Why F1 drivers’ roles aren’t always as simple as ‘number one’ and ‘number two’

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The Formula 1 driver line-up for the 2023 season is edging closer to completion, and it’s already clear several new partnerships will be formed.

McLaren will partner newcomer Oscar Piastri with Lando Norris, having dropped Daniel Ricciardo. Fernando Alonso was confirmed as Sebastian Vettel’s replacement at Aston Martin alongside Lance Stroll. Esteban Ocon will therefore have a new team mate at Alpine, as will Alexander Albon at Williams, as Nicholas Latifi has been shown the door.

As team mates chop and change, how will the new pairings match up against each other? The battle for supremacy within each team is crucial, as it can often determine who receives the better strategy and the newer parts – and who is relegated to a “number two” role.

Of course F1 bosses are adamant they do not set out to bestow preferential treatment on either driver.
Speaking at Mercedes’ launch earlier this year, team principal Toto Wolff discussed the arrangements for Lewis Hamilton and new team mate George Russell, who arrived in place of Valtteri Bottas.

Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2018
Bottas handed Hamilton victory at Sochi in 2018
“We never had a situation of a ‘one’ and ‘two’,” said Wolff. “They had equal opportunities and same and the same car.

“This year, the interesting situation is we have in George the up-and-coming star [in one seat], and undoubtedly the best Formula 1 driver ever in the other seat. So the dynamic is new and clearly it’s something that we will try to steer in a direction that has the most positive effect on developing the car and making us overall competitive.”

Hamilton and Bottas had the same car, and the same opportunities. Bottas was generally out-scored by his seven-time world champion team mate, and on more than once occasion the team gave Hamilton preferential treatment in his endeavours to win the title.

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At Red Bull, Sergio Perez had to take on the number two role early in the year. During the Spanish Grand Prix he was told on two separate occasions to move aside for team mate Max Verstappen, who went on to win the race. “That’s very unfair, but okay” Perez reluctantly agreed. Speaking to the media afterwards he said there were “a few things that we will discuss internally” at the team.

Perez had to give way twice to Verstappen in Spain
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner defended his decision, saying Verstappen had significant tyre advantage and the team needed to capitalise on the retirement of Charles Leclerc, who arrived at the race in the lead of the championship. “Both drivers worked together as a team and to get the maximum points was hugely important when Ferrari had an issue,” said Horner.

At the very next race Perez reminded everyone he was capable of taking wins for himself, claiming victory in Monaco. At the race after, he made way for Verstappen again. Red Bull have arguably been quicker to lean on Perez to help Verstappen than, for example, Ferrari has been when Leclerc has found himself behind Carlos Sainz Jnr.

Some drivers, however, feel the importance of ‘number one’ and ‘number two’ roles within teams is often exaggerated. Lando Norris, who will race alongside a rookie for the first time in his career next season, says McLaren treat him and Ricciardo equally.

“I love when people think that they know what they’re talking about when actually they’ve got no idea and it’s sometimes the complete opposite,” he began. “Especially, from my point of view, every single weekend before the race we have a little meeting going through how we can work well as a team and how we don’t work as ‘number one’ and ‘number two’ and ways of me helping Daniel in certain scenarios and Daniel helping me in certain scenarios.

“Literally the opposite way of having a number one and number two. It’s more how can we work better as one to have a better result by the end of the day. There’s no priority. I’ll have priority one weekend, then Daniel will have priority the next weekend. It’s completely fair.”

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Ocon, who is yet to learn who his team mate will be next season, and is currently up against one of the grid’s most competitive drivers in Alonso, said much the same.

McLaren’s operation is ‘the opposite to having a number one’
“I’m already leading my team in terms of development on how the car feels,” the Alpine driver explained. “I’m just guiding the team to bring the next updates and which area they need to focus on, if it’s the rears or the front or the ride. We are quite firm, me and Fernando, on what the car does but most of the time we have very similar comments on how the car feels.

