Wet Weather Racing: The Essence of Formula One
Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
When changeable conditions affect a Formula One race, it definitely makes for a thrilling sight to behold. The strategy calls made by the teams become ever-crucial during these times. Drivers suddenly go from pushing hard to keeping the car on the track and away from the extremities of the circuit. The key to success in wet weather comes in the form of a cool head and a balanced caution with aggression. Overtaking comes at a premium for drivers.
While drivers showcase their skills on a dry track, it is during wet weather when they get a real chance to showcase their prowess. Rain is termed as an "Equaliser", one that takes away the advantage of the top teams in the sport. Simply put, wet weather separates the best from the rest. The challenge intensifies during wet-weather qualifying sessions when drivers are supposed to go as fast as they can while keeping their car on the track and going in a straight line. Drivers have to keep mistakes to a minimum to achieve optimal lap time.
And backing up this point is a plethora of drivers who have risen above all, following some excellent performances in wet-weather-affected qualifying sessions and races. From the current 2022 grid, the best-known wet-weather masters that emerge are Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Before them, there have been drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, the latter popularly called the Regenmeister (rain master), known for their prowess in wet weather racing. What they share are many wet weather race victories and don't need an introduction to racing when the heavens open up. Their famous wet weather drives are well-appreciated by one and all. Senna's breakthrough race at Monaco in 1984 to his first Formula One victory at Portugal a year after. And of course, two more memorable performances from the Brazilian maestro came in the 90s, his first home victory at the Interlagos circuit in 1991, and his dominant victory under the changing weather at Donington Park in 1993. These drives affirmed Senna's status as a wet-weather genius and one can only imagine what he would have gone on to achieve, had he survived the crash at Imola in 1994.
The 90s saw another wet-weather genius in the making in the form of the German star, Michael Schumacher. He was known for driving on slick tyres during wet conditions, a fact that can be backed up by his race at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in 1995. Schumacher drove on slick tyres as it began to rain and despite being around six seconds slower than his main competitor Damon Hill who got past when the German went off track, he retook the lead when the track once again started to dry up. He maintained the lead as the field pitted for wet tyres under the safety car, with the heavens opening up again. In a race of rapidly changing conditions, it took Schumacher's smarts and skill to win the race. His first win for Ferrari, the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix, when he lapped nearly everyone on the grid in a stunning drive was a sign of things to come. His drives for Ferrari in the 1998 Belgian and British Grands Prix were on another level too, although he didn't make it to the end of the latter race after his infamous collision with David Coulthard midway through the race. More races such as the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix, the 2006 Chinese GP, and his drive to fourth in one of F1's longest races, the 2011 Canadian GP, confirmed Schumacher's title of being the Regenmeister, a title which Sebastian Vettel too holds in the sport today. Vettel's drives during races such as his first win at Monza in 2008, leading the inaugural Korean GP in 2010 until his engine failure, the 2011 Canadian GP until the last lap, the German GP in 2019, the Turkish GP in 2020, along with stellar qualifying performances stand as a testament to his prowess in rain-affected races.
It would be impossible to look beyond Lewis Hamilton's name while looking at the best wet-weather drivers. The Briton has been a force to reckon with in the rain, having won almost every rain-affected race from 2014 to 2018 for Mercedes. Even before his time at Mercedes, standout performances such as his excellent win in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji, a magnificent first home race victory at Silverstone a year after, and his drive to fifth in a tense season finale at Brazil come to mind. The 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix is another race where Hamilton shone above the rest as he took his first win in Brazil. The British veteran is a star qualifier when the heavens open up during qualifying. He has taken pole position by over a second ahead of Max Verstappen in two qualifying sessions at the 2017 Italian GP and the 2021 Styrian GP. His prowess during changing conditions at the Hungarian and Belgian Grands Prix qualifying in 2018 too shows that he can pull out a stunning lap when the need arises. The win at the 2020 Turkish GP, when he won the race on 50-lap old intermediates, will also stand as one of his greatest drives in the sport.
Hamilton has stern competition in this segment, though, from the double-world champion Max Verstappen. The Dutchman's prowess in the rain was witnessed during his brilliant recovery from 16th to third in the 2016 Brazilian GP. This drive came after a heart-stopping save, following an earlier overtake around the outside of Nico Rosberg in turn three. His drive caught the attention of everyone in the Formula One community. The Dutchman also kept his cool to win an attritious race in Germany in 2019, having gained the lead midway through the race. His drives in Imola in 2021 and 2022 reaffirmed his status as a wet-weather genius, as he kept mistakes to a minimum and won by over 20 seconds in both. One of his best drives came recently during the rain-shortened 2022 Japanese Grand Prix, as he won by over 28 seconds in a 28-lap race. He is certainly one to watch out for in rain-affected races in the future.
Judging what tyre to be on at a certain point in a race of changeable conditions is an important skill to have to be a great wet-weather driver. And one driver who excelled in this facet was another popular Brit, Jenson Button. It was once said that he was taught by his dad to drive with slick tyres on a wet track to learn how to control the car on a slippery surface. His first win in F1, the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, driving for Honda was a special one, achieved mostly by Button's ability to judge track conditions accurately. His wins for McLaren in Australia and China in 2010, that drive in a topsy-turvy Canadian GP in 2011 and in Hungary later in the year, and his final win in Brazil in 2012, all give us a glimpse of his astute judgement of track conditions which helped him win the races.
If we look at drivers on the current grid, the likes of Lance Stroll, Lando Norris, and Carlos Sainz have achieved their only pole positions on sodden tracks, or in rained-out qualifying. Norris was also showing blistering pace during qualifying in Belgium in 2021 and looked to have been a favourite for pole position, had he managed to avoid his accident at Eau Rouge-Raidillon. Current Alpine drivers Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso have also been among the better drivers during rain-affected sessions and races. Alonso is known to be a great driver on rainy days, with the Spaniard having taken both pole positions for Ferrari in 2012 in Great Britain and Germany. His lap to secure a front-row start alongside Verstappen for the Canadian GP this season stands out amongst his great moments. Ocon's skills in the wet weather are also not a novelty following his defence of Lewis Hamilton for fourth place in the Japanese GP earlier this year. Alonso finished seventh in the same race, just missing out on sixth at the finish line. Last but not the least, George Russell's stunning lap in the backmarker Williams car in 2021 affirmed his status as a great wet-weather driver.
Many drivers have come and gone in the world of Formula One, some more known than others. The likes of Hamilton, Schumacher, Senna, and Verstappen are known for their strong pace on a dry track, but it is their wet-weather performances that separates them from the rest. Their ability to pull away from the rest, keep the car on track in a straight line, and consistently put in great lap after lap, is what makes them stand out from the rest, and puts them in an elite category from their rivals. Their exploits in rain-affected races have received plaudits from one and all in the F1 community and rejoiced by fans when videos of such races are posted on social media platforms. One would hope to see more wet-weather race stars as the future of the sport beckons!