The drivers who excel on their ‘special tracks’

2012 F1 season

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Montreal, 2007The final part which gets fitted to an F1 car is its driver.

But it’s a human element and, however professional today’s drivers may be, they are susceptible to preferences like the rest of us.

Although they may prefer not to admit it, a driver’s style at the wheel and how they like a car to be set up can lead them to produce slightly better performances at certain tracks.

Can we identify which ‘special tracks’ suit drivers best by looking at their previous performances? Here’s a few thoughts, starting with the next race on the calendar.

Lewis Hamilton: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

4 appearances, 3 poles, 2 wins

Lewis Hamilton has always gone well at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, scene of his first F1 win five years ago.

Montreal’s combination of heavy braking zones, high speeds and imposing walls tends to bring out the best in him. He coolly led amid carnage in 2007, and won exciting battle with Fernando Alonso in 2010.

Hamilton being Hamilton, there have been a few ‘facepalm’ moments as well. In 2008 he piled into the back of Kimi Raikkonen’s car at the pit lane exit. Last year he had tangles with Mark Webber, Michael Schumacher and finally his own team mate before calling it a day after just a handful of laps in the rain.

But even on those two less-than-stellar showings he was one of the quickest drivers on the track up to the point of his retirement.

Schumacher’s record here should not be overlooked, with seven victories at the track.

Sebastian Vettel: Suzuka

3 appearances, 3 poles, 2 wins, 3 podiums

Vettel’s affinity for Suzuka is reflected in his near-total domination of the three F1 races he’s started there: three pole positions, two wins and a third place.

And he might have pushed Jenson Button harder for the win last year had he not also been busy wrapping up his second world championship title.

Vettel described the Suzuka course as “amazing” earlier this year, and singled out Japan as one of his favourite stops on the F1 schedule.

Fernando Alonso: Singapore

4 appearances, 1 pole, 2 wins, 3 podiums

Yes, his 2008 win was anything but kosher. But remember how well he was going in a generally uncompetitive Renault that weekend before being sidelined with a technical problem during his qualifying.

On his subsequent visits to Singapore, Alonso has demonstrated a special talent for the peculiar demands of the long, slow track. The hopeless R29 made its single visit to the podium courtesy of Alonso in 2009, and he snatched pole position and victory from under Vettel’s nose the year after.

Another driver who revels in the unusual challenge of Singapore is Timo Glock. Fourth in 2008, he equalled his best career result with second in 2009.

The year after that he dragged his Virgin to the improbable heights of 11th, holding off Adrian Sutil, Nico Hulkenberg and other better-equipped rivals for a remarkable nine laps.

Felipe Massa: Interlagos

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Interagos, 20068 appearances, 3 pole positions, 2 wins, 3 podiums

Massa must regret the loss of the Istanbul Park circuit from the F1 calendar, where he scored his first win in 2006, beginning a streak of three consecutive wins from pole position at the track.

But his home record is something to be envied as well. Indeed, he would have had an identical record of consecutive wins from pole had he not been required to let team mate Raikkonen win in 2007 to clinch the world championship.

In 2004 Massa served notice of his potential by qualifying an excellent fourth for Sauber. Although there’s not been much to shout about since his return from injury in 2010, he did equal his best result of the season there last year with fifth.

Nico Rosberg: Shanghai

7 appearances, 1 pole, 1 win, 2 podiums

Something seems to have clicked for Rosberg at Shanghai: since his move to Mercedes, he’s led the last three races there. Rosberg was on the podium in 2010, finishing behind the two McLarens having led 16 laps.

He was on course for a podium finish or better last year before he had to back off and save fuel. This year he finally got the job done with an emphatic maiden victory at the Shanghai circuit.

It might be too early to call him a ‘Shanghai specialist’ on the basis of that, but he’s definitely one to keep an eye on here in the future.

Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher: Spa-Francorchamps

Michael Schumacher, Spa-Francorchamps, Benetton, 1992Raikkonen: 7 appearances, 4 wins
Schumacher: 15 appearances, 6 wins, 9 podiums

Two drivers on the grid today can make good claims on the title ‘King of Spa’.

While Schumacher was en route to his sixth and final win at the circuit to date in 2002, Raikkonen was making a name for himself for different reasons. In qualifying he blasted through a cloud of smoke left by Olivier Panis’s BAR on the Kemmel straight without even a hint of a lift.

Two years later the pair battled for victory, Raikkonen coming out on top as Schumacher settled for a second place that guaranteed his seventh world championship title.

Raikkonen won on his next two visits to Spa and led much of the way in 2008 before crashing out while under attack from Hamilton as rain fell late in the race. His last F1 victory to date came at the track in 2009.

Schumacher’s F1 debut came at this track 21 years ago and he stunned the pit lane with a lap good enough for eighth on the grid, which became seventh after Riccardo Patrese was penalised.

He scored his first win at the track 12 months later and one of his very best victories in 1995, scything through the field to win from 16th. Had he not been disqualified from victory due to a technical infringement in 1994, he would be a seven-times winner here too.

Circuit preference

There are many other examples of driving liking or disliking particular tracks. Jarno Trulli was a Monaco specialist and scored his only win there.

So too was Ayrton Senna, and he enjoyed even greater success at the track. But Nelson Piquet famously disliked the track and never won there.

The slow, twisty Detroit track was famously hated by Alain Prost.

Which other tracks on the calendar do you think particularly suit today’s drivers? Have your say in the comments.

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169 comments on The drivers who excel on their ‘special tracks’

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  1. GeorgeDaviesF1 (@georgedaviesf1) said on 4th June 2012, 10:45

    On my database I have Button & Melbourne and Webber & Silverstone

    • Alehud42 (@alehud42) said on 4th June 2012, 10:50

      Webber and Monaco, as well.

    • Browny (@browny) said on 4th June 2012, 11:54

      I thought more Webber and Nurburing. Debut win and pole in 2009, and pole and podium in 2011 (only race he really had it over Vettel all season). Also has amazing qualifying performances with underperforming Williams with 3rd in 05, 10th in 06, in addition to a 6th and 7th in the Jaguar in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

    • Captain Sorbet (@captain-sorbet) said on 4th June 2012, 12:44

      Hmm, he was certainly good there last season, but possibly more a case of “only race Vettel really had it under Webber all season”…

    • Nick (@nick101) said on 4th June 2012, 15:21

      Of course Hamilton’s on the list and Button isn’t! Never mind that he has won at one track more times than any other driver has in the last 4 years – what does that matter, after all, we are only talking about driver success at particular tracks!

      Yes, I realise that he has raced there a lot more times than the others mentioned for their ‘special’ tracks, but it’s only been the last 4 years that he has been there with a car that has been REALLY competative.

      3 wins out of 4 appearances with an actual competative care – I believe this should be at the top of the list!

      • Jake (@jleigh) said on 4th June 2012, 15:50

        Yes but it’s not all about results. He was out qualified by his teammate 2 of those 4 years and had the quickest car by some margin in 09. Yes he’s worth a mention but I can see why keith has chose not to.

        • Carl Craven said on 4th June 2012, 21:38

          by the same margin, Vettel had the quickest car by an incredible margin for 3 years and only managed 2 wins at Suzuka. Who beat him there last time round? Oh wait, it was Button!

          • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 22:06

            Of course, Vettel hasn’t been outqualified at Suzuka, and that’s despite the RB not looking quick compared to the Mclaren in Japan 2011.

  2. Mallesh Magdum (@malleshmagdum) said on 4th June 2012, 10:45

    Narain Karthikeyan likes Brands Hatch. He has done well there whenever he has participated for various series. His victory A1GP at Brands Hatch being the most recent.

    • Mike (@mike) said on 4th June 2012, 13:47

      I have a suspension that you might draw criticism, but not only do I think that you are completely spot on, I think that is quite an impressive piece of recollection.

