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Graphic: Livemint
Graphic: Livemint

The paradox of the ‘wingman’ in a Formula 1 team

The second driver in Formula 1 is often measured against the team's 'first driver'. But when it suits the team, he is relegated to be the wingman

Toto Wolff delivered it as a compliment. Valtteri Bottas felt it like a nick on his racing heart. On Sunday, after the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix was being dusted, Mercedes boss Wolff said Bottas had been a “sensational wingman", the reference being to him holding behind the two Ferraris, while his teammate Lewis Hamilton tried to disappear ahead. Both measured and reasonable men, they later said they understood what the other meant or felt.

But, yet again, it shone light on a paradox in Formula 1: the ‘second driver’. In a team of two drivers where each holds his own, at some point, one will end up becoming the second driver. It’s the complex and bitter truth of the second driver in F1: their performance is benchmarked to the team’s ‘first driver’, but when it suits the team, they are relegated to be the wingman.

We looked at performance data of the last 30 championship winners, starting 1988, and that of their teammates. In a sport where equipment matters so much, there have been nine instances where the top two drivers have been from the same team. On just two of those occasions were they separated by the finest of margins, and it exacted a cost on everyone involved.

In 1988, it marked the beginning of the end of the relationship between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren Honda. It was a tetchy two-year period, which the-then McLaren boss Ron Dennis described as an exercise in “ego management" and saw Prost leave the team in disgust. Then, in 2016, Nico Rosberg nosed ahead of Lewis Hamilton, and retired from the sport itself. In the course of the season, the two went from being friends who reminisced their junior days fondly to barely talking to each other. Mercedes had a hole in their driver line-up, and Toto Wolff had to host Hamilton in his kitchen to basically tell him he was, well, Mercedes’ main man. It’s a situation teams can’t escape from. They have to field two drivers. They have to manage multiple objectives: of winning both the team championship and the driver’s championship. Ideally, a team would like to win both. But the driver’s championship is the more coveted and often takes precedence over the team championship. In that construct, the second driver is basically a wingman.

When he was winning everything in a Ferrari, Michael Schumacher reportedly had a clause in his contract that gave him preferential treatment over the other driver. There was once the ignominious sight of Ferrari asking teammate Rubens Barrichello to slow down to let Schumacher win a race. In the last 30 years, when it came to being a teammate of a winning driver, no one has done it more than Barrichello: six times, of which he finished second twice. That’s both a testament to both how good Schumacher was and how good a wingman Barrichello was (see Chart 2).

Both data and footage show it’s become better for the second driver. They are more empowered and tend to compete on an equal footing, at least till a point where it makes more sense for the team to prefer one over the other. Between 1988 and 1997, the median points gap between the title-winning driver and his teammate was 47%. In the decade from 2008 to 2017, this had dropped to 18% (see Chart 3). With a bigger corporate machinery in the background, team bosses have reclaimed the balance of power over drivers. Leading this change were two competent, no-nonsense drivers, Mark Webber at Red Bull and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes. Both had seasons when they competed hard with their teammates for a good part, but fell away towards the end. They were responsible for the last decade being the one where teammates of winning drivers recorded the highest number of second- and third-place finishes (see Chart 4).

But, in the unique construct of F1, the achievements of the second driver are but secondary.

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