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.

2012 F1 season


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Images ?? McLaren, Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari spa, Ford.com

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

  1. Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 4th June 2012, 12:46

    With regards to Schumacher, he appears to have performed well at many circuits as he has gathered multiple wins at a variety of venues, although that could be as much to do with Ferrari’s years of total domination as driver skill.

  2. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 4th June 2012, 12:52

    Maldonado at Monaco if you are including pre F1 experience. Mansell and Silverstone strikes me as one too.

    Damon Hill at Hungary is a good one. He won his first race there in 1993, the followed that up with another win in 1995. He was second in 94, 96 and famously for Arrows in 97 and finished 4th and 6th there for Jordan in 98 and 99. He was on pole once too.

  3. safeeuropeanhome (@debaser91) said on 4th June 2012, 12:56

    I remember Mika Hakkinen used to dominate at Catalunya when I was a kid. Won three years in a row and would have been 4 if his engine hadn’t blown up on the last lap in 2001. Coulthard always went well at Monaco, and I remember Eddie Irvine being a bit of a dab hand around Suzuka as well due to his experience in Japanese F3000. He never won but as Suzuka was at the end of the year he was usually helping Schumacher’s title bid by then! Damon Hill was always good in Hungary as well, two wins and getting that Arrows to second in ’97.

    Be interesting to see the Spa magic is still there for Kimi this year, he really should have 5 wins out of 7 having led most of the way in 08. And when you consider one of those years was in a uncompetitive Sauber he’s basically been up the front every time he’s had a competitive car.

  4. AlonsoWDC (@alonsowdc) said on 4th June 2012, 13:11

    Alonso’s track (no pun) records at both Sao Paulo and Kuala Lumpur are just as impressive as his Singapore CV once you factor in the number of career starts.

    • Aditya Banerjee (@) said on 4th June 2012, 18:33

      Sao paulo? He’s never won there…

      • AlonsoWDC (@alonsowdc) said on 5th June 2012, 20:09

        True.

        2001 – Outqualified Button and a Prost in only his third career GP.
        2003 – P3
        2004 – P4
        2005 – P5
        2006 – P2
        2007 – P3
        2008 – P2 (a completely overshadowed performance, probably just as notable as his 2008 Japan victory.
        2010 – P3
        2001 – P4 (best of the rest)

        2009 was a first lap retirement.

        But the more I think about it, the less I think of Alonso’s record at Sao Paulo significant, it’s probably this way for most tracks.

        • AlonsoWDC (@alonsowdc) said on 5th June 2012, 20:10

          2005 – P3*

        • Aditya Banerjee (@) said on 6th June 2012, 11:52

          Well I guess in that way Massa’s performances at Germany(both Hockenheim and Nurburg) also deserve a mention, although he’s never won there.
          2002 Nurburgring- 6th
          2002 Hockenheim- 7th
          2004 Nurburgring- 9th
          2004 Hockenheim-13th
          2005 Nurburgring- 14th
          2005 Hockenheim- 8th
          2006 Nurburgring- 3rd
          2006 Hockenheim- 2nd
          2007 Nurburgring- 2nd
          2008 Hockenheim- 3rd
          2009 Nurburgring- 3rd
          2010 Hockenheim- 2nd
          2011 Nurburgring- 5th

  5. matthewf1 (@) said on 4th June 2012, 13:24

    Hamilton can hardly be called a Canada specialist with a 50% balls-up rate there.

  6. IDR (@idr) said on 4th June 2012, 13:45

    Let’s do the opposite,

    I’m pretty sure no driver would like to become Valencia expert, the most boring and without any kind of glamour circuit of F1.

  7. Mike (@mike) said on 4th June 2012, 13:48

    Coulthard always seemed to have a certain affinity with Melbourne I think.

  8. sumedh said on 4th June 2012, 13:51

    Rubens at Monza. He won in 2004, 2009 and few other times too I think.

