Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jenson's secret

You're Jenson Button, and you have a secret. You have a type of knowledge which the Greeks referred to as a techne, a special skill, which in your case is so finely developed, so sensitive, that you can see and feel things which no other driver in Formula 1 can detect. You've known this all along, and it's provided you with a kernel of inner confidence that has sustained you through the wilderness years. Now, finally, it's time to draw upon that well of secret knowledge.

To understand this, it's necessary to appreciate that each corner is not merely a strip of asphalt with a specific radius of curvature; that might be all that the casual observers are capable of seeing, but in reality each corner, (in combination with the characteristics of the car), provides the conditions which create a sheaf of potential dynamical paths. Each path is defined not just by a geometrical trajectory, but by the speed profile over that trajectory. The telemetry traces retrospectively plot these profiles like paths across a valley, the elevation at each point representing the speed, negative gradients corresponding to deceleration, positive gradients to acceleration. Each path has a different combination of initial braking point, turn-in point, deceleration profile, apex, and acceleration profile, and there's an infinite number of these possible paths through a corner. The points of minimum speed form a basin in the sheaf of dynamical paths, and when the paths are projected down into trajectories through the corner, the set of apices form an extended patch on the road surface. Within the sheaf however, is a single, mathematically optimum path, the one that minimises the time spent in the corner. Your ability as a Grand Prix driver is determined by how closely and how consistently you can approach this optimum path through each corner.

Your mind's eye interacting with your visual field, you can almost see this bundle of possible paths, the optimal one running like a golden thread through a tapestry. You know that you cannot keep your car adhered to the golden thread anything other than briefly, but you can keep it within a small neighbourhood of that path, and if the car is as you like it, you can approach it perhaps closer than anyone else.

With the steering wheel cradled in your hands like you're holding the eggshell of a rare Tibetan albatross, the last of its kind, and your inputs smooth as silk, you avoid the corrections which will send the path of your car zig-zagging across the contours of the dynamical landscape. If you could only see the filigree, gossamer detail of the contours at high resolution within this landscape, you would appreciate the importance of being smooth, of minimising needless deviations. It would almost be vulgar to do otherwise, for this is as much an aesthetic sensibility as a utilitarian method.

It's time to follow that golden thread.


Sean said...

Its only half the story.
The skill is all in the braking and the timing of the braking.

Senna especially, but also Hamilton, Lauda, dont follow the usual rules of totally braking into the corner, then picking up the angle and accelerating out. Theres is more a measured approach, more like rally where you stab brake and use your left foot on the brake and right foot on the throttle at the same time.

Its quicker but when you come off you seriously come off. this is the real "special skill"

Button is more Micheal than Aryton

Gordon McCabe said...

There's certainly the skill of 'jumping onto the tightrope', of choosing the braking point, the initial turn-in point, and then blending the braking force with the steering lock; that's all part of grabbing onto that golden thread.

Button seems unlike either Michael or Ayrton; he's very much a Prost-type driver. Michael favoured the early turn-in point to a corner, whereas Button appears to follow the classical geometrical line.

I initially dismissed Jenson as a driver, holding a belief not dissimilar to Jacques Villeneuve's later assessment that Jenson was the boy-band of Formula 1 drivers. However, my moment of conversion came at Imola in 2004, where I could see that Button's driving style was quite beautiful when he had a car which handled to his liking.

Speaking personally, I prefer drivers who drive like Montoya and Hamilton, but I can appreciate Button's style.

Sean said...

Not sure about the Prost comparison. Prost was a very small man and as such the cars, even bad ones drove well. a great driver, but natural talent?

Keke Rosberg, now there was a man who knew a thing or two about corners, another flying fin, must be all that rallying?

Now we are seeing more of Jensen we will be better able to have better opinion of his driving.

Gordon McCabe said...

Keke was the boy. Proper driver.

He's in my top 10.