“But regarding next year I will be the most experienced driver in the team. So it is interesting. And I’m ready to take that role if that’s the case.”

There will always be occasions when circumstances dictate a team has to put one driver first, such as when they only have one example of a major upgrade. Haas fitted Kevin Magnussen’s car with its upgrade a race ahead of Mick Schumacher. Similarly Williams upgraded Albon’s car before Latifi’s.

Even the top teams suffer from such headaches. Red Bull have been running different floors on Verstappen and Perez’s car for the last few races, which the team explained was partly down to the need to cut costs to meet the budget cap.

Teams may set out to treat both drivers equally but there will always be scenarios where they have to choose between one or the other. The pressures of a championship fight make that more likely, as we saw several times last year, and the budget cap may make such decisions more frequent in the future.

When that happens, as history shows, it’s usually the driver’s performance that swings the decision on who gets what. In F1 the situation is simple: Either prove you’re the number one or risk being designated the number two.

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Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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  • 17 comments on “Why F1 drivers’ roles aren’t always as simple as ‘number one’ and ‘number two’”

    1. When that happens, as history shows, it’s usually the driver’s performance that swings the decision on who gets what. In F1 the situation is simple: Either prove you’re the number one or risk being designated the number two.

      And if the car is already to your preference, doing so is much easier than it is for the other guy, who is struggling with a car that doesn’t ever behave the way they like it.

      So who really is putting in the better performance? It’s not always the one getting the better results…
      That’s the simple situation in F1.

      1. So who really is putting in the better performance? It’s not always the one getting the better results…

        That depends on how you define ‘performance’, of course. There have been plenty of drivers who for instance are fast on Saturday, but for one reason or another don’t bring home the points on Sunday.

        After all you can put in a performance that is as close as you can get to the limit of your abilities. But if it doesn’t bring you any results, how should we rate/relate that performance?

        1. After all you can put in a performance that is as close as you can get to the limit of your abilities. But if it doesn’t bring you any results, how should we rate/relate that performance?

          In that particular example, ‘I’ would rate my performance as good. If I’ve done all I can, then there isn’t much better that I could ever do.
          Results are a separate concept altogether.
          Verstappen finishing 1st may have done so with a terrible drive – making lots of mistakes and wasting time or opportunities. But he got a good result…
          Equally, Magnussen may have put in the drive of his life, extracting everything possible from the car and not making a single error, but only finished 14th.

          Which driver would you say had the better performance on the day?

          1. Talk from the likes of Perez or Ricciardo. You cannot hold a candle to your team mate but insist you are putting in a good performance. The points difference certainly for DR and Lando speak for themselves.

            1. Yup Lando is quick in that car and the equity he’s referring will be qually order choice. Other than that, they don’t have a 1 and 2 – they just have Lando. If Ric happens to be in front in a race they simply put him on a goofy pit strategy that gets him out of the way.

            2. Talk from the likes of someone who has never tuned a racing car or had to adapt their natural driving style to one that is fundamentally unsuitable…..

          2. Adding to what @andyfromsandy says above.

            In that particular example, ‘I’ would rate my performance as good. If I’ve done all I can, then there isn’t much better that I could ever do.
            Results are a separate concept altogether.

            This is I can see and is an interesting philosophical path, but since this is a competition and ‘we’ want to see who’s the best we need a measuring stick to connect performance to results. And since maximum personal capability isn’t measurable until you find it we use points and stopwatches.

            If I would be able to get an F1 car going without stalling the engine that would be a good performance for me, but that doesn’t make me a better driver than Verstappen or Hamilton.

            1. In a spec series, you see who adapts to the car and extracts the best from it and themselves – the car doesn’t change so the driver takes all the responsibility.
              In F1, however, the car changes. And it always changes to a suit a particular style, and away from others.

              I’ll let you in on a secret, Ruben. You will never find ‘the best’ driver while looking in F1.
              Even if they are there, you’ll never know it or be able to prove it.

