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The Perfect Second

Mention of Riccardo Patrese yesterday reminds me of a quality that he developed in the later part of his career; in his era, he was the ideal second driver. Much fuss is made of a driver’s chances of becoming World Champion and we tend to disregard anyone who will obviously never make it. Yet, from a team point of view, it makes a lot of sense to have a clear number one backed up by a solid number two driver. And good second drivers are even less common than potential champions.


Riccardo Patrese

Time and again in history we have seen the weakness of the “two number ones” strategy – they tend to push each other off, take points away from each other and end up squabbling over the amount of support each is given by the team. Much better is to have a stated number one backed by a sound, honest and capable number two.

I am not talking about the Michael Schumacher type of arrangement, where the second driver is not only expected to take points from the competition but also to sacrifice his position to the number one when necessary. That is where the honesty bit comes in – any driver needs some form of incentive and the possibility of beating the number one in a fair fight should always be left available.

The ideal second driver is capable of adding regularly to the team’s points score and moving up to the number one’s position should he drop out. Usually, the second is an experienced driver who has come close to beating everyone on occasion but now recognizes that he lacks that final edge of genius that belongs to the champion. Yet that does not deter him – love for the sport keeps him in the game and he becomes a real asset to any team, sharing his knowledge with the other driver and steadily racking up the points.

This was Patrese in the second half of his career. In his youth, he had been a little wild and was often accused (sometimes unjustly) of causing accidents. As time went on, however, he settled down and became a solid, dependable veteran, unlikely to win but always giving his best and a valuable yardstick to the performance of others as a result. It is no wonder that he lasted in F1 for so long.

Looking at today’s crop, now that Mickey the Shoe has gone, it is not immediately apparent that there are any perfect number twos around – or it would be so if David Coulthard had not kept popping into my mind as I wrote this. He has all the necessary ingredients and it remains only to be seen how he will react if Mark Webber starts to beat him consistently. I suspect that he will cope with it and continue to give honestly of his best, remaining an indispensible part of the Red Bull team, but only time will tell.

So few drivers manage to deal with such situations. Jacques Villeneuve went off in a huff at the mere suggestion, Webber himself found it intolerable that his employer seemed to put more faith in his rookie teammate at Williams, Barrichello struggles to prove that his Ferrari years have not broken him; all very understandable, since everyone comes to F1 with high hopes and rightly so.

But real character and maturity is shown by the man who learns his limits and comes to terms with them. And that is why perfect number twos are so rare. It’s a sport for huge ambitions, unassailable egos and belief in one’s own superiority. When time has eroded those youthful dreams, few are able to see that they still have much to offer.

But the wise team manager will grab such a driver and put him with their new hotshoe discovery, knowing that this is the sure road to success.

5 Responses to “The Perfect Second”

  1. The really intriguing thing is how hard it is to think of anyone, bar Patrese, who ever made a good number 2.

    Berger at Mclaren, perhaps, once he’d come to terms with the fact he just didn’t have any answer to Senna?

    In another life, I suspect Damon Hill would have made a great number 2.

    And, um, that’s it. Barrichello did a thankless task rather well at Ferrari – and got handsomely rewarded for it fiscally, I guess.

  2. I agree, Patrick. Berger was the ideal number two to Senna, accepting that he would finish behind him in most races but always there if the great man had a bad day. And Damon could have been good too if he hadn’t had the expectations of the British public heaped on his shoulders.

    Funnily enough, I think Damon’s father, Graham Hill, made a very good second to Jim Clark as well – if Jim’s car broke, Graham was always in a good position to take his place.

    But apart from those few, who is there? As I said, they’re like hen’s teeth…

  3. Nearly suggested Graham myself, but then I thought, other than when he was teamed with Clark, he was a number 1 himself, really (although my father, who unlike me is old enough to have seem him, said that like his son, Graham was no natural racer).

    Damon was a good foil to Prost at Williams, and probably would have been with Senna too – I don’t think it was public expectation that got in the way – more force of circumstance that left him unexpectedly number 1 at Williams. He’s probably not too upset, he got a world championship out of it.

  4. To me, Damon always looked uncomfortable in F1 – a thoroughly decent bloke slightly out of his depth amongst all the over-inflated egos. Even when he won the championship, it didn’t go to his head and he just carried on, doing his best and trying to ignore the media hype (and criticism). He looks to have found his metier now as boss of the BRDC, however – seems quite at home in the job.

    Graham was not a natural talent, just as your father said – he achieved everything through guts and determination (and proved that talent isn’t everything). He won plenty of races but it was his attitude that made him a perfect number two to a star. Graham would just have shrugged and said, “I’ll get you in the next race, boyo.”

  5. [...] The Perfect Second – A fine article on Formula 1 Latest about Riccardo Patrese – the man who started more Grands Prix than any other driver – 256. [...]

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