Thursday, March 5, 2015
Belaboring The Obvious (Driving Talent)
All Hail Daniel Ricciardo! A gearhead buddy sent me this link. He put "Greatness" in the subject line.
Can't argue with that. Great drivers have a sixth sense about the limits; they can quickly and consistently drive at or slightly over them. This got me to thinking about driver skill gradations. Our old friend the bell curve is a useful way to do that.
Toward the center of the curve are the friends and family we all ride and drive with. These people are alarmed when they feel a car's tires generating slip angle. It's their canary in the coal mine: this car is going too fast. I'm gonna to crash it, or worse, he's gonna crash it and I'm stuck here in the passenger seat. Slow down. What's the problem with driving a tall, square-rigged, crossover SUV if you don't care about body roll? None. "I can see better from my taller perch."
Closer to the sharp end of the curve, but still in the fat part, are "sporting" drivers like... me. We are more than comfortable at side loads in excess of 0.5 g's. Squealing tires do not alarm us. We can easily tell the difference between a good-handling car and a bad one. And handling is a priority for us. But we're 8/10's drivers because our limited skills can get us on the wrong side of the car's limits--especially a really good-handling car. It's hard for us to find a car's precise limits.
Then we have club racers, used to driving prepared cars on slick tires, consistently near or at the limits of braking and cornering capability, able to vary their lines through corners or alter them in wheel-to-wheel traffic as necessary. They can drive a car with high and precise g-force limits all summer long with few mistakes. But few of them have what it takes to be a champion in a national season-long points chase. That requires even more pace, closer to the limit, with no mistakes. The bell curve has flattened out, but we're not near the pointy end yet.
The best amateurs are repeat champions or graduate to pro racing. A car salesman, a good friend who mentored me, once said of our dealership's owner (a three-time SCCA Champion), "He's not that good, you know. He only drives small-bore cars." The salesman had never driven against a clock or competition. Just the same, I'll grant his point, as far as it went: our employer had not raced big-bore modifieds against the household names in road racing. But he regularly stomped his class competitors and had a remarkable record of top-three finishes. To race at this level, you need serious driving talent. Decades later, the champion told me he had chased Joe Buzzetta in near-equal Porsche Spyders at Virginia International Raceway, and just could not catch him. Buzzetta went on to be a Porsche factory driver, but only briefly, and he didn't reach the top rank in pro sports car racing. There are, I'd guess, maybe 500-1000 drivers this good at any one time in the U.S.
Then we have pro drivers with consistent rides and long careers in pro series. We're near the pointy end of the bell curve. You don't drive for long in this segment of the curve, even if your racer has fenders, unless you've already been a demonstrated winner who's mistakes are very rare. And you probably have a special talent. Maybe you're a demon qualifier. Or can move forward from mid-grid on race day. Scott Dixon (IndyCar) consistently uses less fuel than his competitors.
I remember, a few years ago, watching Fernando Alonso's Benetton hold off Michael Schumacher's Ferrari for several laps. Alonso wasn't blocking, Michael just could not find a way past in a faster car. Last year, Daniel Ricciardo consistently out-qualified his World Champion teammate Sebastian Vettel, and drove his Red Bull with its underpowered Renault engine to the front to win some races. He gave Mercedes and Williams all they could handle, and more. Drivers like these are at the pointy, pointy end of the bell curve: the best of the best. A hot lap in "a reasonably priced car" is a day at the beach for them.