How has a Formula 1 Driver Evolved Since 1950?
Many things have changed over the past 70 years...nothing more so than the drivers.
In the past 70 years of Formula 1, many things have changed such as the cars, teams and safety standards. However, one aspect of the sport that has changed in many ways - good and bad - are the drivers themselves. Throughout the sport's history they have adapted in the face of change and tragedy and when we compare drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio from the 1950s to Lewis Hamilton from the current grid we can see many similarities; their ferocious pursuit of success, raw natural ability and somewhat unhinged hunger for speed. However, while they both achieved the grand prize of being a world champion several times, it is hard to look past their differences in attitude, appearance, and skills, all of which have been moulded throughout the past seven decades. Factors such as the level of safety, technical nature of the cars and driving ability have all changed for the better or for the worse.
For this we need to go back to the 13th May 1950 where the post-war celebrations were still raging on. This date also marked the beginning of Formula 1 with its first race held at Silverstone in the UK. The grid of drivers that assembled that day included mechanics that fancied themselves behind the wheel such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari aswell as rich aristocrats such as Prince Bira of Siam. The average age on the grid was a staggering 39 years old, same age as the oldest man in F1 today; Kimi Raikkonen. In 1950, the concept of safety was far from anyone's conscience as drivers turned up wearing nothing more than a leather cap, leather gloves and a polo shirt. Although the cars seemed simple and relatively easy to drive, they were quite the opposite. The lack of aerodynamics meant the cars were unstable in the corners and this resulted in many crashes, and usually when someone crashed, they unfortunately died. Throughout the 1950s, 14 men in total died behind the wheel of an F1 car. Nevertheless, they raced on, aware but ignorant of the dangers associated. In 1955 a fresh-faced 26-year-old by the name of Stirling Moss came onto the scene, winning races and challenging the more experienced 'gentleman drivers'. It is fair to say Moss was the first young driver to enjoy any real success in Formula 1. What shone as remarkable from a drivers perspective from the 1950s was the complete lack of fear in the face of immense danger aswell as the pure driving ability of the likes of Fangio and Ascari of whom managed to win many races over several years.
Heading into the 1960s, the drivers began to be seen as rock stars. Drivers such as Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart came onto the scene, adding an element of flair to the grid. The 1960s also welcomed constructor drivers such as Bruce McLaren and Jack Brabham which instilled a need for technical knowledge on the grid when driving with the cars which thanks to aerodynamics became more stable compared to the previous decade. However improved aerodynamics comes with increased speed and therefore the dangers remained prevalent with icons Jim Clark and Lorenzo Bandini perishing behind the wheel. Even though drivers now wore overalls and a helmet, there was still a lack of seatbelts and fireproof equipment resulting in a further 14 deaths. Bruce McLaren became the youngest driver to win a race at the age of 22 while drivers such as Jack Brabham drove into their early 40s while still winning races. Drivers in the 1960s were rewarded based on pure driving ability and defined by their performances rather than the influence of technology we see today. The growing spotlight on Formula 1 through films such as Grand Prix gave the drivers a new responsibility as global sports figures, this attribute would only be amplified as the years rolled on and the influence of the sport increased.
As Formula 1 rolled into the 1970s, it found itself with an eclectic mix of drivers. The likes of James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi would take themselves and the sport a little less seriously with the usual pre-race warmup consisting of a cigarette and swig of whiskey. Whereas, a new breed of drivers was conceived thanks to Niki Lauda, his cold and calculated personality was controversial at the time compared to the flamboyant playboy persona of the Formula 1 grid. What made Lauda so revolutionary was his attention to technical detail, he knew just the same as if not more than the mechanics. This allowed him to fine tune the car to his desire, resulting in him being one of the quickest around. This is an attribute that would become commonplace among the drivers in the following decades. Even though it had been 20 years since the first Formula 1 race, drivers had to still deal with deaths of fellow racers almost every year. In the 1970s a further 11 drivers would be killed behind the wheel including Francois Cevert, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson. Nonetheless, all the drivers accepted the risk and took the attitude of 'if I were to be killed while racing, so be it'. However, thanks to Professor Sid Watkins being appointed President of the Medical Commission in 1978, safer times were just around the corner.
