's assuming Kovalainen doesn't work out and Sutil never becomes consistent) so it would be unreasonable to expect any others for a while. Maybe we should consider ourselves blessed that we have so many pretenders. Let's face it, in 2002, none of the significant 2001 drivers (Montoya, Alonso and Raikkonen) looked anywhere near as good as they became at their respective peaks. Like those three, the sophomores and near-sophomores Clive mentioned in his article will probably have wildly diverging careers - but don't be surprised if all of them have better years ahead of them than they are currently having in 2008. Which in Kubica's case is downright ominous...
Date Added: 22/07/2008

i won't say hamilton isn't the best of the field, quite honestly i'm just not ready to concede that point-but if it's going to come down to another era of a driver wiping the field because the car is superior i think that's a real tragedy. when is the last time there's been a field with this much real potential?
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Number 38
SPECULATION ...... the game that never ends!

You MIGHT be right Clive, we're heading to another Schumacher like era where one driver, presumably Hamilton, becomes dominate and F1 in general becomes (more) boring. To speculate WHO is dominate or who might challenge him is the question.

Clipped from your article: "Vettel......impressing in an inferior car and the results begin to be delivered." The words alone are not enough as those very words could also apply to Trulli, surely he is in an inferior car and starting to deliver results, (that ought to draw fire from someone), but the words are true none the less. Webber, also, an inferior car and he's having his best season thus far. An inferior car and producing results are not enough to challenge a dominate figure. And even a dominate figure in a dominate car i.e. Kimi in the Ferrari has failed to meet expectations.
I'm not disputing Vettel MIGHT be the name but I question what really sets him above the others. I see two parameters that set him apart from the others and these might also apply to other challengers......... AGE and PERCEPTION. Trulli and Webber and Button and others who might have been great drivers given a dominate CAR are "over the hill" by (modern) F1 standards. And public perception, Vettel personally has done nothing while on the circuit to promote himself to "challenger" but somehow.......
the idea of this kid replacing the current senior on the grid,
why he MUST be good, he must be GREAT to fill that seat, and so it goes. Of course unless the Red Bull car matches McLaren's performance all this chat was for naught!
Date Added: 22/07/2008

OK, Clive, at the beginning of the season I swore to hold your feet to the fire in regards to Never Been Nicked by a Razor Heidfeld, and so I will.

"Robert Kubica was recently the man of the moment, earning himself favorable comparison with Hamilton after his victory in Canada, but Nick Heidfeld's improvement must threaten Robert's reputation."

I'm sure as you were writing this you were thinking that it wasn't complete. Reputation? What it won't do is threaten his ability. Let's be honest here. You're pinning Kubica's chances on beating Hamilton on Heifeld's ability to turn his season around. The reality is, Kubica is on the way up and Heidfeld is on the way down. I'm not saying he's getting worse, but he won't get any better. Robert is and will. Your bias is showing, my friend.

As for Rosberg, I think his situation is one where no one will know his true talent until he's in a very good car. Everyone complained that Fisi never had a great car, but he did drive the same car as Alonso, and rose only as far as he could. It would be great to see what Rosberg could do in a top car. Look at Villeneuve. There is no question that he had talent, but he needed the Williams to exploit it.
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Steven Roy
That's quite a conversion Clive. A few months ago I couldn't convince you that Hamilton was the best current driver now you are considering Schumacher-like domination.

The truth of course is that there is always a dominant driver in every generation. JYS whose wisdom in these matters as in all others is unquestioned says that at any time there are 6 really good drivers in F1. Of these six 3 are really special and one is a genius.

Of course the car has a big impact on the results a driver delivers and great drivers in some cases have never sat in a decent car and on occasions great drivers have failed to make F1. I have a long held belief that the most naturally talented driver on the planet has probably never sat in a road car let alone driven one. Think of the populations of China, India, Africa etc an you have a large percentage of the population of the planet and a lot of people in those places are too poor to ever sit in a car. If we restrict ourselves to people who have made the front of the grid you can see drivers dominating from the start of the world championship. Ascari, Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Prost, Senna and Schumacher spring instantly to mind. Pre-war you could argue Caraciola was the dominant driver although I am sure Nuvolari would dispute the title.

Kimi and Fernando looked like they would take on the mantle as the top two drivers but Lewis for me is a step or two above them. The gap looks more than it really is just now because he is flying and they are both going through shaky spells.

Vettel seems to be the current favourite to challenge but that job seems to change hands on a regular basis. The thing that worries me about Vettel being the great challenger is that in the F3 Euroseries which is supposed to be one of the championships used to measure driver ability he lost the title to his team mate and as we all know you have to beat your team mate. His team mate from that championship is now plying his trade in the DTM. It is a fickle thing being the great white hope.

I said three races into last year's championship that I thought that Lewis would be the dominant driver for the next decade and I still stand by that. Eventually of course a serious challenger or rival will come along but I have yet to be convinced Vettel is the man.

If he is to be a serious contender he has to dispose of Webber quickly next season. If Webber matches him then Vettel loses his claim. The latest issue of Autosport has their assessment of the relative performance of the teams and drivers in the first half of the championship. Most of it is based on statistical analysis of times in various sessions etc. Some interesting facts are that the slowest driver is just over 2% behind the fastest. Changed days from the 107% qualifying time. The most disparate team mates surprising are Rosberg and Nakajima with Nico comfortably on top. The most even team mates are Button and Barrichello which must presumably be the final nail in the coffin of Jenson's claim to be able to match Lewis in equal equipment.

