Issue 18: Psychological Warfare and Driver Frustration in F1

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2 June 2014

The fallout from Monaco

The post-race commentary and punditry after the Monaco Grand Prix focused almost exclusively on one topic: the psychological and on-track duel between Mercedes’ drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Everyone has an opinion on whether Rosberg did or did not deliberately cause a yellow flag in the final qualifying session to prevent Hamilton from challenging him for provisional pole position. Likewise, many have an opinion on Hamilton’s conduct during and after the race. The Briton has been roundly criticised by some former F1 drivers, F1 insiders and many fans for his ‘bad’ attitude and for speaking out against his team’s strategy.

Everyone’s entitled to their point of view of course, but my view is that much of the criticism about Hamilton’s conduct at Monaco is unnecessary, selective and a touch contradictory. I’m not acting as Hamilton’s defence here; my argument is wider than that.

The criticism levelled at Hamilton is somewhat unnecessary because Hamilton had every right to be thoroughly frustrated. He was denied the chance to challenge his team-mate in qualifying and the race. Wouldn’t that frustrate any competitive driver? Some have said that in qualifying, Hamilton should have left the pits ahead of Rosberg for his final attempt at pole position to avoid the possibility of yellow flags intervening. However, by the logic of that argument, it is OK for drivers who start their final qualifying runs last to be penalised for the actions of other drivers. This is part of the tactical game, but it unquestionably denies us a final showdown for pole position and the sporting climax that F1 needs.

The condemnation of Hamilton after Monaco is selective too. Are there no other frustrated F1 drivers? Have drivers never directly criticised their teams in public before? Fernando Alonso had a very public spat with Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo in the middle of last season and the Spaniard is again sore about not having a car to challenge for wins and the championship. Likewise, Sebastian Vettel’s frustration at his current predicament at Red Bull is palpable. And unlike Hamilton, Vettel has even disobeyed team orders. Not even the greatest drivers are immune from directly criticising their teams: Alain Prost famously referred to his Ferrari 643 in 1991 as a ‘horrible truck’ and was fired. Hamilton’s comments on team strategy in Monaco pale in comparison to public refusals to obey team orders, for example. But the outburst on social media in response lacked perspective and seemed wildly disproportional. What doesn’t seem to have been sufficiently accounted for by many is that Hamilton and Rosberg are locked in a spiralling psychological battle that’s unfolding in an already high-pressure environment with a championship up for grabs. Things are liable to get a bit fractious at times.

The response to Hamilton’s conduct in Monaco is somewhat contradictory in my view. Many have jumped at the opportunity to criticise the Briton, but at the same time, there is a strong current of opinion that claims F1 drivers are too PR driven. They cannot speak freely due to restrictions placed on them by their teams and sponsors. Their real emotions and personalities are therefore hidden from view. But hold on. Surely Hamilton’s criticisms show that it isn’t the case that drivers are wholly PR directed? Would the Mercedes PR department have allowed the Briton to call them out on their pit stop policy so openly? Some of us may not like the way Hamilton conducts himself, but don’t criticise a driver for showing his true emotions and then confidently complain that  real personalities are lost in the PR propaganda. Would we rather listen to drivers who never say what they really think in public and speak only in soft tones about their teams, sponsors and rivals? I wouldn’t. The value of broadcast team radio in this respect is that it frequently betrays the real emotions of an F1 driver in the midst of competition. One of the drawbacks of F1 compared to other elite sports is that viewers can’t see the faces and body language of the competitors. Mid-race team radio in F1 goes some way to filling this deficit. And Hamilton’s radio traffic in Monaco was vital as it fed directly into the competitive dynamics at play.

Negative emotion shouldn’t be buried or criticised in sport. It should be allowed to surface and feed into team dynamics and in F1, driver vs. driver dynamics. Elite sportsmen and women are hugely competitive and drivers racing at the pinnacle of single-seater motorsport are no different. Tough competitors are not shy and retiring animals. Hamilton was gracious when he said that he and Rosberg were ‘colleagues’, not ‘friends’. A more apt description would surely be rivals or perhaps even bitter rivals.

The markers and misdemeanours thrown down by both Hamilton and Rosberg in the last few races have served to ratchet up the psychological battle. The illicit use of optimised engine maps in Bahrain and Spain, strong offensive and defensive manoeuvres also in Bahrain, Hamilton’s comments on hunger and upbringing and now Hamilton’s likely perception of Rosberg’s underhand tactics in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix are the opening skirmishes in what will surely be a season-long exchange. In recent days, both drivers claimed to have cleared the air, but the next trigger for confrontation is surely not far away. In Monaco, Rosberg won a tactical victory, but did he commit a strategic error or gain a psychological edge over his team-mate? Hamilton’s response at the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix will be telling.

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