The 1980s in Formula 1 marked a momentous decade for the sport as Bernie Ecclestone won control of the commercial aspects of Formula 1 and continued to broadcast the sport across the globe. This added a new dimension and responsibility for the drivers as they would have to set an example as professional sportsmen in front of cameras and journalists. One driver that shone throughout the decade was Frenchman Alain Prost. Known by many as 'The Professor', Alain would take a note out of Lauda's book and truly become one with the car, working very closely with the mechanics to fully adapt the car to his liking. He would also take the importance of fitness to the forefront by becoming an extremely athletic driver, one attribute that he believes contributed significantly to his success. Thanks to crash tests and carbon fibre monocoques, the safety in Formula 1 became much better and the amount of deaths decreased from 11 in the 1970s to 4 in the 1980s. Thanks to developments in ground effect in the early 80s, the cars became much more stable by improving downforce. This allowed the drivers to push the cars as far as they could rather than having to ease off the throttle to avoid an accident, altering their approach to racing in an era where the driver is more reliant on the car.
When the 1990s came along, it was fair to say that pure driving ability was slowly becoming less important as new technologies such as active suspension began to feed its way into the sport. One driver that was specifically vocal about this was Ayrton Senna who said on many occasions that the spirit of racing was lost because drivers became dependant on technology and not their own ability. This trend therefore meant the technical nature of the sport was amplified, and the drivers had to keep up. This gave way to drivers that possessed incredible technical knowledge such as Michael Schumacher with Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff stating, "his attention to detail and technical knowledge altered the face of Formula 1 forever." Schumacher also stood head of shoulders above everyone when it came to his physical condition, in many cases he would take his helmet off after a race and would not have broken a sweat. His extremely competitive nature would allow him to fight for championships year after year, becoming a dominant force in the sport. His approach to Formula 1 inspired many of the drivers of the current era to race themselves, therefore showing his lasting legacy.
His professionalism would continue into the new millennium by winning the first five championships of the decade with Ferrari, proving how revolutionary he was for the sport in terms of how a modern F1 driver must conduct themselves. By the time of the 2000s, Formula 1 safety had taken leaps and bounds from where it was a few decades previously. The deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna in 1994 shocked the F1 world, allowing for a complete reform in safety standards. As the cars became more and more technical with developments in telemetry systems, the difference a driver could make in deciding who won the championship diminished and the performance of the car became superior. This was evident in the 2009 season where a technically advanced Brawn GP car allowed Jensen Button to win the championship having finished 18th the season before driving for Honda. We also began to see records being broken by extremely young drivers such as youngest race winner being Sebastian Vettel at 21 years old and youngest world champion being Lewis Hamilton at 23. This trend would very much continue into the next decade.
And finally, we move into the current era where the role as a Formula 1 driver has developed into a mix of driving and technical knowledge. The best drivers of the current era are defined by their work ethic behind the scenes alongside engineers and their ability to relay information about the car can prove crucial in order to succeed. Sadly, this has more often than not resulted in the performance of the cars being the deciding factor as to who wins the championship, with Vettel winning four in a row with a dominant Red Bull and Hamilton winning 5 out of 6 in a dominant Mercedes. To be fast behind the wheel is no longer the only criteria for a driver in the current era, they must also be media trained to avoid giving the team and themselves a bad reputation and the pressure that comes along with this can prove too much for some drivers. Drivers on the grid today also boast extraordinary levels of fitness that allow them to drive the cars with forces upwards of 3G several times a lap. Quite something when compared to drivers such as Jose Froilan Gonzalez from the 1950s.
From the birth of Formula 1 in 1950 through to today, individual drivers have altered the path of Formula 1 history in their own right by going against the grain and re-writing the rulebook. This has caused dramatic change on the grid, resulting in skills being acquired away from the racetrack such as a technical eye for detail and incredible level of fitness as shown by Michael Schumacher aswell as being trained in front of a camera in order to create a healthy image to aid their careers. Thanks to developments in safety, drivers no longer have to live in fear that the next race may be their last, and it truly showcases the immense courage that the 'gentleman drivers' of the 1950s and 60s had. The pure driving ability has sadly lost its relevance to a degree as the cars have become much easier to drive as a result of power steering, active suspension, and aerodynamics. It will be interesting to see how the importance of the driver will develop as the years roll by, however it is fair to say we would love to see the driving ability begin to play a key role in winning races and championships just as it did decades ago.