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Psychology in Formula One

Honda’s Nick Fry reckons that Juan Pablo Montoya would have fared better in F1 had he raced for a team more sensitive to the driver’s needs. It is certainly true that Williams, Montoya’s first F1 employer, is renowned for having a “robust” attitude towards drivers (although it should also be said that Frank Williams knows a good thing when he sees it – he wanted Senna as a Williams driver for years before the Brazilian finally made the switch). And Juan Pablo’s second team, McLaren, are also regarded as fairly picky when it comes to drivers – if you click with the team, you’ll succeed; if not, you might find yourself out in the cold. Whether Montoya would have done better with Honda, as Nick Fry is suggesting, is a moot point, of course.

Juan

Juan Pablo Montoya

But is it right that a driver should expect to be “understood” and assisted in his weak areas? The old saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” might come to mind at this point. I suppose it depends upon how much potential the driver displays.

Ken Tyrrell was known as the team manager that could build drivers into champions. Any number of drivers benefited from his advice and encouragement but the best example is probably Jody Scheckter. Early in his F1 career, Scheckter was blamed for an enormous pile-up in the British GP and he was labeled as wild and unruly until Tyrrell got hold of him. Under Ken’s guidance, Scheckter developed until Ferrari became interested in him and the result was a world championship.

Scheckter’s early problems were not really the result of a complex psyche, however – he was young and eager, just needing to be restrained and taught patience. The speed was always there. Drivers like Frentzen and Hakkinen were more complicated and needed to feel wanted if they were to give of their best.

Hakkinen had the good fortune to get on well with Ron Dennis and the rest of the McLaren team and his talent blossomed as a result. But Frentzen never felt at ease with the team that gave him his best chance, Williams, and he soon left. It was his bad luck to click only with second rank teams like Sauber and Jordan, achieving some outstanding results with them but never being in with a good shot at the championship.

So is it worth putting time and effort into a driver’s psychology? I think it must be in that a team that is working together without interpersonal stresses is bound to function more effectively than one that is riven by undercurrents of dissatisfaction. Nick Fry is right to think that Montoya could have been handled better and, judging from the patience with which Button and Barrichello are being treated at Honda, it could be that Fry would have brought out the best in the Colombian. Personally, I doubt it, however.

Montoya has an ego the size of Colombia. That is not really a problem, as demonstrated by Michael Schumacher, but Montoya also has a sensitivity to criticism that is completely alien to Michael. Let Juan Pablo hear that he is being blamed for a few accidents and his anger boils over at the injustice of it all. He is what we might call “fairly volatile”.

Whether Nick Fry could cope with a driver who reacts so passionately to criticism remains to be seen. In Barrichello and Button he has two of the most stable and well adjusted drivers in the paddock. Montoya would be a very different kettle of fish.

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