Date Added: 22/07/2008

Alianora: You are right that F1 has an exceptional array of young talent at the moment and I am grateful for that. The problem that I foresee is that both McLaren and Hamilton seem to be emerging as an unbeatable combination - and we all know how boring things became the last time we had a dominant driver in a dominant car.

It may not happen and I hope that BMW's drive to the front continues and so prevents it, but there is no guarantee of that. As Number 38 points out in a later comment, this post is pure speculation, considering what happens if...
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Verasaki: I think it is pretty rare for F1 to have so many young hopefuls at the one time - I can't remember a similar period. All I'm saying is that, looking at current form, there is a danger that one driver and team will emerge and spoil a run of the most competitive seasons in a long time.

Hamilton may not be quite as good as he has looked in the last two GPs but, if there is a driver who has the potential to be head and shoulders above the rest, it has to be him.
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Number 38: Yes, it is all speculation and that is the name of the game. We all do it and it forms a large part of what this blog is about - trying to see the future after studying the present.

I start with the premise of "What if Hamilton emerges as the dominant driver of his generation? Can we see any who could compete with him?" And, to do that, I have to look at established stars (Alonso) and potential winners. Those drivers you mention are from an earlier generation and have had their chance. People like Webber and Trulli might have the talent to be effective opposition to Hamilton but they just aren't going to get the equipment to do so. Effectively, F1 has moved on and the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and BMW are not going to be offering Webber or Trulli a drive. That may not be fair but it is reality.

So we have to look at the youngsters and, as I have pointed out, the only one who might be in the same class as Hamilton is Vettel. Like you, I have my doubts about him but he has time yet to prove me wrong. Maybe Kubica or Rosberg could prove up to the task in time - at present, it doesn't look likely to me.

It all depends too upon a team or teams being able to challenge the current superiority of the McLaren. It could happen, especially with the rule changes due in 2009, but is again unlikely, given the importance of funding these days.

I am not saying that we will enter a Hamilton era similar to the Schumacher years - but it is certainly a strong possibility.
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Arnet: Nope, I meant what I said - Heidfeld is a threat to Kubica's reputation, not his ability. Nothing can change Kubica's ability except more experience (as you point out) and yes, he will get better; but the Pole's reputation has changed enormously thanks to his showing in the season so far. What I am saying is that this may be an over-estimation of Robert's talent, largely the result of Heidfeld encountering problems in qualifying this year.

I don't believe that a driver's abilities change much from one race to the next or even from one season to another. Last year, Nick had the measure of Robert and finished with by far the greater total of points. So what has caused the sudden change this year? The likelihood is that it is exactly as Nick has explained: he has been unable to get the tires warmed up for a flying lap in qualifying.

Take a look at lap times during the races and the story is pretty much as it was last year - Nick is every bit as quick as Robert and it has been his grid position holding him back. Over the last two races, Nick has shown that the qualifying problem has been overcome and suddenly Nick is outscoring Robert. I have not checked to see how true it is, but I saw somewhere that the top scorer over the last four races has been Nick Heidfeld. Biased I may be but that looks pretty ominous for Kubica, if you ask me.

And that is the reason for my statement that Heidfeld's improvement must threaten Kubica's reputation. If Nick outscores Robert in the second half of the season, will we still be able to regard the Pole as an equal to Hamilton (as is being suggested at the moment)? I think not. As pro-Heidfeld as I admit to being, I don't think he is as good as Hamilton; and if Kubica is no better than Nick, that leaves him out of contention too.

As for Rosberg, I agree that it is very difficult to assess him, given the cars he has driven so far. But we make our guesses and estimates and mine is that he is good but not in Hamilton's class. Naturally, I could be wrong and I hope Nico proves me so.
Date Added: 22/07/2008

Steven: Not quite a conversion yet; note that I'm saying "if" a lot. I am only too aware that our estimates of a driver's ability tend to go up and down with their performance in each race. Hamilton's star is on the rise at the moment, thanks to two brilliant races in Britain and Germany, but let us not forget that prior to that he was the whipping boy of F1 for the mistakes he made. I try to take a more overall view and I think that Lewis is emerging as the dominant driver of his generation - but it will be a while yet before I give him Senna or Schumacher status.

You are right that the greatest driver may never sit in a car, in fact I have written a short story about that. But we can only consider what we know and that means the current drivers. And, of those, it certainly looks as though Hamilton will be the dominant force in the years to come - hence my attempt to look into the future and see what that means for the sport.

I agree totally about Vettel. He is the one we know least about at this stage and so we tend to put too much expectation on his shoulders. We shall see. The contest between him and Webber next year will be interesting indeed.
Date Added: 22/07/2008

boy george
This is a great post. Thanks it is very informative. you gave me a lot of insight on the situation.

Date Added: 23/07/2008

Shame on you, George - that counts as spam. Does Danica know you're touting for business for her? ;)
Date Added: 23/07/2008

Steve Ellis
I agree that Vettel is the only one out there right now that might, and I emphasize might, be able to challenge Hamilton. Kimmi looks completely unmotivated and I don't believe Massa has the physcological strength. You're spot on about Alonso.

I have never rated Heidfeld hightly, so if Kubica can't thrash him, he'll go down in my estimation. Rosberg has done almost nothing impressive. Granted his cars have been lousy, but I don't see that spark of greatness.

Vettel has proved to me that he's fast and can be ruthless. It's just a matter of if he can continue or will he be a flash in the pan. Next year I think will go a long way towards answering this question. In my mind, that will be the most important battle on the grid: Webber v Vettel.

If not vettel, I think we are in for a long period of Hamilton dominance.
Date Added: 24/07/2008

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