Paddy Lowe: We treat the driver as a machine

What’s the role of a driver in Formula 1? It seems to be one of the most common questions, especially from new fans with fresh interest in motorsport. As teams reveal their new cars and describe how much their teams depend on data, this topic gets a new wave of attention. In a data-driven sport like Formula 1, what is the driver’s role? Who wins the race, is it the driver or the computer-powered machine?

For Paddy Lowe, Chief Technical Officer at Williams Martini Racing, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

“The driver’s role is perhaps different from what it was in the past,” Lowe said. “But I’d still say it’s 50/50. You can’t win a race without a great driver and you can’t win a race without a great car. You need both.”

“If you look at drivers like Ayrton Senna,” Lowe continued, “he was a fantastic driver. While he had far less data to manage, it was much all about going out and driving intuitively. Drivers of that era weren’t anywhere near as fit as the current drivers. They didn’t spend hours in the gym. They raced without data and required a different set of skills and a different approach to racing.

“The modern driver is super fit. His or her ability to drive the car has no limit. At the end of a two-hour race, it’s incredible, they still have a lot of energy. We treat the driver as a machine from the physical point of view.

“Because of their fitness, modern drivers have amazing mental clarity during the race — something that drivers didn’t have in the past. They have to be physically fit in order to process a lot of data.”

With the modern dashboard approaching the degree of complexity used in aircraft, the drivers have to be alert to control the car and process the data.

Sergey Sirotkin, Williams FW41 Mercedes. © Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1

“We can’t control the car remotely, and all for a good reason,” Lowe continued. “We can tell the driver what to do over the radio or visibly by a pit board, but we can’t pass data back directly to the car.

“This makes driver’s intelligence critical in today’s environment. While on the track, drivers are dealing with very high G loads, which consume their physical capacity and take out some bandwidth from their thinking. So, from what I observed over the years, it’s not about the driver’s intelligence in its traditional sense, but rather about the spare intelligence capacity they have at their disposal while controlling a racecar.

“Take Fernando Alonso for example. He can do calculus while driving. He has an incredible spare intelligence capacity and that’s making him one of the most talented drivers around.

Regarding the current Williams Martini Racing driver lineup, both Paddy Lowe and the team’s deputy team principal Claire Williams said they’re confident in the young drivers’ ability.

Assessing the first pre-season testing results of Sergey Sirotkin, Williams said that the new driver is incredibly intelligent and is keen to prove his talent. “He’s very engaged with the team, working well with our engineers… that’s going to drive the team forward. He’s working well with Lance Stroll and Robert Kubica. If we didn’t have faith in him that he can deliver, we wouldn’t have put him in our lineup.”

Top Image: Sergey Sirotkin or Williams Martini Racing, Rob Smedley (Head of Vehicle Performance), and Paddy Lowe (Chief Technical Officer) in the garage, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. 26 February 2018. © Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1.

Guennadi Moukine

Motorsport Technology Editor.