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Episode 42

Better Then Or Better Now?

How Drivers’ Challenges Have Changed

Lewis Hamilton equalling Michael Schumacher’s F1 win record reignited the age-old debate of who was better, but how have the challenges facing F1 drivers changed over time?

As per usual, the success of Lewis Hamilton in this week’s Eifel Grand Prix was polarising, but this weeks’ success was more significant than normal, as he tied Michael Schumacher’s record for the most Formula One wins of all time. Of course, you probably knew that already, with it sort of being an international headline, but I’m just setting the scene, so bear with me.

Right, now the reason many people are unhappy is because ‘Hamilton’s always in the fastest car’ and ‘the Mercedes is the most dominant car in F1 history, anybody could win that many races’ and so on, but most of the *racing-related* reasons loop back to the core argument of ‘it was better in the past.’ Therefore, because I’m struggling for a better idea that doesn’t require a few days of planning, I’m going to delve into a couple of different challenges that drivers had to cope with in the past and present.

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First up, let’s consider a factor that would’ve been at the forefront of drivers’ minds, even up to about 30 years ago. That is the significant chance of life-changing injury, if not death. Drivers such as Jim Clarke, Jochen Rindt and Ayrton Senna were among the most talented drivers of their generations, and yet even they weren’t able to escape the most punishing penalty that motor racing had, and still has, to offer. Thankfully, over time, safety has taken leaps and bounds to the point where Senna himself is still the most recent F1 death to occur at a race weekend. Unfortunately, there are still instances such as Jules Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka in 2014 and Anthoine Hubert’s Formula 2 tragedy last year, but that totals two deaths on the F1 calendar this century, as opposed to a few deaths a year in the early era of F1.

As a result, it’s probably safe to say that modern racing drivers don’t take anywhere near as much risk in terms of their lives as their counterparts 40 or 50 years ago, so that is one extra challenge drivers had that they do not pay nearly as much attention to these days.

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One aspect that every driver tries to use these days in order to find a marginal gain, though, is fitness and nutrition. Every driver in the current paddock has a personal trainer with them at race weekends, and the vast majority of meals are planned and portioned by professional chefs. Each driver is committed to getting the best out of their bodies, in order to be at their best in the car. This ‘body is a temple’ approach is often linked to Schumacher himself, with many purporting the German to be the first driver deadest on ensuring his fitness was as good as can be.

Before the ultra-fit generation of drivers came about, however, many drivers lived a more… expansive lifestyle, shall we say. One example we can’t omit is the legendary James Hunt, who would often drink and party the night before races, yet his blasé attitude didn’t seem to deter from his driving abilities. In comparison, the closest to partying any modern driver gets before a race is probably the glass of red that Nico Hulkenberg was enjoying during his stay in Cologne before his call up this weekend.

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Overall, then, this means that drivers now have to work harder than ever to keep both their mental and physical conditions at their peak, not just in an attempt to gain an advantage, but in an effort not to be left behind by the rest of the field.

Finally for today, there’s the driving itself. In the past, the cars were analogue and physical, with the driver out on their own. This made the cars difficult to drive, as you they had to be right on that ragged edge in order to maximise its pace. In comparison, modern cars are extremely technical, with many different buttons and switches on the steering wheel. Whilst they may not be quite as physically demanding these days, the sheer complexity and mental agility required to be making adjustments to the car whilst travelling at 180 mph poses a whole different challenge, and one that’s arguably just as scary.

The fact that the cars are so different, though, in itself poses the question of ‘should these drivers really be compared,’ and, to me at least, they probably shouldn’t. Maybe, just maybe, they should both be considered the greatest of their eras, just as Fangio is.

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