British motor racing engineer Pat Symonds, currently the Chief Technical Officer of Formula One, opened up on the years during which he had the great opportunity of working with some of the biggest names in Formula 1’s history such as Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso.
In the 1980s, Pat Symonds was a leading engineer at Toleman (the precursing iteration of the eventual Benetton and Renault teams) when Ayrton Senna made his Formula One debut with the team. One decade later, the British engineer worked as Michael Schumacher’s race engineer during his first Formula One championship, which was won in 1994 and also worked with the Ferman through 1995. Pat Symonds continued his work for Enstone, while Michael Schumacher moved to Scuderia Ferrari in 1996, but years later got the chance to work with another world championship, Fernando Alonso, helping win the F1 titles in 2005 and 2006 with Renault.
In a recent interview which took place at the Autosport International show in Birmingham a few days ago, Pat Symonds was asked to look back at his Formula 1 career and to compare the three Formula 1 legends:
“It’s an interesting question.” – he replied – “I worked with Ayrton and Michael, I worked with Fernando. The interesting thing is, give or take a little bit, I worked with each one of those a decade apart. So Ayrton in the 1980s, Michael in the 1990s, Fernando in the 2000s. The thing you’ve got to remember is that what you wanted from a driver was very different in those three decades. A decade in any business is quite a long time but, in motorsport, it’s like a century – things change so, so rapidly.” – the British motor racing engineer explained.
Pat Symonds compares Formula 1’s demands during the years
The former Chief Technical Officer of Williams shared his thoughts on how the demands the teams placed upon their drivers have changed between the 1890s and the next 20 years.
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“So with Ayrton, working with him at Tolman, it was in the days before we had really any data acquisition, we were just building our first data acquisition devices. So we were relying on the driver an awful lot, even down to what revs he was pulling at the end of the straight, have we got the right top gear in, what’s the water and oil temperature, have we got the radiators blanked correctly… and things like that. As well as driving the car fast, as well as being tactical, we were having to think of all these things. By the time we get to Fernando, we know a hell of a lot more about what’s happening with the car than he does in terms of those sort of details. So then what you’re really looking for, is you’re looking for the driver who can interpret how you turn the vehicle dynamics into something that the driver can handle.” – he explained.
“Michael, for example, he liked a very unstable car. It may make the car very quick, but you need to be a damn good driver to drive this. We used to set his car up in quite an unstable manner, and his teammates often struggled with that, because of the way it was. So trying to rate a driver, who is quick and why are they quick, is really difficult, when you’re looking at that period of time.” – the current Chief Technical Officer continued.
Despite the fact that Pat Symonds did not want to directly open up on which of the three Formula One World Champions he believes was in fact the best, he pointed out that Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso all share some common features:
“I think there are certain characteristics of the drivers that do carry through and the prime one is having a huge self-esteem. Every good driver believes that they’re not just a good driver, but the best driver. And that’s really, really important. That’s not something that’s just present in motorsport, that’s something in any sport. You need that ability to not have to think about when to press the brake, when to turn the steering wheel, when to open the throttle – it needs to be natural within you, and you then need to have the intelligence to understand when you got it right and when you got it wrong. That’s what makes you quick, then you add all the other things that make you a complete racing driver – the further intelligence to understand the tactical situation, the fitness, all these sorts of things.” – Pat Symonds said, as he then pointed out that the very best F1 drivers are always able to get the most out of the car and find their best pace for any given F1 challenger or car setup by running only a few laps on track, especially by the time they’ve climbed to Formula 1 standard. This means that it is unlikely that a driver can go faster simply by ‘trying harder’.
“The clever drivers are the ones who sort of think about each part of the circuit and concentrate on it, then they put it all together, and then you get the quick lap. These guys are so good, they’ll do five to 10 laps and that’s probably as quick as they’re gonna go. Not because they try harder and go slower. There are some who overdrive and, probably in Formula 1 you see that because your biggest competitor is your teammate. Everyone knows that. When you’ve got a really good teammate, like those three that we’ve mentioned, then their teammates are always looking at what they’re doing. They’re trying to go faster and you can try too hard, and then go slower, because you do need to be smooth driving in Formula 1.” – Pat Symonds concluded.