Is It The Driver Or The Engineer?
It is an age-old question in racing; who makes the car go fast – the driver or the chief mechanic? In this day and age, it’s the driver or the engineer. The easy way out of the question is to simply answer; it’s both. Obviously the car couldn’t go at all without a driver in the cockpit, but how fast can a driver go without a good engineer calling the shots in the pits?
I will preface this by saying I am not an engineer nor do I pretend to know anything substantial about what they really do. Actually, both of my older brothers are engineers and are very successful at it, but the gene skipped me. Math is a very important component to being an engineer and math has always had a paralyzing effect on my brain. Plus, I’ve never had any inclination or desire to be an engineer, but that doesn’t deter my respect for their ability. I never had any inclination to be a musician either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like listening to music.
What I do know is that some of the really great drivers always pay homage to their engineers whenever they do well. The smart ones do, anyway. It’s sort of like a great running back praising his offensive linemen. When Titans running back Chris Johnson became only the sixth running back in NFL to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, he bought each of his blockers a specially designed Rolex. He had promised them each a car if he cracked the 2K barrier, but he renegotiated after the season.
The relationship between a driver and his/her engineer is vital to their success. The chemistry between the two should probably be as close as any other members on the team. The two must be able to communicate on a level that would rival best friends – where they almost know what the other is thinking without a word being said.
A driver that cannot communicate to the engineer what the car is doing on the track, is way behind the curve before the race even starts. Conversely, an engineer that doesn’t know the driver’s preferred driving style and can set the car up accordingly is swimming upstream, as well. Rick Mears was one of the best at explaining to the engineer exactly what the car was doing. One theory as to why the Andretti team has struggled lately is the absence of Bryan Herta. Although Herta may not have been the fastest driver on the team, his importance as a test driver providing feedback to the engineers should not be under-estimated.
The engineer not only has to be a whiz at math and how to set up a car, they sometimes need to know a little bit of psychology as well. This is not reserved for our current era of drivers. Chickie Hiroshima, the Indy 500 winning Chief Mechanic on Jim Rathmann’s car in 1960 (no, it was not Smokey Yunick), was serving in the same role for Len Sutton in 1962. As qualifications drew near, Sutton was getting more and more discouraged as they could not find the speed needed in order to qualify. As he grew more exasperated, Hiroshima suggested that Sutton leave the garage area and go grab a bite to eat while they made some changes to the car. Sutton was told they would come get him when they were done.
After about an hour, they went to go get Sutton who was anxious to check out the changes they had made. To Sutton’s amazement, the car felt much better and he immediately started turning quicker laps. When he returned to the pits, satisfied that they had found the speed to make the race, Sutton asked Chickie what changes they had made. Astonishingly, the Chief Mechanic told Sutton that they had not done a thing to the car – it was untouched. They just knew he needed to get away for a while and relax. Len Sutton qualified fourth in 1962 and finished second.
As drivers move around from team to team, many of them are so connected with their engineer that they will take them with them. One of the longer lasting driver-engineer combinations ended after the 2008 season when Tony Kanaan’s longtime engineer, Eric Cowdin, left Andretti-Green and Kanaan to become Ryan Briscoe’s engineer at Team Penske for the 2009 season. Cowdin had been with Kanaan since their Indy Lights days at Tasman. Kanaan had one of his worst seasons ever last season, while Briscoe was in position to win the 2009 Championship and arguably should have won it.
Kanaan is already on his second engineer since Eric Cowdin left, while Briscoe seems to be set to reap the rewards of Cowdin’s talents. Do you think Tony Kanaan understands the importance of a good engineer?
Like any marriage, the relationship between a driver and engineer can become a little rocky at times. Whether it was AJ Foyt and George Bignotti or Dan Wheldon and Andy Brown; it was sometimes a healthy and entertaining exchange if they were not always on the same page.
Whichever is most valuable – the driver or the engineer, is really not important. One must have the other to win. The fastest driver on the grid cannot pedal a sled around a track without a good engineer, but an engineer must have a driver that not only can provide detailed communications on the behavior characteristics of the car – they must drive the car fast.
When a team hits upon the right combination and chemistry between the car and driver, that’s when championships are won. So getting back to the original question of who makes the car go fast – the answer is the simple one. Both.