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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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Gerhard Berger Tries Psychology

Apparently, Sebastien Bourdais is to be given another drive in the Toro Rosso while the contracted drivers, Liuzzi and Speed, are still waiting for confirmation of their seats this year. In an interview with Auto Motor und Sport magazine, Berger has been critical of his drivers’ performances in 2006, so it seems that I was wrong about the delay originating with Red Bull owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. My apologies to him, of course.

Gerhard

Gerhard plots his next move

But what is Gerhard up to? If he is genuinely dissatisfied with his drivers, it seems a bit late to be still dithering. There are no obvious winners left on the market and Bourdais is certainly not available for this season. Montoya has admitted that he did receive an offer from Toro Rosso and that it gave him a good laugh, the rumors of Mika Hakkinen returning to F1 in a TR have been firmly squelched, so who else is a possible? Robert Doornbos? That would be taking more of a chance than keeping Liuzzi and Speed.

This indecision seems so unlike Berger until you remember the tales of his practical jokes on Ayrton Senna. When dealing with Gerhard, things are not necessarily what they appear to be on the surface. And I think the wily Austrian is using a bit of psychology to motivate his drivers (Sigmund Freud was an Austrian, remember).

It is just not true that Liuzzi and Speed did not perform well last year. At almost every GP we were told that the TR’s V10 would not be able to compete with the V8s, only to see the cars perform far better than expected, especially through the speed traps. Liuzzi was rated highly enough for Red Bull to want him as a driver until Mark Webber came up for grabs and, as pointed out in my post, An American in F1 – Scott Speed, Scott was looking the better of the two towards the end of the season.

Gerhard knows better than anyone else how good his drivers are – he would not have fought so hard to keep Liuzzi from the clutches of Red Bull were it not so. This feigned dissatisfaction is a Berger ploy to get his drivers fired up for the coming races, to light a bomb under them, in fact.

And it will probably work. Both Liuzzi and Speed are no doubt well aware of what Berger is up to but they will still want to prove themselves to the world. When the lights go out for the start of the first race, I think Toro Rosso will have two drivers who are absolutely determined to show their boss that he was completely wrong about them – that they are instead the quickest drivers to be seen in F1 in a long time.

He’s a wily old bird, that Gerhard Berger.

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