    • Nathhulal said on 4th June 2012, 14:18

      Actually his recent win at Brands was in Super-league F1 series in 2010.

      And its true the Indian driver has always excelled on that circuit. Brands Hatch is a drivers circuit, very challenging and dangerous as well, so given that the Indian driver has always fared well on that circuit, my respect for him has always been notch above the drivers who excel on modern circuit with wide run off areas and where driver error is not punished.

    • Alex Brown (@splittimes) said on 4th June 2012, 15:46

      Excellent shout for the underdog!

    • Macca25 said on 5th June 2012, 2:46

      If we are going to talk about different categories then you would have to say Casey Stoner and Phillip Island. He was won the last five seasons at his home track. Outstanding record.

      • Mallesh Magdum (@malleshmagdum) said on 5th June 2012, 6:19

        @mike @splittimes Its a real shame that KAR didnt hv a good car when he made his debut in 2005. Thats the time when he was at his peak. Karthikeyan entered F1 on merit, having won races in all the series he has ever participated in

        • Mike (@mike) said on 5th June 2012, 15:32

          Hmm, I agree only to an extent, You can say Pic has entered F1 on Merit on those grounds as well, but I doubt many will try to say that other guys like Wickens probably deserved the shot more… And that’s not to say that Pic hasn’t had good results, I’m just saying that the money certainly hasn’t hurt their promotion aspirations.

          • Mallesh Magdum (@malleshmagdum) said on 5th June 2012, 18:28

            @splittimes @mike u know, as an Indian its difficult to get into motorsports. Even nw good karting circuits are very few and even leisure karting is expensive. I am lucky to hv a good one 100km away. But nobody cares for F1 in India and nobody wants to sponsor our young drivers. I got taunted in college for following F1. And hardly 2 of my frnds in my city follow the sport.

          • Mallesh Magdum (@malleshmagdum) said on 5th June 2012, 18:36

            @splittimes @mike Karun Chandhok said in a recent intvw tht he had to mortgage his house thrice to fund his career

          • Alex Brown (@splittimes) said on 5th June 2012, 18:37

            I think Karthikeyan deserves the shout as much as Pic. Good results stand for themselves, and as someone who doesn’t get a lot of press (good or bad) in the U.K., its good to hear Nahrain’s name linked with success. My estimation of him rocketed after he called Vettel a crybaby, I must admit.

          • Mike (@mike) said on 6th June 2012, 5:09

            Getting into motorsport is difficult wherever you are. And I don’t think him mortgaging his house has anything to do with it.

      • Nathhulal said on 5th June 2012, 13:45

        I think we are talking four wheels, openwheel racing. Only exception maybe Gilles driving on three wheels ;-)

  3. xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 4th June 2012, 10:47

    Not todays drivers, but Clark excelled at Spa and Silverstone, and Graham Hill was brillaint at Monaco

    • xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 4th June 2012, 12:20

      And Clark was absaloutely terrified of Spa: he loathed it.

      • cjpdk (@cjpdk) said on 6th June 2012, 15:26

        I’m not certain of this, but I think that on his first ever race at Spa (Belgium 1960), he had to swerve to avoid the decapitated body of Chris Bristow.

    • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 4th June 2012, 12:25

      @xjr15jaaag – Clark was exceptional at all the British GP venues, not just Silverstone. He has obatined 5 British GP wins (equaling Prost for the most wins of a British GP), four of which were successive.
      He has won at Silverstone 3 times; in 1963 (where he obtained pole position and won by 25 seconds), 1965 (also obtaining pole) and 1967 (yet again obtaining pole).
      He also has an incredible record during British GP’s: from 1962 – 1965 he set the pole position time and won the race (and at 3 different venues) and led a staggering 314/317 of the laps. The only other driver to lead was Jack Brabham, who led the first 3 laps of the ’63 GP – afterwards Clark never lost the lead until the end of the 1965 GP at Silverstone.

