Never Stop Driving #65: Artful Driving

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Two of the best drivers in the world provided a masterful performance during last weekend’s Formula 1 race in Italy. Ferrari’s home race is always a passionate affair mobbed by fans of the scuderia. They were ecstatic when Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz outdrove the field to nab pole position.

Sadly for Sainz, Red Bull driver Max Verstappen qualified second, less than one tenth of a second behind. Verstappen and Red Bull have dominated the season, winning the previous nine races in a row, matching a previous record. A Verstappen win would not only break the record but further solidify a historically dominant driver-car combination. While the Ferrari might be fast for one lap, it was well known that the Red Bull car was better, so Sainz had nothing to lose, no record to break. I hoped he might hold off Verstappen for at least a few laps.

He did better than that, brushing off repeated Verstappen passing attempts with millimeter-precise car placement and control. This highlight reel is useful but does little to illustrate the driving skills of the two drivers. Bruno Senna, nephew of the late Ayrton Senna, once told me that when cars are traveling 200 mph before braking for the turn, if the driver misses the braking point by just a tenth of a second, disaster is likely. Sainz also drove different lines in the turns, further complicating his task.

F1 Grand Prix of Italy Carlos Sainz Jr.
Alessio Morgese/NurPhoto/Getty Images

I’ve rarely seen an F1 race where drivers battled so closely so often. Verstappen eventually took the lead and drove off, but there were battles throughout the field, cars vying for position at triple-digit speeds and just millimeters apart. The skill and bravery of the pilots … just, wow. Verstappen and his Red Bull teammate, Sergio Perez, finished first and second and Sainz, incredibly, hung on for third. It was the Spaniard’s best drive of the year.

The race proved again that Red Bull’s car is hugely superior. Many have called for rules adjustments to slow it down because what’s the fun in watching a race when you know the likely winner? A fair point, but F1 rewards and encourages engineering creativity. Most of racing is so tightly regulated that innovation is lost. Not F1.

Even with the fastest car, winning is far from easy. At South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway during last weekend’s Southern 500, Toyota driver Denny Hamlin had the car to beat. He effortlessly drifted at 160 mph through the banked turns and right up to the outside wall. The Darlington oval is an old track that puts driver skill and bravery on display. The place is bonkers, with the fast racing line right next to the wall. When drivers hit the wall, which happens all the time, they’ve painted their cars with the “Darlington Stripe.” Hamlin had the field covered until a tire changer didn’t tighten a wheel, which forced him to return to the pits for a time-consuming fix. He finished 25th in the race and was sanguine about the mistake on his weekly podcast. “It happens,” he said. The margin of error in this case was a wheel nut that needed just a few more degrees of turn to properly secure the wheel.

My beef with NASCAR this week was the sanctioning body’s handling of driver Ryan Preece, who was in a violent crash two weeks ago that miraculously didn’t kill him. Preece was back on track the following week, revealing twin black eyes he suffered from the wreck. His return, generally celebrated as evidence of his toughness, was in truth a macho denial of obvious head trauma. Years ago, hearing stories of retired NASCAR drivers dealing with mental illness, I asked veteran race reporter Steven Cole Smith to do some digging. He found that many retired drivers suffered the same fate as football players due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as (CTE), and crafted an excellent article. Repeated head injuries, especially one after another, are dangerous. I thought we knew this. Preece may be just fine, but for NASCAR to tolerate the notion that good drivers should “toughen up and drive” sends the wrong message.

In other news, a group of Subaru owners, discovering that the affordable BRZ sports car suffers from fragile engines, is banding together for a remedy. We highlighted the charm and popularity of the early Toyota Corolla, and the Hagerty Drivers Foundation opened its Cars at the Capital event in Washington, D.C. This year the featured automobiles include Amelia Earhart’s 1937 Cord and a 1952 Porsche America Roadster.

Have a great weekend!

P.S.: Your feedback is very welcome. Comment below!

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    Innovation in F1 is laudable on the one hand, yet on the other, it’s mainly just spelled M.O.N.E.Y.
    While some racing is tied to more-or-less conformity of cars, that has the propensity to highlight the drivers’ skills more than the amount of cash thrown at the engineering end. I’m okay with both points-of-view, really, and I think it’s unfair to judge one against the other. (realizing that I sounded kinda judgmental in my first two sentences…)

    I would surmise that the issue of CTE to NASCAR drivers is much more prevalent to drivers from many years back and not to more recent drivers. NASCAR for much of the past 10 plus years has placed a greater emphasis on driver safety AND spectator safety as well. The HANS device and foam filled flexible walls are probably the most important introductions to driver safety and I suspect will limit the tragic effects of CTE going forward. It just amazes watching F1 , NASCAR and IMSA at incredible speeds and some spectacular crashes and the drivers walk away, normally unscathed but bruised which in turns pays tribute and respect to the builders and technical wizards who design and build these vehicles

    “Many have called for rules adjustments to slow it down because what’s the fun in watching a race when you know the likely winner? A fair point, but F1 rewards and encourages engineering creativity. Most of racing is so tightly regulated that innovation is lost. Not F1.”
    I disagree. F1 is highly political and rules and in-race officiating have tilted the scales throughout its history. The FIA, which regulates F1, has been nicknamed Ferrari International Assistance in the past. Most recently the FIA has seemed to favor Red Bull. Specifically for the 2021 season aerodynamic rules were changed to favor the high-rake design of Red Bull and disadvantage low-rake designs like Mercedes. That brought Red Bull into contention, setting up the awful officiating at the 2021 Abu-Dhabi race that handed the win to Max Verstappen on the last lap after Sir Lewis Hamilton had dominated the whole race.

    Thanks for the F1 highlights. Thanks to ESPN and Spectrum contract argument my DVR has 3 hours of blue screen telling me “it’s all Disney’s fault” instead of the race.

    “F1 rewards and encourages aerodynamic creativity.”
    Fixed it.
    Compared to previous decades, F1 has become more spec series than fertile ground for engineering creativity….not to mention an enterprise more focused on revenue and show business than racing.
    Look at the modern F1 car with its fixed engine architecture, tire size (and number), limited tactics (mandating tire manufacturer, compounds, when and where those compounds can be used, lack of refueling), and bloated size in general.
    Perhaps the most contradictory part of modern F1 is how it’s always held itself out as a technical innovator whose advancements eventually trickle-down to the cars you and I drive on the street. But tell me, how many cars on the street do you see running ground-effects tunnels and massive wings? It’s a complete joke.
    Finally, what will become of F1 as the world’s auto makers move to electrification? We already have Formula E. Maybe it’s time for F1 to just fade into the sunset, or simply transition to a reality TV show….as if it hasn’t already.

    This is the only “Wordie” missive I read. At 84 I’ve grown tired of written reviews. Please keep it simple and good as you have. ………Jim.

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