The Time in a Shed theory

In the post I wrote about Lewis Hamilton a couple of days ago, there was an interesting tangential discussion in the comments that I would like to share on the front page. Kathryn S suggested that one of the reasons Lewis Hamilton may be struggling now is that he hasn’t spent enough time in a “shed” of a car:

I think there is something very educational about driving, what I believe Mark Webber once referred to as, a shed around for at least your rookie year in F1. How do you hone skills in a beautifully balanced car? I can only imagine a great driver who learns how to unlock performance from a “dog” car can transfer those skills to even get better performance from a great car. I’ve heard people comment that Lewis has only driven the top cars on the grid for many, many years. Maybe the result of that is what we’re seeing now.

A few other people, including myself, ran with the concept. When you look back through the list of recent World Champions, few of them started their careers in a car that was as good as the McLaren MP4-22. Here is a list of recent World Champions and the team with which they made their début.

Thanks go to 4u1e for building parts of this list.

  • Kimi Räikkönen — Sauber in the midfield
  • Fernando Alonso — tail-enders Minardi, then moved to Renault when they were in the midfield
  • Michael Schumacher — tail-enders Jordan, then moved to Benetton when they were in the midfield
  • Mika Häkkinen — tail-enders Lotus, then moved to McLaren while they were in a slump
  • Jacques Villeneuve — the one anomaly, began his career in the dominant Williams
  • Damon Hill — the lacklustre Brabham team
  • Alain Prost — McLaren in a slump
  • Nigel Mansell — Lotus in a slump
  • Ayrton Senna — midfield Toleman
  • Nelson Piquet — started off in an Ensign for one race then a privately-entered McLaren
  • Keke Rosberg — “a variety of complete dogs”

This is by no means scientific. For one thing, we haven’t seen how common it is for World Champions to start their careers in a top car throughout history. This list only goes back roughly to the start of the 1980s.

Another point is that we are ignoring part of Kathryn’s original hypothesis which was that Lewis Hamilton has driven the top car throughout his entire motor racing career. Looking at the start of a driver’s F1 career is only the tip of the iceberg. What cars did these people drive in lower formulae?

Another point that goes against the “Time in a Shed” theory (as Pecker coined it) is the fact that top teams seldom hire rookies anyway! When have, say, Ferrari ever given a race seat to a rookie driver? I can’t think of an instance since I started watching F1 in the mid-1990s.

Even if, say, Fernando Alonso was the perfect driver when he first entered an F1 race in 2001, the chances that Benetton / Renault (or, indeed, Ferrari) would have hired him are very slim indeed. In fact, since Alonso was one of the Flav’s drivers, this is effectively what Benetton / Renault did — give Alonso some experience in a Minardi, out of harm’s way, before committing fully.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting theory to think about. If Hamilton has never learnt how to get good results out of a bad car, can he be getting the maximum out of a good car or a mediocre car?

9 comments

  1. Yeah……i’m sure Lewis had the opportunity to trim the car to his style. It’s got fully adjustable everything……seat, seat back, headrest, mirrors and steering column! 🙂

    I’ve got one possible exception to the rule and one to back it up (taking us back a few more years):

    Damon was test driving Williams before and during his stint at Brabham (Williams were doing pretty good around that time)

    Niki Lauda started at March

    Alan Jones started at Harry Stiller, Embassy and then Surtees sponsored by (and i had to mention this) Durex!

    But, as you rightly mention, the trend is probably as much to do with the teams not wanting to take risks as it is about giving them the experience in F1, in and out of the cockpit.

    There’s a huge limelight effect when a driver enters F1 and perhaps a year without the incessant spotlight (i.e. mid pack, rather than front row) is of as much benefit to rookie drivers.

  2. Surtees sponsored by (and i had to mention this) Durex!

    Did they supply the tyres? Boom boom.

    Thanks for the extra info Pecker!

  3. I think the running joke is that the only TV coverage was when they were in the pits with a puncture!

  4. Nice work & so true. Apprenticeships for all drivers is a must tho Nakajima always drove the “brick on wheels”

  5. I guess we have to blame Ron Dennis for spoiling a great project of a driver.
    Let me add something about Alonso that maybe you don’t know. When he was in his teens he took part in the Italian karting championship. That means that he, his father and a friend drove from Oviedo to the north of Italy in a van to return here after the weekend. There are a couple of places here in Oviedo where you can get a glimpse of his early career, a karting circuit, some photograhps and I can assure that this man knows what’s a hard time.

  6. The best evidence for me supporting Kathryn’s theory is that Lewis don’t know how to survive in the middle of a crowd without touching any other car. If you drive a non-top car, you are always starting in the back of the grid, where first of all, the risk of accident in the first turn is huge. Then you have to study pilots in front of you for some laps to see where you can overtake properly depending of your car. I think this is a completely unknown world and the consequences are what we could see in the last race.
    I guess he always drove a top car so even in GP2 starting at the back, the car was good enough to overtake immediately and get quickly into the empty space. But GP2 is not F1.
    It can not be random that Lewis only won F1 races when he started in pole position….

  7. Quite – and even if the GP2 cars are nominally identical (you could say the same about European F3, since most of them are Dallara-Mercedes), the quality of the other drivers in the field is much more variable. It’s much easier to be an outstanding driver in a lower formula – even in GP2 pretty much half the field are pay drivers (Christian Bakkerud, anyone?). Once you get to F1 you’re racing against other people who are at the very top of their profession. Especially this year because there aren’t many weak links.

  8. Pecker, let me add to your list:

    Jody Scheckter started at McLaren (which was in a bit of a slump pre-Emerson 1974).

    Mario Andretti… is Mario Andretti. But HE did start his F1 career in Lotus (which was in a bit of a slump) and Ferrari (which was DEFINITELY in a slump pre-Lauda).

    James Hunt started in a Hesketh.

    And so forth.

    As for Lewis, still too early to tell if this theory will hold true for him. He is still a strong title contender this year. But even if he wins this year, can he become a Schumi? Or will he just be a 2008-spec Jacques Villeneuve?