  9. 91jb12 (@91jb12) said on 4th June 2012, 14:12

    I’d say Vettel’s best tracks are:
    Suzuka- regardless of the car being useful around there, record says it all, especially that qualy lap last year.
    Singapore- good result for STR, 2nd to an inspired Alonso in 2010 and dominant winner last year (despite the SC and backed off at the end). Only ballsup was a dodgy speeding penalty in 09 when he took a shorter line to his box not for actually speeding
    Melbourne- Always been quick there, if the reliability hasn’t been (08,09,2010)
    Abu Dhabi- (3 front rows and 2 wins- could’ve been 3 as well. Amazing pole/win under big pressure in a title decider in 2010)
    Valencia- Learned how to be fast in 2008 (according to Ascanelli), 09 put the RB way higher than Webber (not his track though) until engine/fuel rig failures and pretty dominant pole/win in 2010/11

    Maybe too early to judge but Korea/India who can forget the grand chelem in India last year? and the engine blowout in Korea, which actually would’ve been a wet race win, something he’s not done since China 09)
    Always been quick at Hungary in qualy (except STR debut in 07) but races haven’t gone his way.

    For me his worst tracks are
    Nurburgring (even though he had a double win in F3) particularly compared to Webber
    Spa- last year aside, they’ve tended to be messy weekends there.
    Spain- 2011 race aside, never really pulled any trees up there

    Maybe some of those are in comparison to Webber but thats where I feel he’s good/not so good at.

  10. katederby (@katederby) said on 4th June 2012, 15:02

    Surely Webber and Monaco is a notable driver/track combination. Aside his good record in poor cars prior to ’09 and a win in the support class in ’01 his record in a potential winning car is impressive;
    2009 – 5th (ahead of team mate)
    2010 – 1st
    2011 – 4th (race ruined by terrible pit stop)
    2012 – 1st

    • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 15:53

      2011 – 4th (race ruined by terrible pit stop)

      IIRC, he was 4th before that pitstop, well behind Alonso in 3rd. The pitstop just meant he had to pass people like Kobayashi to get 4th back. Your other examples are decent enough.

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

        But there’s no doubt that the stop was a disaster, (tyres not even ready) plus no running in FP1 never helps.

      • Nick (@nick101) said on 4th June 2012, 21:39

        @David-A

        True. I’m an Aussie and love to see Mark do well, but there is no way Webber would have been able to get past Button in 2011. Button was massively quicker than anyone else on the grid during that race and was completely ROBBED of the victory by the red flag. If that red flag hadn’t come out, I would wager the house that Button would have done both Alonso and Vettel and taken the win.

        • David-A (@david-a) said on 4th June 2012, 21:57

          @nick101

          I wouldn’t say Button was “robbed” of the win. Vettel led away from pole and had a poor pitstop as well. Webber’s pitstop meant he lost more time than Vettel, and a heap of positions that he did well to recover. Vettel’s pitstop was the reason he lost the lead to Button and Alonso, and was forced to try going to the end on one set of tyres.

          • LSCHUM said on 4th June 2012, 23:44

            Not to say that if there wasn’t a red flag the race would have ended behind the SC. Vettel was not robbed, his competitors were given an oppertunity to still fight.

        • katederby (@katederby) said on 5th June 2012, 10:01

          I’m not saying Webber would have got better than 4th, necessarily but it clearly affected his race and in that respect 4th was a good effort.

  11. Adam Blocker (@blockwall2) said on 4th June 2012, 17:07

    some others would be:
    Montoya and Interlagos
    Montoya and Monza
    Kubica and Monaco
    Vettel and Abu Dhabi
    Vettel and Valencia
    Heidfeld and Malaysia
    Hamilton and China

  12. Kingshark (@kingshark) said on 4th June 2012, 17:24

    Hamilton – Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
    Button – Albert Park
    Alonso – Singapore
    Massa – Interlagos
    Vettel – Suzuka
    Webber – Monte Carlo
    Rosberg – Shangai
    Schumacher – Magny Course
    Raikkonen – Spa Francorchamps

  13. Wilhelm (@wilhelm) said on 4th June 2012, 18:01

    A very interesting article, with plenty of examples to choose from to comment!

    Alesi in Monza comes to mind. From the top of my head, qualified 6th and ran up to 3rd in 1990 (in an underpowered – in MONZA! – Tyrrell), scored a podium in the uncompetitive Ferrari of 1993, had a bad habit of retiring when leading (and unfortunately always for Ferrari, what a nice story it would have been for him and the tifosi in 1994 / 1995), led a few laps before claiming 2nd in 1996 and repeated the performance in 1997. This with at best the second best car in the two last examples, and most of the times the 3rd or even 4th best like in 1993.

  14. Parth PB (@parthpb) said on 4th June 2012, 18:15

    I’ve always thought that Coulthard was very strong at Monaco.

  15. Alex Brown (@splittimes) said on 4th June 2012, 18:16

    Wan’t Senna pretty quick on the M1?

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