  4. brum55 said on 4th June 2012, 10:49

    Button a Melborune specialist – 3 wins in the last 4 years. I’m sure he got pole their in the Honda too.
    Webber a Monaco specialist – 2 wins in 3 years and a podium in the Williams in 05?

  5. Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 4th June 2012, 10:49

    +1 to Keith for properly using the word “facepalm” in a sentence.

  6. Alehud42 (@alehud42) said on 4th June 2012, 10:53

    Alonso and Malaysia – 3 wins, 5 podiums.

  7. SouthAussie94 (@mpj1994) said on 4th June 2012, 10:54

    Mark Webber and Monaco must surely rate a mention.

    He won the Formula 3000 support race in 2001.

    In 2002 he finished 11th for Minardi, retired in ’03 and ’04 due to mechanical failure, 3rd for Williams in ’05, retired due to mechanical failure in ’06 and ’07.

    Since then he has finished no worse than 5th and has won twice and has 2 poles.

    Surely earns an honourable mention..

  8. Girts (@girts) said on 4th June 2012, 10:57

    F1F is like a good wine – the older the website gets, the better it tastes, I mean, reads…

    Mika Salo usually performed well at Monaco, too. The Finn spent most of his F1 career driving for relatively weak teams. With the exception of the points earned during his short time with Ferrari, he scored a total of 23 points during his F1 years. 9 of them (that is, almost 40%) were from Monaco Grands Prix. Moreover, Salo finished among the first six every time he finished the Monaco GP.

  9. dennis (@dennis) said on 4th June 2012, 10:57

    I remember Gerhard Berger was usually pretty high up in Hockenheim.
    He won his last GP there in 1997 in the rather hopeless Benetton, he would have won in 1996, too if it wasn’t for the Renault engine blowing up and he won 1994 in the Ferrari.
    He was 3rd in 1995, 6th in 1993, 3rd in 1992, 4th in ’91, 3rd in ’90…

    • dennis (@dennis) said on 4th June 2012, 11:10

      I just checked on my feeling that Rubens Barrichello always had a nice hand in Silverstone.
      I’m on the fence with this one. He seemed to perform better than average on that track usually if you compare the other results of the seasons.

      2011 – 13th
      2010 – 5th (his best result of the season)
      2009 – 3rd (Button only on 6)
      2008 – 3rd (best result of the season, only podium that year)
      2007 – 9th (best result of the season)
      2006 – 10th
      2005 – 7th
      2004 – 3rd
      2003 – 1st (one of only 2 victories for him that year)
      2002 – 2nd
      2001 – 3rd
      2000 – ret (after starting from Pole Position)
      1999 – 8th
      1998 – ret
      1997 – ret
      1996 – 4th (tied best result of the season with Argentina)
      1995 – 11th (but retired late in the race)
      1994 – 4th
      1993 – 10th

      • Ibra said on 4th June 2012, 14:09

        Already forgot about monza? He had 2 wins and lots of podiums!!

        • dennis (@dennis) said on 4th June 2012, 19:59

          Indeed, however, was he usually better there than anywhere else?
          He once said he liked fast tracks better than slow tracks and that one point where Senna was definitely quicker than him was in the slow corners, because he found them boring.

        • Aditya Banerjee (@) said on 5th June 2012, 8:03

          3 wins: 2002, 2004, 2009.

    • pjrwallis (@pjrwallis) said on 4th June 2012, 13:58

      This was the first example that came to my mind on reading the article’s title. I still find it amazing that he won there in ’97. There can’t be many drivers who have ‘over-performed’ (compared with their overall career results) at a circuit more than Berger at Hockenheim? (At least since c.1983 when I first started following F1).

