Why do F1 drivers often struggle in other championships?

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

Formula One drivers are at the peak of their racing careers, but often when they make the move to other series' they noticeably struggle. In this video we explore the differences between F1 and other series and how this might explain the drivers' struggles.

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As always, you can find the video's full script below in case you would like to read about certain details.

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Why do F1 drivers often struggle in other championships? (full script)

In the past, many drivers jumped back and forth between F1 and other championships quite a bit. Jacky Ickx, for instance, won Le Mans 6 times, Stefan Bellof saw great success in sportscar championships and John Surtees even moved between motorbikes, F1, and Le Mans.

However, Formula One drivers that recently made the move to other championships with comparatively lower downforce cars have particularly struggled, for example, Montoya in NASCAR, Ralf Schumacher in DTM, or Nigel Mansell in British Touring Cars.

There are successful examples such as Nico Hulkenberg and Mark Webber in LMP1 or Montoya in Indycar but these are the exception rather than the rule.

So the question is - Why did these drivers struggle in other cars?

There are multiple reasons for it and they are mainly related to the car's significant differences in weight and downforce.

We're going to explain the five key differences in driving style that help us understand why being good in F1 does not automatically translate to success in other championships.

The first thing to note is an occasionally significant difference in racing lines. If we use the Nurburgring Grand Prix track's turn 3 as an example, we can see that Formula One cars can take a significantly wider line than the line that we see in a DTM or in a GT car.

Why is that? Unlike in lower downforce cars, an F1 car needs to keep its minimum speed through a corner as high as possible to ensure its aerodynamic components are being utilised to their full effectiveness.

Lower downforce cars, on the other hand, tend to dive into corners earlier and deeper by taking a so-called v-line. This difference is common across many tracks, and so it explains some of the drivers' struggles.

The second aspect that is quite different is steering consistency through a corner. Driving a Formula One car is all about leaning the car on one side and utilising the aero to your advantage. As we see from onboards, the drivers are relatively smooth on the steering with ideally only minor adjustments as they reach the limit. This is mainly due to the stiff and high-downforce nature of F1 cars.

However, in other series we see that drivers "swim" a lot more and move around they try to find the limit as the cars have less grip, much softer suspension and generally a wider grip-window.

So we talked about steering in general, but there is actually something else regarding turning that is quite different in non-F1 cars and that is direction changes.

In Formula One, the cars can change direction much faster without understeering. This is thanks to the high downforce and stiff suspension. However, in cars with less downforce and much softer suspension, the car takes a lot more time to shift the weight from one side to another during a change of direction. By applying the same technique as in F1, you would instantly cause a lower-grip car to understeer and go off track.

So we talked about racing lines as well as steering technique, but there is another fundamental difference in terms of F1 cars vs lower downforce ones and that is around kerb taking.

Formula One cars have very low ground clearance, so as you can imagine, hitting even a small kerb in one of these cars can drastically shift the balance of the car and even cause you go lose control as the car bottoms out. Furthermore, F1 cars are actually so sensitive that you can sometimes see drivers even avoid relatively flat kerbs to aid the car's aerodynamic performance.

However, by complete contrast, GT or Cup cars will eat even sausage kerbs for breakfast wherever they can to extend the track, as this is simply down to the fact that the higher ground clearance does not affect the balance of the car quite as much as in F1.

So we talked about driving style, driving technique, driving in isolation of others but coming to the final point, and that is contact with others.

As we have seen many times, touching an opponent in F1 will mostly have drastic consequences as someone losing the wheel. However, in series like the British Touring Car Championship, drivers are not shy to touch one another at all when racing. So coming from a strictly non-contact sport like F1 to BTCC, like Nigel Mansell did, would be like throwing Cristiano Ronaldo up against the All-Blacks.

As we have established then, there are significant differences between Formula One and many other racing championships that some drivers have stepped into and we now know why these drivers struggle more as the car types get closer to the characteristics of a roadcar.

The fact that a guy like Rene Rast has won DTM three times within four years is quite telling. Rast was renowned as a GT and Cup car veteran before joining DTM so you can see that there are some true experts in their field that just seem to be able to handle these cars' specific requirements much better than F1 drivers.

Does all this mean F1 drivers can't do well in lower downforce categories? Of course not. As drivers like Pascal Wehrlein have shown, a switch between categories is still doable.

Interestingly though, Formula E can be seen as quite a good middle ground, as they use light, nimble cars like an F1 car but with much less downforce and mechanical grip, perhaps closer to a GT car. Looking at the fact that all previous Formula E champions are ex F1 drivers or test drivers, you can see how bridging the gap between categories can make things work for those drivers.

So as Alex Albon moves towards DTM after being dropped from Red Bull in F1 - and with DTM moving to a GT3-based specification, we are really curious to see how well he can adjust his driving style going forward.

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