All things are relative and when I’m tempted to get cheesed off at the sight of someone so much better at a fairly large component of what I do than me I comfort myself that, unless your name is Max or Fernando, there is always going to be someone out there with more driving talent, whoever you are.
I have, for instance, been driven by Jonathan Palmer, in the wet, around the old Nurburgring, in a McLaren F1. As displays of genuinely heroic car control go, it’s one of the most astonishing performances I’ve witnessed. Despite the fact he’d not been there or 11 years and couldn’t quite remember which way it went, he was sideways almost everywhere, on a damp track and in a car that was notoriously unforgiving in such conditions. With talent like that, I wondered why he had he not been a multiple Formula 1 World Champion? So I asked him.
His reply was the most honest answer I’ve ever had from a racing driver. He explained that he thought he was doing ok in Formula 1, despite driving usually uncompetitive cars until halfway through the 1989 season when Jean Alesi joined him at Tyrrell. Data-logging was pretty crude back then, but enough could be recorded for Jonathan to be able to look at Alesi’s traces, compare them to his own and conclude that while he understood what his new team-mate was doing, he’d not be able to do it himself. He retired at the end of the season.
The interesting thing to me is that so little of any given lap actually requires any talent. There’s skill that can be learned about how to line up each corner, learn where the bumps are, which gears to use and so on, but you would be as good as me, Jonathan, Jean, Fernando or Max at pressing an accelerator to floor, which is actually what most racing drivers spend most of their time doing. Even on the approach to corners it is possible to learn where the latest sensible braking point is to be found and once past the apex, in an era where most racing cars have some form of traction control, jumping back on the gas is easy enough. And even if you have no electronic assistance, a car under power is fundamentally stable, and should things start to feel a little loose not only is there usually a straight ahead but easing off the gas or reducing the lock will usually rein in a tail threatening to go walkabout.