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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.

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