            2. Now that’s a great insight, thanks for that S! :P

              In the end it all depends on what you define as ‘the best’ driver. The article says it depends on a driver’s performance. You say that good results don’t necessarily equal good performance (and vice versa), which I agree on, but that’s purely philosophical. Even in spec-series there’s an element of set-up and feedback to engineers, which affects a performance. Only in a controlled environment, a kind of science experiment, you could create circumstances that theoretically would be 100% similar to each other and only there you could truely judge and compare (part of) a driver’s performance.

              In the end the question is: what is performance (where does it start and where does it stop) to you and do you see a better way to connect results to performance, or did you just want to have noted that performance doesn’t necessarily equal results?

            3. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, does it?
              Teams, drivers and most viewers really don’t care about individual performance – they only care about results.

              Fact is that car, driver and team are a partnership. No one part can compensate for the others – if one part is weak, the whole thing is weak.
              When a team doesn’t (can’t or won’t) give a driver a car that suits their natural style, they’ll never get the most from it. When all 3 parts are in harmony, however, good things happen. Results come naturally.

              As I’ve said countless times before, it’s impossible to measure performance of an individual when they are reliant on an external variable. How well a driver is performing is reliant on their environment – the car and team.
              I’d suggest that the best way to connect performance and results is to eliminate the car and the team.
              Or at least match the car and team individually to each driver… Something that will never happen in a 2-car team.
              Which is why I’ve also stated consistently that the WDC is useless. It’s still about the team, the car and their combination, and all the political/internal factors that influence those.

    2. Sometimes drivers are number 11.

    3. The nature of F1 is that it has 2 cars per team. No idea how this came about. Inevitably this leads to an internal fight between the two drivers (otherwise you might not have the right DNA within them), which has zero added value to the team. Well, maybe the concept of bringing out the best in both of them is some small benefit but I would say that at this level of sport with 20 seats only, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

      “We never had a situation of a ‘one’ and ‘two’,” said Wolff. “They had equal opportunities and same and the same car.

      This is of course PR talk and absolutely not true. The team likes having a clear lead and supportive role bringing in good points. Its the best scenario to their objective. The more at the front a team runs the more likely they will therefore steer the situation since it is best for their objective as said, but moreover because it just makes sense within the rules agreed upon when we start playing the game of F1. Usually it does not trigger issues as one driver sets a trend and grows naturally in the nr 1 position. It is somewhat more difficult in an established driver and promising talent situation or in a situation where a car is so dominant the driver actually doesn’t make the difference anymore, like we’ve seen with Mercedes over the last decade. The whole situation has however one huge benefit which is giving the media and people what they want: something to talk about. The teams play along with quotes like the one from Wolff above. In practice they know very well how to run their drivers and who is 1 and 2. It is hardly a topic within the team.

    4. We never had a situation of a ‘one’ and ‘two’,” said Wolff. “They had equal opportunities and same and the same car.

      Nice PR quote from mr. Wolff and put directly into an article without questioning why that same Wolff named Bottas the perfect wingman and gave that same Bottas several teamorder during his stay at MB. This year, I do believe they have equal chances at MB. And that’s obvious when you are not fighting for the Titel

    5. In a wingteam they are number 3 and 4,

    6. The most obvious number 1 and 2 last year. Bottas and Lewis. So totos PR story does not hold up.
      Looking at Max/Checo its interesting to know the newer floor is on checos car. So just stating they use different floors is only part of the story.
      This year at mercedes its very telling Toto uses a lot of words and compliments for lewis and hardly ever for george.
      That could be a sign of a poor mental state by lewis or an obvious preference by toto for lewis.

      1. How distorted must ones reality be to say Merc is having a number 2 driver, while RBR isnt. Its Merc who let their drivers battle on track, while RBR acts like Ferrari back in Schumis time.

        1. You see things that are not there.
          I do not deny Perez is the number two for now. It was not so in the beginning of the year. I only state the new floor on Perez car shows its more complicated then you would like it to be.
          And yes, Toto has an obvious preference.. lots of evidence of that.

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