Shut up and drive

Photo Credit: nic_r (licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike)

November 11, 2011

I’m sitting in a small barbecue restaurant over 800 miles from home, having a spirited conversation with a couple of friends about Kimi Raikkonen and his chances of coming back to Formula 1 for the 2012 season after his abrupt 2009 departure. Raikkonen’s been linked throughout the season to several teams, including a couple generally regarded as relative underdogs. One of these teams is Lotus Renault.

The Iceman, as he’s known in the paddock, earned his reputation as a man who cares solely about driving. Rumor has it he sleeps until right before he’s required to be on track for the drivers’ parade. He notoriously hates giving interviews before races. I always thought it was funny when Peter Windsor, former grid commentator for SPEED’s Formula 1 coverage, would never ask him questions before a race, instead proffering a heartfelt “good luck” before slipping away.

Racing reigns supreme for Raikkonen. Give him a car that won’t break, and he’ll do his best to finish first. It’s that simple. Driving (briefly) for Sauber in 2001 before Ron Dennis and McLaren snapped him up for 2002, Raikkonen then captured the seat vacated by seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher at the close of the 2006 season, spending three years in Ferrari’s employ.

Drivers dream of finishing their racing careers cloaked in that distinctive shade of scarlet, hearing the cheers of rabid Italian fans (commonly referred to as the tifosi) as they cross the finish line. I challenge you to find a driver on the current Formula 1 grid that would not want to hear the church bells ring in Maranello on Sunday afternoon, commemorating another Ferrari victory. Ferrari exemplifies the history and tradition of the sport. It’s just the way of things in Formula 1.

After his 2009 departure, speculation abounded on whether he’d ever return. Schumacher did it. Could Raikkonen? It appeared, based on various media reports, we’d soon see.

Frank, an incredibly astute and generally awesome guy who’s produced and followed Formula 1 for decades, started laughing at one point. “We came up with a solution for this a long time ago. Lock him in his motorhome before races; let him leave as soon as he’s done on track. Have the team pay the fines. No interviews, no sponsor meetings. Nothing. Kimi does best when he can just shut up and drive.”

Recent coverage of Formula 1 echoes one basic sentiment: The teams receive funds directly proportionate to their finish in the constructors’ championship, not the individual results represented in drivers’ championship. There is no direct financial incentive for teams to focus on the results of the drivers’ championship. With that said, Formula 1 cars can’t drive themselves — the driver is the organic extension of the physical vehicle. Teams aggressively court drivers who show they’re able to block out the myriad distractions of the circus and focus on the task at hand.

It also doesn’t hurt if drivers bring sponsors to the team — while the monies won as part of the constructors’ championship are essential to continued team success, sponsors keep the bills paid. It’s fairly easy to see which teams struggle — cars without logos are cars without cash. It’s also easy to see why Frank’s solution simply would not work in a modern Formula 1 team: Sponsors expect drivers to attend various promotional events, smile, shake hands, and sign autographs for fans. In some cases, sponsors can influence driver choices for teams. It’s essential to know how to play the game if you want to do well in Formula 1, but charm doesn’t replace skill. It’s all about finding the right balance.

The month of August is a bit of a respite for teams and journalists covering Formula 1, as they are required to shut down operations for two consecutive weeks during the month of August. While somewhat frustrating for teams looking to continue developing their cars, the break provides teams the opportunity to relax and breathe, if only for a moment. Factory shutdowns mean little transpires during the summer holiday. Idle tracks do not translate into idle minds, however. In the absence of new information, speculation runs amok. In short, this is the start of the “silly season,” where drivers nearing the end of their contract engage in a delicate, intricate dance. Step on too many toes and you’ll find yourself standing next to the wall, watching the others sway and dip to the music while you yearn for what could have been.

The overall structure and insular nature of Formula 1 makes it difficult to break into the sport — but if you play by the rules and excel at your job, you’re in for the ride of your life. The question seems obvious: What are the rules?

While I’ve never managed to find an official list, the following three rules appear to reign supreme, particularly for drivers during the silly season:

  • Don’t trash-talk your team, including your teammate. Ever.
  • This first rule has been recently tested by some of the bigger drivers in the sport, particularly Lewis Hamilton. World Champion in 2008, Hamilton currently finds himself mired in contract negotiations with McLaren-Mercedes, the team he’s been linked to from the time he was a little boy. Signed at 13, Hamilton previously expressed his desire to spend his entire career there. Over the past year, however, he’s made comments insinuating this may no longer be the case. In fact, as I write this, Hamilton is currently mired in a bit of Twitter controversy over remarks he’s made about his place within the team. Teams work diligently to preserve a calm, unified front to the media; rogue comments by disgruntled drivers can destroy this work in seconds. Bruised egos, a tight championship, and rumor-mill machinations make these trying times for teams.

    Raikkonen generally excels at following this rule. His responses to the press are legendary, and generally contain some variation of, “The car is good. I am happy with the car. For sure we have a good package and the team has been working very hard, but it is the same for everyone and we will just need to wait and see what happens during the race.”

    True driver skill does not exist solely on track. In Formula 1, as in countless other organizations, knowing your message as well as your audience is essential for continued success.

  • There’s a difference between on-track competition and off-track rivalry. Burn too many bridges in Formula 1 and you may find yourself on the outside looking in.
  • If you’ve followed the sport for a while, you’re acutely aware of this second rule. The longer you’re in the sport, the more likely you are to jump between teams. This applies to all team personnel — drivers, engineers, mechanics, everyone. If you watch the teams talk about one another, you’ll quickly notice they rarely directly slam their competitors. While drivers and team personnel may discuss their team’s improvements, and how they have worked on their package over the season, there’s a definite lack of malice between teams.

    Personally and professionally, this makes for a more harmonious paddock. It also provides the teams with the ability to band together when necessary to push for more driver/team representation in the sport. It’s also hard to be mean to those you’re surrounded by daily, and even harder to denigrate those who may be working with you next year.

  • Dog brain reigns supreme. You’re only as good as your last race. Keep consistently performing (preferably at the front of the grid) and you’re set.
  • “Dog brain” was a phrase coined by my husband to explain the behavior of non-playable characters (NPCs) in games like Oblivion and Skyrim. Dog brain, as defined by Chris, is when your character receives a new quest or challenge from the NPC as part of the ongoing game. Upon exiting the menu and leaving the interaction, the NPC asks if you’ve completed that task yet: dog brain. This can be applied, to a certain extent, in Formula 1.

    Recent history is much more important than what happened in the past. Successful teams continuously improve. The past provides a reference plane; it does not dictate the future. Perform your best, every race.

Learn these rules, or leave the sport. Shut up and drive.

Doctor Erin Hansman (not that kind of doctor) is an avid enthusiast of Formula 1 motor sport. When not following “the pinnacle of international motor racing” she works for a small, private university in the middle of Missouri wrangling databases, preparing reports, and developing new ways to do things. She can also be found on Twitter via @DrHansman and at her often-neglected personal blog

2 Responses to “Shut up and drive”
  1. Shut up and drive! And try not to tweet your team’s telemetry…. Just sayin’. I can think of at least one driver who would do well to read your article. Well done, Erin.

  2. Doug Bryan says:

    Excellent article! Her thoughts on Lewis and his unusual behavior remind me of Rubens and his trash talking of Williams…..We all know what happened to Rubens…. Dr. Hanman’s second article is even better than her first.I eagerly await more!

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