      • Fernando Cruz said on 5th June 2012, 11:48

        Berger was very good at Hockenheim while Alesi (his team mate in Ferrari and Benetton) was very good at Monza. However Alesi was very unlucky, he would have won Monza/94 and Monza/95 but every time he had technical problems while in the lead. In 1996 and 1997 he was second there in the Benetton. He was also very good at Suzuka and should have won there in 1995 – he recovered from far behind till second under the rain and was about to overtake Schumacher to the lead when he suffered a technical problem once again…

  10. kowalsky is back said on 4th June 2012, 11:01

    nigel mansell at silverstone. I saw him win there in 1987.

  11. xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 4th June 2012, 11:01

    Arguably Vettel at Singapore: Would have got pole in 2010, and therefore the race win, as he pushed Alonso to the end. Won in 2011, and got pole, and he also did well in 2009, and in 2008, I believe he got 6th in the Toro Rosso

  12. kowalsky is back said on 4th June 2012, 11:07

    prost at paul ricard, not even senna could get close to him there, and i am a senna fan.
    But it is undeneniable he was the master at le castellet. I saw him win there in 1989. First race for jean alesi in the tyrrell.
    I thought he was jonathan palmer, and remember thinking when he finish fourth, jee palmer was on top form today. Then i realise when i got home and bought autosprint.

  13. dysthanasiac (@) said on 4th June 2012, 11:10

    Interesting is Vettel’s domination of a track where the car means nearly everything to performance.

    • raymondu999 (@raymondu999) said on 4th June 2012, 11:29

      @dysthanasiac Suzuka is not as driver-determined as a lot of people like to believe. It’s very much a circuit where drivers can actually make a difference.

    • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 12:28

      @dysthanasiac – Garbage. I thought when Robert Kubica did well in the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix race, people were putting that performance alongside those he had at Spa and Monaco, claiming these were tracks were those where drivers made the difference.

      • Mike (@mike) said on 4th June 2012, 13:50

        Exactly.

        • snowman (@snowman) said on 4th June 2012, 14:06

          To back up the point of Suzuka being a driver track is the 2000 Suzuka race where Schumacher and Haikenen humiliated their team mates as such was the difference between them and team-mates Barrichello and Coulthard.

      • dysthanasiac (@) said on 4th June 2012, 15:33

        @david-a

        Kubica retired on the second lap of the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix. Are you sure you’re not thinking of someone/somewhere else? Otherwise, Vettel and Webber, who qualified less than 0.1 seconds behind his teammate, were well ahead of the rest. The same would have been true in 2009 had Webber not crashed out of qualifying and run into just about every demon imaginable during the race.

        The quality of RB8 makes it rather pointless to discuss last year’s race.

        • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 15:41

          @dysthanasiac – No, I was thinking about the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix. Kubica qualified 3rd and was running second when his wheel fell off. His performance up until that point was considered an example of him performing well on a driver’s circuit, since Suzuka is considered such, like Spa and Monaco.

          There is simply no reason for you to single out Vettel’s section in the article and put his success down to the car, unless you’re looking for an argument.

          • dysthanasiac (@) said on 4th June 2012, 17:04

            @david-a

            Kubica qualified 4th, but was bumped up because of Hamilton’s gearbox penalty, and, frankly his performance is immaterial to this discussion. I genuinely thought you were mistaken when you cited him, because I simply do not know how two laps could possibly be considered representative.

            Admittedly, the instant defensiveness of the Vettel Brigade is quite amusing, because it reflects quite a bit more than the average, everyday hero worship inherent to many F1 fans. For some unique reason, Vettel fans are offended whenever anyone fails to genuflect when discussing his talent, or when anyone questions his ability to walk on water. But that’s not at all why I mentioned Finger Boy.

            First and foremost, I did so because I can. Freedom’s a bitch like that. And second, there are legitimate reasons to question his place within F1’s pecking order.

          • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 17:27

            @dysthanasiac

            Your post stated “Interesting is Vettel’s domination of a track where the car means nearly everything to performance”, when Suzuka is considered by the drivers to be one of the most popular and challenging on the calendar. So again, why do you state that it is “a track where the car means nearly everything to performance”, any more than you would about Montreal, Shanghai or Marina Bay?

