The lasting legacy of a Formula One driver

Written by Lissie Mackintosh, Edited by Aiden Hover

Driving an F1 car is not your typical 9-5 job. The pressure from the public, the strict fitness and diet regimens, the constant travelling- I mean heck, ‘antisocial hours’ takes new heights where this sport is concerned. 

F1 teams are made up of a lot of moving parts, excuse the pun. The drivers, engineers, media teams, and hospitality travel to each race, automatically surrendering their precious weekends to the sport, and – as Toto Wolff revealed – spend around 250 nights in a hotel per year. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think there is a strong perception of F1 drivers very much being the face of the team, the most well-known person in the team, but in some ways, the person seemingly most detached from the team. Take Lewis Hamilton, for example, one day he’s at a Grand Prix in Europe, the next day he’s in New York attending the Met Gala. There’s an undeniably glamorous perception of F1 drivers, but in actual fact, drivers are more involved in their team’s progress and success than we may first think. The drivers have to dedicate as much time and energy off track as they do on track to ensure the success of the team. But to what degree do drivers really have a personal and long-lasting impact on their teams?

Lewis Hamilton attending the 2021 Met Gala – Lewis used his table to host several emerging, young black designers in order to highlight their immense talent and give them the recognition they deserve.

To some extent, every driver will leave an impression on the team they drive for in the way of their post-race feedback influences the direction of the car development and the overall success of the team’s performance. Let’s take the Monday post-race debrief as an example. The drivers, engineers and management all huddle around the day after a race to discuss what went well and what could have gone better. The drivers are crucial to these debriefs; as the only member to actually drive the car and feel its limits and problems, they are the ones who can alert the team to where the car isn’t working and what changes could be made. The briefings are typically long and thorough, and the drivers need to give direct input into how the car feels – including their opinion regarding the effectiveness of new parts on the car. No, the drivers are not trained engineers, and cannot possibly understand every aerodynamic aspect of the car, but they work together with their engineers to ensure progress which makes the teams what they are. This race debrief is expected of the drivers, it’s part of the job. But how different drivers take on these responsibilities and take them even further reveals how some are more influential to the team than we may initially realise. 

Let’s compare the careers of two current F1 drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton. Both World Champions and both incredibly talented drivers, when I say the name Lewis Hamilton, I reckon many people would think of the word Mercedes. I don’t believe many would have the same reaction to Kimi, but then again, I don’t know for sure. The reason I think this is the case is that whilst Kimi has driven for five F1 teams: Sauber, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus and Alfa Romeo Racing, Lewis has only taken seats at two teams in his successful Formula One career: McLaren and Mercedes. Ironically it is now Mercedes that supplies McLaren with its 2021 engine. Lewis’ 8 year-long commitment to Mercedes has led to him having an incredibly lasting and renowned impact on the team’s success, ethos and brand, both on track and off, almost as if the two have become synonymous with each other in some ways. Kimi is another successful driver who is dedicated to the sport and his team in his own way, but I don’t believe he has made as long-lasting an impression on any one team in particular as someone like Lewis has. Mercedes have made changes in the last few years so in line with Lewis’ brand, that his own personal influence on the team is tangible. Lewis has helped build Mercedes up to becoming the powerhouse it is today, in a similar way to how Michael Schumacher left his mark on Ferrari, which we will discuss later. 

There are two ways in which a legacy is left on an F1 team. One is more technical, more about the car and the success of the team. Speaking to GP Fans in 2020, Lewis revealed that “I think what was really great was that, when I joined, I was personally able to put my stamp on the car and make a lot of alterations, particularly in 2013. And then we just collectively worked together”. Having won every constructors championship with Lewis since 2014 after he joined the team in 2013, the car’s success clearly has something to do with Lewis’ commitment and hard work. Additionally, Lewis has left a personal legacy with Mercedes regarding its culture, work ethic and perception. The team has made decisions that Lewis himself says he has not forced upon the team, but seem to be too in line with the driver’s own beliefs to be coincidental. Mercedes’ radical change from their silver to black livery is one example. In 2020, Lewis Hamilton urged Mercedes senior personnel to change its traditional silver livery to a black livery, to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to take a stand against racism. This livery and colour scheme remained for the 2021 season and has become an emblem of Mercedes’ brand. The change was made not only due to Lewis’ choice to speak up and petition for change but was seemingly made possible by the level of trust and in some way, respect the team has for Lewis which stems from a strong 8-year long relationship. This is a clear example of how a driver really can have a personal impact on a Formula 1 team and become a figurehead for the team as a brand. 

So, what got me thinking about this topic? Well, the powerful legacy a driver can have on his team was so poignantly highlighted in the Schumacher documentary which aired in September. The documentary revealed the extent to which Michael Schumacher was involved in the progress of Ferrari after joining them in 1996, leaving a legacy that shifted the perception of the Italian team as one which was overlooked after not having won a Drivers’ Championship since 1979 to one which was a real competitor, and at the time, the best of the best. In 1996, Ferrari came 2nd in the Constructors Championship with Schumacher later going on to win 5 world championships with the team, making it so illustrious that according to Carlos Sainz, “when a Ferrari opportunity arises, you take it”. Sainz left McLaren at the end of 2020 to accept the red offer. This complete shift in the team’s reputation would not have been possible without the hard work and commitment of not only the engineers but of Schumacher himself. In the documentary, Richard Williams (Former F1 journalist) discusses how hard Michael worked to get the car into shape during the 1996 season. “He would be the last one in the garage every night with the mechanics.” “He worked with them and made him feel his presence… That transformed the team.” This is a unique and incredible legacy, but shows just how personally the drivers can impact their teams’ work ethic and become an integral part for motivating others and creating real change from within.

I think we’re seeing similar patterns of team loyalty in Lando Norris. Despite not having won a constructor’s championship since 1998 or a driver’s since 2008, Lando decided to stay at McLaren when faced with an option to move to Red Bull for the 2022 season by Helmut Marko. He joined the orange team in 2019 and has revealed he wants to commit to working closely with McLaren and be available whenever needed. Are we seeing the making of another Schumacher? Will his legacy at McLaren come to fruition in the same way other greats’ have? Perhaps the Schumacher legacy lives on in the way that younger drivers are committing much of their careers to one team, trying to make them ‘great again’.

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