            Nobody said he can walk on water. But if you’re going to post stuff on a public forum “because you can”, you ought to have some evidence to back it up.

          • dysthanasiac (@) said on 4th June 2012, 17:53

            @david-a

            I said “because I can” in response to “There is simply no reason for you to single out Vettel’s section in the article and put his success down to the car,” which to me reads a lot like, “because I said so.”

            Still, I’m sorry for being flippant.

            As for my evidence, please name for me the last driver to win at Suzuka in a bad car.

          • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 18:25

            @dysthanasiac

            I said “because I can” in response to “There is simply no reason for you to single out Vettel’s section in the article and put his success down to the car,” which to me reads a lot like, “because I said so.”

            It’s not really “because I said so”, when the likes of Schumacher, Webber and Button consider Suzuka to be ne of the most demanding tracks of the year. It’s more like “because top F1 drivers say so”.

            As for my evidence, please name for me the last driver to win at Suzuka in a bad car.

            How often does a bad car win at any circuit? For what it’s worth, Piquet won in an uncompetitive Benetton in 1990.

          • Mads (@mads) said on 4th June 2012, 18:36

            @dysthanasiac
            Look at my post below.
            Hardly a bad car, but that RB7 was not even on the same page as the McLaren in terms of front end grip, which is hugely important around there with those long sweeping corners.
            Looking through the winners of Monaco I can only see Oliver Panis who won there in ’96, before that it was also dominated by the best cars for years.
            Spa is another, which seem to have been won by the best cars for decades, except for the single win by Damon in his Jordan in ’98, but in fairness that race would have been won by Schumacher anyway, had DC not gone between him and the checkered flag.

            Both circuits are considered real drivers circuits, but nearly every race on those tracks has been won by cars on, or very near the very top of the championship standings.
            Drivers winning in bad cars happened very rarely even back in the golden age of F1, and as close to never these days.

    • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 4th June 2012, 12:35

      One could also argue that he is the best at utilising that performance; Webber hasn’t been able to preform as well as him at such tracks and Mclaren have been relatively close in terms of performance yet Vettel prevails.

    • Mads (@mads) said on 4th June 2012, 15:46

      @dysthanasiac
      If it was as much down to the car as you suggest, then Vettel would have had no chance of getting pole position there last year as the RB was visibly slower then the McLaren, yet he did.

    • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 4th June 2012, 19:17

      People who doubt Vettel’s driving ability irritate me; they seem to forget that he achieved a pole position and a race win in his first full season, and unlike many Toro Rosso drivers was promoted to Red Bull after just one season due to his excellent performance there. Sure, he has had his moments, colliding with his teammate in Turkey for example, but he is still a very young driver, he is still learning and maturing as a driver.

  14. Toro Stevo (@toro-stevo) said on 4th June 2012, 11:14

    Webber seems to be a bit of a Monaco man, and his results would be better if not for car failure in the early years. But relative to the car he’s been in, and the results at other tracks, he’s always very competitive there.

    He won there in F3000, was running best of the rest in 03 until hydraulics failure, third in 05 with Williams (his teammate passed him by being called in a lap early), qualified second there in 06 and was on track for another podium before car failure, qualified high (relative for the RBR03) in 07, finished 4th in 2008 (his best position of the year), and pole + wins in 2010 and 2012. Even in 2011, he qualified time-wise pretty close to Vettel (which was closer than he got most races that year). That’s why I’m not reading too much into his win at Monaco, he’s always done well there.

  15. Hairs (@hairs) said on 4th June 2012, 11:14

    Button clearly likes Hungary but hates Korea. The number of circuits he tends to run poorly at outnumbers the number he likes, I feel. It’s telling that he runs badly at the high pressure home race at speedy silverstone, but runs well at suzuka, a track with similar characteristics which doesn’t have the same emotional pressure.

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